To everyone’s surprise, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Thieves, which is released in France on Wednesday April 12, is enjoying positive word-of-mouth and favorable reviews in the United States, where the film has been released for two weeks. Because the license Dungeons and Dragons has, for decades, rather maintained a quasi-masochistic relationship with Hollywood, marked by a first apocalyptically bad adaptation, released in 2000.
Despite the presence in the casting of Jeremy Irons, who embodies the big villain of this feature film, this first adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons is, at the time, a kitsch catastrophe, “ultimately less picturesque than an Italian peplum from the early 1960s, even if it sometimes makes one think of it”as wrote at the time The world.
Poor screenplay, caricatural dialogues, outrageous production, dated special effects: the list of – justified – criticisms made of Courtney Solomon’s film is endless. Especially since it was released in theaters barely a year before. The Fellowship of the Ringthe first film in the trilogy of Lord of the Rings of Peter Jackson, worldwide success profiting from a gigantic budget.
Because, as often, the industrial disaster of the first film Dungeons and Dragons is for many a question of money. The ambitious initial project, and its 100 million dollar budget, has melted over the years: the funding will finally be divided by three, for filming in the Czech Republic and savings on all fronts, which are strongly felt ‘screen. But this failure is above all the result of a long series of adventures worthy of a role-playing game campaign, spread over twenty years.
An ambitious project but a fragile company
The idea of adapting Dungeons and Dragons en film emerges very early in the mind of Gary Gygax, co-creator of the role-playing game and president of TSR, the company that publishes it. In the 1980s, when his invention became a huge commercial success, Mr. Gygax saw in Hollywood the future of the franchise, which already had its range of novels and books of which you are the hero. Dungeons and Dragons is a social phenomenon in the United States, and the producers feel the potential of a license known and appreciated by teenagers. Gary Gygax then loses interest in the management of his business and even delegates the writing of the rules of the game, his prerogative jealously defended until then, to devote himself to his vision of a great epic film.
From 1982, he spent most of his time in Los Angeles. He rents the former residence of director King Vidor, on the heights of Beverly Hills, at great expense, works on scripts and has a series of meetings. “I promise you that if the D&D movie (Dungeons and Dragons) is not up to the standard of quality Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Arknot only will I smash it, but I will also apologize to you”he wrote in the July 1982 issue of Dragon, the official magazine of TSR. But the project is slipping. In Los Angeles, Gygax leads the good life, organizes big parties, divorces, and only rarely returns to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where TSR is headquartered.
However, in this quiet little town where TSR is the main employer, the clouds are gathering. First there is the conflict between Gygax and Dave Arneson, the co-creator of the game: Arneson, who believes that he was defrauded by Gygax in an unfair sharing of rights, multiplies the legal proceedings against TSR. The game is also the target of campaigns by American conservative religious movements, which see it as “Satanist” and link it to several news items and high-profile suicides.
Sales of the game remain very comfortable but are leveling off. And TSR, which has recruited workers en masse without a clear plan, is poorly managed and has a very absent CEO, is starting to lose money. Lots of money: layoffs followed one another and, in 1985, Gary Gygax was ousted from the company following a revolt of shareholders led by Lorraine Williams, the director of TSR, whom Gygax had met in Hollywood and convinced to investing in society. The film project ends with the departure of Gygax.
And then, in 1990, a young Canadian student, Courtney Solomon, calls TSR headquarters, lands an appointment and convinces Lorraine Williams that he can produce a great film. Dungeons and Dragons. “When I got the rights to Dungeons and DragonsI was 19 or 20 years old, and the company changed hands several times”he will tell later in a long interview returning to the reasons for the sinking. “I was young, inexperienced, and gave them veto rights over the script and the rights agreements. No studio would ever do that. »
The problems immediately multiply: while Courtney Solomon wants to make an adventure film, Lorraine Williams, on the model of star warss, wishes a film which makes it possible to sell quantity of derived products and toys. “I said, ‘Ma’am, your audience doesn’t want to buy toys. That’s not it, the hearing of Dungeons and Dragons.” She didn’t care”, he would say years later, visibly embittered. He also accuses the former director of having scuttled a meeting with James Cameron, who would have considered investing in the production of the film.
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At the same time, TSR multiplies the bad financial choices and continues to lose money. In 1997, it was the coup de grace: the company passed under the control of Wizards of the Coast, which had become a behemoth of board games thanks to the success of its card game. Magic: The Gathering. The new owners of the license take a dim view of this struggling film project, directed by an unknown person – even if Solomon convinced the producer Joel Silver (The lethal Weapon, crystal trap) to join him.
Wizards of the Coast wanted to get rid of this project and asked Solomon to make it a low-budget film for direct DVD release. He refuses, resigns from his role as director, and Wizards of the Coast sues him for breach of contract. After negotiations, a compromise is found: Courtney Solomon will be able to release the film in theaters, provided that the project is completed in the months to come. After this period, he will lose the rights.
The team then pulls out all the stops to complete the film as quickly as possible. Three months of shooting in Prague in the summer of 1999, riddled with problems, rapid post-production in Germany and England: the film was finally released in December 2000, and, despite extremely negative reviews and disappointing admissions, it will eventually bring in enough money, thanks to DVDs and TV broadcast rights, for two very low-budget, direct-to-video sequels to be validated by Wizards of the Coast.
Ongoing conflicts over rights
More than twenty years later, Dungeons and Dragons. The honor of thieves didn’t entirely escape the rights and takeover issues that plagued the development of the first film. In May 2013, while the success of the series Game Of Thrones has revived interest in medieval fantasy universes, Warner Bros reveals working on the development of a film based on Chainmailthe game created by Gary Gygax and whose Dungeons and Dragons is a direct derivative, in collaboration with Courtney Solomon.
The announcement immediately angered Hasbro, the game and toy giant that bought Wizards of the Coast in 1998, and therefore holds the license for Dungeons and Dragons. The company says it is working on its own film project, with Universal, and is filing a complaint against Courtney Solomon’s production company, which in turn is filing a complaint. After multiple negotiations, an amicable agreement was reached in 2015 but, again, the project stagnated. Even the intervention of two stars known for their attachment to role-playing games, Joe Manganiello (Spiderman) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Fast and Furious), who offered themselves as screenwriter and producer respectively, failed to move the production forward. Hasbro will eventually entrust the film to Paramount, which will lead the project around a screenplay by Chris McKay and Michael Gilio.
Despite this, unlike the first film, Dungeons and Dragons. The honor of thieves managed to maintain, throughout these long negotiations, a comfortable budget of 150 million dollars. Will it be enough to approach the original vision of Gary Gygax? We will never know: the co-creator of the role-playing game died in 2008.