Dungeons & Dragons Film: Director of Game Adaptation

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have been playing the classic game since childhood. They told IndieWire how they brought that experience to their new film.

Turning “Dungeons & Dragons” into a movie is a bit like adapting a choose-your-own-adventure book for the big screen. The definitive tabletop roleplaying game gives fans a foundation for their stories—a handful of settings, character sheets to build their heroes and villains, and some lore and creatures to fill in the details—but it takes away half the fun of a typical campaign. the outline that the dungeon master sets up and runs wild with, making his own decisions until the plot spins wildly.

So the directors of “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves,” John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, decided to treat the game like many dungeon masters and players do: as a guide to weave their own original tale.

“I think it could be considered a semi-adaptation,” Daley told IndieWire in a recent interview. “We take the world and the components of the world, like the spells, the creatures, the magic, but we create our own original story that surrounds it.”

This isn’t the first time the pair have taken their love of gaming to the big screen. Before taking on “Honor Among Thieves,” Daley and Goldstein directed 2018’s hilarious “Game Night,” one of the best studio comedies of the past decade. While this Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams-led romp isn’t literally based on a game like “Dungeons & Dragons,” much of its humor comes from how the characters initially deal with the real-life crime spree they stumble upon. a murder mystery. Sample game, match.

Daley said his interest in hosting “Game Night” came in part from the game nights he and his wife often attended. Filming the comedy put the “kibos” on this real-life ritual, but translating the gameplay into filmmaking is something both he and Goldstein find interesting.

“Some of this is due to stunted development in us, but a lot of art imitates life,” Daley said. “The gameplay is so liberating and relatable, and you can find many parallels in life with games.”

Goldstein joked, “That’s why our next movie is ‘Scrabble.’ You heard it here first.”

Justice Smith stars as Simon, Sophia Lillis as Doric, Chris Pine as Edgin, and Michelle Rodriguez as Holga in Paramount Pictures' Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”

Paramount Pictures

Both Daley and Goldstein are longtime tabletop gamers: Daley’s introduction to the game was captured on television in the much-loved 1999 movie Freaks and Geeks, in which he played Linda Cardellini’s noted D&D-playing brother. After the show was canceled, he continued to play and was in the middle of a two-year campaign before “Honor Among Thieves” began filming.

The freedom of a good campaign

Goldstein similarly began gaming as a child and was hooked on the freedom to create his own storylines. “The idea of ​​making it up as you go was completely unique and exciting to me because I love creativity,” Goldstein said. “Most games didn’t really allow it.”

As the dungeon masters of their own “D&D” movie, Daley and Goldstein built the story on a foundation familiar to all but the most casual “D&D” players. The adventures of Edgin (Chris Pine), Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) and their crew take place against the backdrop of the “Forgotten Realms”, a classic “D&D” campaign setting created by writer Ed Greenwood and introduced to the official game in 1987. .

Specifically, most of the action takes place in the northwestern Sword Coast region, which is one of the most popular areas for campaigns and the inspiration for popular video game series such as “Baldur’s Gate” and “Neverwinter Nights”. According to Goldstein, Sword Coast is the right choice for the film because it is both iconic for fans of the game and a familiar and accessible fantasy world for newcomers.

“While we wanted to take liberties and make a film that was different from other fantasy films, we wanted the setting to be familiar,” Goldstein said. “So we didn’t want to launch in some crazy alien environment for people, and that’s what this offered us.”

Wild characters

From the perspective of the adventuring party, all the characters correspond to one of the classes of the original game: Edgin the bard, Holga the barbarian, Simon (Justice Smith) a nervous wizard, and so on. Daley and Goldstein put some serious thought into what classes fit the character’s personality and what would make a well-rounded, strong team for an actual “D&D” campaign.

"Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves"

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”

screenshot/Paramount Pictures

“There’s definitely a parallel when you’re making a movie and working out what characters would be right for the story to create a good campaign when you’re playing D&D,” Daley said. “I also think that just the fact that we had a bard as our leader is different than what most people expect, because they don’t necessarily think of him as the most heroic type of the group.”

This is (obviously) never brought up in the film, but both Daley and Goldstein were mindful of the level and stats of the party, who, with the exception of the stoic paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page), generally don’t rise above mid lane. level four. This challenged them in the writing to make sure the characters were on the wall with their strengths and what they could achieve, although they cheated a bit by giving Simon the ability to use powerful wild magic that he can’t necessarily control.

Like Daley and Goldstein, many of the film’s characters owned the board game before signing up; A longtime fan of Rodriguez since the first issue, Sophia Lillis was in active campaign when she was cast, and Page grew up playing similar roles.

As a rehearsal for the shoot, the main cast participated in a five-hour, one-shot “D&D” campaign with the directors to get a feel for the group dynamic. “I recommend that every film should have a campaign,” Daley said. “It’s more important than the test, because otherwise you won’t pass a chemistry exam like this.”

Embracing a “risky” story

Although not interactive like a real “Dungeons & Dragons” session, the structure of “Honor Without Thieves” follows the progression of a typical campaign: the characters have a specific goal or problem to solve, but to fix it they have to go on side quests, and they have to look for new solutions when they are faced with new complications.

Characters are constantly bickering with each other about plans and next steps, just as the game’s players can scream to halt their progress when they disagree about what to do. According to Daley, the approach is “risky” in a cinematic sense, as the film mostly forgoes cinematic structure for a shabbier and more troubled story, but it also creates unpredictability and uncertainty for the audience.

“It’s kind of part of the DNA of ‘D&D,’ which is that it’s fun. You make it up as you go,” Goldstein said. “You face things you haven’t seen and you have to turn around.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 10: (L-R) John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein attend the world premiere screening of Paramount Pictures and eOne's 'Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves' at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival on March 10, 2023 in Austin, Texas.  .  (Photo by Sarah Kerver/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein at the SXSW premiere of ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves’

Sarah Kerver/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

“Dungeons & Dragons” has been brought to the big screen once before, with a 2000 blockbuster directed by Courtney Solomon. Unlike that film, which mostly played the fantasy adventure straight, “Honesty Among Thieves” is a straight-up comedy that mixes its action with various sitcom-like antics and physical slaps.

In addition to the board game that gives it its name, Goldstein said the film was inspired by the fantasy and adventure films of the ’80s and ’90s, with its misfits and entertainment over spectacle.

While the decision may seem odd to those new to the tabletop game, it also captures one of the main appeals of the campaign, which is often as full of laughs as it is epic combat. Laughing with your friends when a character dies or a player pulls a boneheaded move that backfires spectacularly are often the most memorable and satisfying parts of the game, even more so than defeating the big bad at the end of a session.

For Goldstein, the film had to be a comedy because being dead serious wouldn’t capture the spirit of the game. “Or at least it wouldn’t capture the spirit of the games we want to play,” Daley said. “I’m sure there are campaigns that are absolutely gratifying. And I want nothing to do with them.”

Paramount Pictures will release Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves in theaters on Friday, March 31st.

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