Looking at the current cinematic landscape and the glut of fantasy IP that fills it, it can seem surprising that it’s taken this long for an adaptation of the iconic, massively popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons to hit theaters, which Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will do this weekend. Two decades have gone by since Peter Jackson transported audiences to Middle-earth and Harry Potter made the leap to film, and in those intervening years fantasy has only further proved its commercial appeal, from the rampant success of Game of Thrones to Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV series. “So why hasn’t anyone taken a stab at D&D until now?” you might find yourself asking.
Well, I regret to inform you that you’ve been memory wiped, because way back in 2000, New Line Cinema did make a Dungeons & Dragons movie, a box office bomb that has long since been buried thanks to its 10 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. But delving into its production history reveals the anomalous process by which it came to be, and how the exclusive film rights for a major piece of IP wound up in the hands of a 24-year-old Canadian filmmaker with no experience named Courtney Solomon.
Solomon, interviewed in the behind-the-scenes footage for Dungeons & Dragons, comes across as a sort of neckbearded wunderkind, equal parts Corky St. Clair and Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. To hear him tell it, he was a 19-year-old with familial ties to the Toronto film business who simply had the idea to make a D&D movie and followed through on it. “I called up [Tactical Studies Rules] and I said, ‘I’d really like to try to get the rights to make a movie,’” he explains. “[They said] I could go down and meet some of the executives. So I put together this whole proposal, bought my first business suit. … They were impressed at the end of the meeting, and about 18 months later, we finally ended up signing a deal to have an option to the exclusive rights to make the movie.”
It’s a surreal explanation, a sort of encapsulation of privilege by dream logic. It’s also a scenario virtually unimaginable today: a kid in his suit successfully bartering for the cinematic keys to such a valuable IP kingdom. Nowadays, branded behemoths are managed and manicured by your Kevin Feiges and Kathleen Kennedys; even the new D&D flick, which arrives with some of the best reviews of the year, feels like a safe and familiar extension of the kind of light, jokey, corporate-approved blockbuster fare we’ve grown accustomed to from Marvel.
Which is why it’s so appealing to go back and revisit Solomon’s vision, however disastrous the final results ended up being. As much as Dungeons & Dragons’ backstory paints the picture of a production that would never happen today, the film itself plays host to a veritable smorgasbord of things you’re just not likely to see in the studio-mandated brand-extension blockbuster cinema of today. So before Honor Among Thieves officially gets the IP train back on the tracks, let’s remember the 20 most delightfully bonkers details about its much-forgotten forebear, Dungeons & Dragons.
Jeremy Irons Turned Up to 11
Nowadays, it’s become de rigueur for actors to underplay the villain role. But in the ’90s and early 2000s, you couldn’t throw a dart without hitting some Academy Award–winning British actor enjoying a delicious rack of ham as some sort of megalomaniacal force of evil. Case in point: Jeremy Irons’s absurd turn as Profion, a fascistic mage who becomes ravenously horny whenever he sees dragons. It’s a performance that consists of 50 percent snarling and 50 percent standing on a tower and screaming things like “LET THEIR BLOOD RAIN FROM THE SKY!” Irons reportedly took the role because he’d just bought a castle and “had to pay for it somehow.” That’s beautiful.
This Glam King
His name is Damodar, and he has blue lips. He’s the main heavy of the movie, but his basic characterization is delivering all his lines as though he’s taken too much Benadryl and making faces like he has to poop. Early on, Jeremy Irons zaps some freaky little tentacle worms into his ears, so the actor (Bruce Payne) has to spend the rest of the movie acting like there is a parasite devouring his brain (a sensation most likely felt by this film’s writers).
This is the film’s hero, Ridley, played by Justin Whalin. Five minutes into the movie, in his introductory scene, he breaks off mid-conversation, stares into the middle distance with a wild expression, and says, euphorically, “Magic school.” These words are never uttered again.
Marlon Wayans as a Goofy Sidekick
Marlon Wayans plays Ridley’s sidekick, simply named Snails. Everything about the character feels like a racist caricature. To compound this fact, on the DVD commentary track Solomon and Whalin don “Blaccents” whenever they imitate him, at one point literally saying, “Damn, I want some chicken!” Halfway through the film, Snails is brutally murdered and thrown off a cliff.
Jeremy Irons is constantly speaking in front of the so-called Council of Mages, which sounds cool but basically consists of a bunch of your dad’s friends dressed in wizard costumes from Party City, banging their staffs and going “harumph.” A for effort.
A Lot of Party City Costumes, to Be Honest
You get the picture. These are the members of the film’s Crimson Brigade. On the commentary track, Solomon tragically says their armor will be redesigned for the sequel.
Almost a year after American Beauty won Best Picture at the Oscars, Birch was on-screen as the film’s de facto Queen Amidala character, Empress Savina, who delivers the immortal words: “All people deserve to be free and equal, whether commoner or mage. I know this within the depths of my soul, and if necessary I would die to make that the way Izmir was run.”
A Bone Chapel
Jeremy Irons’s lair was apparently shot in a real-life location called the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel in the Czech Republic entirely furnished by the bones of 40,000 actual humans. That means that the Dungeons & Dragons movie is haunted by the bones of 40,000 actual humans.
The MacGuffin of Dungeons & Dragons is a scepter called the Rod of Savrille, which quickly gets shorthanded to just “the rod.” Cut to several scenes of Jeremy Irons and Damodar saying things like “Deliver me the rod,” “Profion also seeks the rod,” and “If I do not obtain the rod, I will die.”
A Plucky Female Lead Whose Needs Are Secondary to Those of the Male Hero
Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan) is a mage moonlighting as a librarian. She has dreams and aspirations (to abandon her shelving duties and fully explore her powers) that are established in her first scene and then quickly sidelined once she meets Ridley, with whom she obviously becomes romantically entangled. Upon first meeting him, she says, “I’d have to put a feeble-minded spell on myself to want to take you home.” Feminism!
Vague Threats That Don’t Actually Make Sense
Before murdering Marina’s old-man mentor, Damodar says, “I’ll have to kill you painfully”—but then kind of just pushes him onto the ground hard enough to apparently kill him. Later on, he says to Snails, “Just like you thieves, always taking things that don’t belong to you,” which is, historically, exactly what thieves do.
A Pile of Trash Labeled “Dwarfs Not Allowed” Whose Only Occupant Is—You Guessed It—a Dwarf
It’s all very unclear. Regardless, there is a dwarf in this movie who looks exactly like Gimli, played by That One Guy From Pirates of the Caribbean (Lee Arenberg). After bumping into Ridley, Snails, and Marina, he joins their party for no apparent reason and proceeds to troll the movie at every turn. At one point, it feels as though the camera is cosmically drawn to him, and pulls in close enough for him to look straight down the lens and say, “That’s a terrible way to do business.” From then on, his character is made infinitely more interesting only because he is the only one who knows he is in a movie and being followed by a camera. If you watch him closely, his performance communicates this.
In the middle of the movie’s cantina scene, you can spot a girl in a middle school formal dress, just having a great time.
A Deleted Scene That Explains the Entire Plot
Solomon had initially wanted a budget of $100 million to make Dungeons & Dragons, but was granted less than half that. One of the more charming things about the film is that it seems like he naively didn’t pare down his script to match the budget, and you can feel the film’s purse strings being tightened in virtually every aspect of what wound up on screen. Solomon hand waves this away often in the film’s commentary track, stating that the story is what ultimately matters. However, this is immediately undercut by his admission that one of the things that was jettisoned was a sequence that explained the entire main quest of the movie.
Giant Axes That Almost Kill the Lead Actor Right in Front of Your Eyes
In a maze challenge scene, Ridley has to dive out of the way of giant swinging axes. In the commentary, Whalin says that the axes weighed 300 to 400 pounds and that in one take they almost killed him. Solomon laughs at this. Throughout the rest of the commentary, references are constantly made to Whalin regularly being injured on set. At one point, he allegedly cracked his head open. At this, Solomon also laughs.
In a scene Solomon says the studio begged him to cut but he maintained needed to be in the film, Damodar interrogates a captive Marina, and when she won’t give him the information he requires, he tells her, “I can suck the information I want right out of your head.” That leads to weird tentacle things springing from his ears and clasping onto hers, quite literally sucking out her brain while she screams and he makes facial expressions that I am loath to describe as “orgasmic.” David Cronenberg must be seething with envy.
In one of the more perplexing moments in the film—and that’s obviously saying a lot—Snails is sneaking around Damodar’s bed chambers when he steps onto a booby-trapped rug that instantly turns into quicksand oatmeal. This means that some extremely talented person had to paint and arrange oatmeal to look like a rug, and if that ain’t the magic of movies, I don’t know what is.
In true Joel Schumacher Batman form, this elf lady named Norda (Kristen Wilson) is costumed in armor sporting comically large and pointy breasts. Separate from this, Solomon and his DP Douglas Milsome (literally a camera operator on Barry Lyndon) talk for a full minute on the commentary about how nice Wilson’s skin is. You know, normal stuff.
Final Battles That Come Out of Nowhere
Everyone knows that a big action blockbuster has to end with a big epic fight. But why beat around the bush setting it up forever when you can literally just randomly cut to Jeremy Irons screaming, “THE EMPRESS HAS CALLED OUT HER DRAGONS UPON US”? Incidentally, the empress has called out her dragons upon them, and it looks terrible.
A Tease for a Sequel, Somehow
The film’s ending is perhaps cinema’s most perplexing. Standing at the grave of Snails—which, even though he’s presumably a war hero, is a measly pile of rocks with the name “Snails” written on it—Ridley gives a heartfelt eulogy and places a ruby on the grave. As he turns to leave, the wind picks up, the ruby glows, and the name “Snails” fades from the stone. Norda says cryptically, “Do not question your gift. Your friend awaits you,” and the heroes all place their hands on the ruby and immediately transform into Tinker Bell–esque beams of light before flying off into the sun. Fade to black. Directed by Courtney Solomon.
In the commentary, Whalin implies that God was present on the day of the shooting of this final scene. And who knows … he may be right. Now that there’s a full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons film, with real movie stars and a real marketing budget, it’s certainly an experience to revisit the original and see what was once just an unwatchable flop transform into a portrait of a bygone Hollywood landscape, one where a random 19-year-old could somehow finagle the rights to a major piece of fantasy IP and somehow land in a director’s chair. If he managed to make one of the worst films of the century, so be it.
At least he rolled the dice.
Kyle Wilson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is happiest when he’s writing about film, television, or his insatiable obsession with Joe Pesci’s performance in The Irishman. His work has appeared at Polygon and Screen Rant and you can follow him at @icanvalk.