Recently, Warner Brothers announced plans to produce a new Dungeons & Dragons cinematic universe. For fans of the game, this sparked the hope that the film would be an improvement over 2000’s ill-fated Jeremy Irons feature Dungeons & Dragons and its two low-budget, unscreened sequels. But old-school D&D fans will remember further back to the early 1980s, when the game’s publisher TSR touted plans to release a D&D film penned by Academy Award winning screenwriter James Goldman, who famously wrote 1968’s The Lion in Winter.
Would this have been the movie D&D fans deserved? Or would it have been another cheesy box-office bomb? For three decades, the script has been shrouded in secrecy, though collectors recently recovered copies long held in the collection of TSR co-founder Brian Blume. But plans for a new D&D movie make this a perfect time to dust off a copy dated November 18, 1982 and finally open its pages to the world.
First, let’s set the stage a bit. Dungeons & Dragons became famous in the summer of 1979, after much sensational publicity about a kid supposedly getting lost playing the game in the steam tunnels below a Michigan university (never happened, by the way). As sales of the game skyrocketed over the next two years, film studios became interested in a D&D feature.
TSR spent much of 1981 in negotiations with 20th Century Fox, but broke off “because we did not believe that the studio would be willing to produce the sort of top-notch movie we must have,” as TSR CEO and D&D co-author Gary Gygax wrote in September in TSR’s company newsletter Random Events. In another contemporary interview in Polyhedron magazine, Gygax stresses that “we didn’t want to end up with the rather disastrous type of movie that Tolkien’s ring trilogy ended up with,” referring to the early animated features. A D&D movie would need to be “based on the Dungeons & Dragons game-with imagination, and creativity, and excitement, and adventure, and not some sort of a Hollywood epic which takes the name and then perverts everything else.”
By March 1982, Gygax had secured James Goldman’s involvement, and the interest of Goldman’s wife Bobby as a potential producer. Work on the screenplay proceeded as TSR formed a new Entertainment and Media Division, and hunted for an executive to run it who would be, in Gygax’s words, “responsible for the film project (after me, of course-ahem!).”
Gygax spent three days with the Goldmans in the third week of September, working with them on the script. He worked cautiously, with “resolve to maintain as much control over the D&D movie as humanly possible.” The recent release of the first Arnold Schwarzenegger film Conan the Barbarian gave Gygax an example of how not to make a fantasy film: he panned it in the pages of the Dragon magazine, adding “badly done films seem more likely to destroy interest in fantasy rather than build it.” He was also surely aware that Mazes and Monsters, a sensational retelling of the steam tunnel kid story, would soon be released as a made-for-television movie – starring a hapless young Tom Hanks.
“I promise all of you,” Gygax wrote in the Dragon, “that if the D&D film isn’t of the quality of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I will not only blast it… but I will apologize to you as well.” He adds, “Give us a chance to prove that the genre can be good!”
Would a film of this screenplay have pleased fans of Dungeons & Dragons? In my opinion, it seems unlikely, but judge for yourself…
The story begins with Tom Boyman, a 23-year-old Californian who has finally saved up enough money to begin his studies at Yale. On his way to catch the bus east, he meets Milton “Fearless” Gilroy, a car racer who convinces him to go to a county fair before leaving. At the fair, Tom chances upon Margot Champion, a senior at Wellesley who is summering in California at an archaeological dig. The three of them strike up a friendship and visit the dig site that night, where, among howling winds, a mysterious power brings them all to another world.
They awake near a strange body of water, where an oared galley awaits them. From this ship emerges Odo, a water-walking cleric, who bids them to come along. He then transfers the water-walking ability to the party, who join him on board to travel to the island of the Master.
The Master explains that he, and this world, were created by the Onelord. Every seven hundred years, the power of the Master fades, and a Child will be found who is destined to replace the Master. However, because “nothing can exist without its opposite,” the Onelord also created the Nightking, who is “dark beyond your powers to imagine,” and whose strength grows as that of the Master fades. So a Chosen One is summoned from our world to help maintain the balance. The Master reveals that Tom is this Chosen One, and charges him with an urgent quest: the Child has been discovered, but has already been kidnapped by the Nightking, and can be saved only by Tom.
Odo is to accompany Tom on this quest, but Margot insists on joining him. Fearless, in his roguish idiom, says, “I’m sorry if they’ve got a mess here, but it’s not my problem.” Margot counters that he has “no guts,” which is sufficient to add Fearless to the party. Then Odo reveals a fifth companion, a creature named Drobni, who is of a large humanoid race called the Dreddet. Once an aggressive species who caused mischief, the Dreddet were rendered harmless by the Master when he took away all of their thumbs. “They are simple folk now,” Odo explains.
The next day they depart the Master’s island by boat, unarmed, though Odo brings with him some “medicines and balms and potions.” Their first stop is the fishing village of Swumly. Tom, Fearless, and Margot masquerade as young Dreddets, and thus Odo instructs them to “hide your hands and simplify your faces, dull your eyes.” They stop by the stables to procure horses, but while they are there, a monster painting on the side of a wagon comes to life. A servant of the Nightking, this bird-like creature with a scorpion tail and a cobra head is called a dagathorpe. Its gaze alone causes one of the stableboys to spontaneously combust, and spurs Odo to hasten the party to an underground Dwarf kingdom for subterranean passage to the Nightking’s realm.
As the party traverses this underworld, they encounter a fright house of challenges. At one point, when they must choose between multiple paths, Odo instructs Tom to “put yourself in the Onelord’s hands,” and Tom mystically intuits the right way. They meet the flying piranha-like stekkers-which fortunately eat only one another-then are pursued by a vicious creature with the head of a dugong and the body of a sea elephant, and finally encounter a floor coated with bagguts, a sort of leech. When Fearless accidentally sticks his hand on them, Odo heals it with an application of Keoghtom’s Ointment: one of the few direct appropriations from D&D rules in the film. After a cave-in, and a few tense moments of Tom’s claustrophobia in pitch darkness, they find a tiny crevice and a way into a glittering cave of gems.
In this cave they encounter a ruby dragon, though it is only “the size of a Shetland pony,” and it bears on its forehead a sort of carbuncle’s gem, “a glowing blood-red ruby the size of hen’s egg.” The ruby, Odo explains, “is its soul, its mind and spirit,” and that “to possess one brings great power” should you be able to “pluck the ruby from its forehead.” While the party makes elaborate plans to sneak around this creature, they unfortunately awaken its far larger mother. Tom then leaps onto the young dragon’s back and removes the gem, which instantly subdues it. As the party flees, the mother elects to nurture her wounded offspring rather than seek revenge. Tom pockets the ruby.
From that cavern, the party quickly finds their way to the surface, now within the realm of the Nightking, whose crystal castle they can see in the distance. Odo produces a sort of powder that places an illusion on each of the party members, making them all appear to be creatures with wings and bird’s feet, but also a long, fish-like tail. This allows them to skirt a patrol of gnolls, who salute them as they pass, as well as two orcs on sentry duty at the castle’s entrance. Unopposed, they advance through the seemingly empty castle until they reach a seven-sided room containing a large crystal prism. The Child has been imprisoned within it.
To release the Child, Odo tells Tom that he must ask the Onelord for a miracle. Tom scoffs, “But we don’t believe in him. Why should he listen?” One at a time, Fearless, Margot, and Tom appeal to the Onelord. Tom’s request is: “Release him from the stone. That’s all we ask. Amen.” This seem to satisfy the Onelord, as the prism then cracks, and the Child emerges. Margot immediately takes charge of him, cooing, “You poor thing, you poor baby.” The Child is silent; as Odo explains, “He can do everything but speak. He’s incomplete until the Master holds him.”
Then, suddenly, the Nightking announces himself in “a lovely voice, mellifluous and rich.” He is tall and slender, handsome, blonde-haired and smooth-skinned, wearing only a red toga, but he lacks eyes, instead having “two black, completely empty holes.” The Nightking gloats over having now captured both the Child and the Chosen One, taunting the Child, “You’ll never be the Master, boy.” Margot voices her fears that the Nightking will kill them, but instead, inevitably, the Nightking says, “I’ll leave you now.”
“This is your dungeon,” the Nightking explains, “You are in it. There are no guards. The doors are open… which door did you come through? Can you remember? Was this the door?” In his villainy, he continues, “You are surrounded by my Underworld. The choice is yours.” They can remain in the seven-sided room until the Master fades, or explore the castle, “for I have things outside in store for you.” He then unceremoniously departs.
While the party deliberates over which door to take, the Nightking raises the temperature of the floor in the seven-sided room until they are forced to choose. Drobni carries the Child as they make their way through a surreal snowy landscape that soon turns into a dungeon passage. “It’s a maze,” Margot concludes, “We’re in a maze.” The Nightking briefly interrupts to inform the party that “something is hunting for you.” As they begin making their way from chamber to chamber, it soon becomes clear that a dragon pursues them.
A dragon in a dungeon.
The party is briefly separated, and Odo, Drobni, Margot, and the Child come face-to-face with the dragon. To save the Child, Odo throws himself into the dragon’s jaws. But then Drobni, who cries “Not my Odo!” growls in rage and grabs the dragon’s tail. Thumbless Drobni starts to “pivot,” which throws the dragon off balance, and then “pivot harder, harder, turning in a circle,” until the dragon is lifted off the ground, “not far-but just enough to swing it like a bolo, in a circle.” Finally, Drobni releases the tail, and the dragon is flung into a stone wall. “We hear its skull crack as it crashes on the stone,” and the dragon is slain. This is, incidentally, the sole slaying of a monster in the script.
The Nightking then reappears and summons four walls of flame around the party which encroach ever nearer. Tom, in desperation, remembers the ruby in his pocket which he had earlier plucked from the ruby dragon’s forehead. He now brandishes it at the Nightking, who is unphased: “The pity is, you don’t know how to use it.” But suddenly, the Child “soundlessly chants an incantation” activating the ruby, unleashing a flood that fills the room and a huge stream of water which lifts them all up into the air. Tom, Margot, Fearless, the Child and Drobni (who carries Odo’s body) travel in this watery fashion, apparently through the ocean, until they reach the island of the Master.
There, the Master embraces the Child, and confers his power to him. As the Master’s soul leaves his body, he touches Odo to release his spirit, and their two souls visibly ascend together. Now, the Child announces that he must send Tom, Margot, and Fearless home. Tearful goodbyes are said, and the Child insists that “nothing is to go back with you… not even memories,” but he lets Tom keep the ruby. After the camera spins and spins, the three find themselves back at the archeological dig site. Their memories rapidly fade, but their bond of friendship never will. “Oh God, I love you both so much,” Margot gushes. Then she discovers that the ruby is making a sound, that it talks and “it remembers,” and so the story ends with the three of them “sitting in the desert in the bright sun, holding one another, listening to the ruby speak.”
When Gygax wrote in the June 1983 Dragon that the script was “intended to capture the essence of the Dungeons & Dragons game,” how close did he think it came to that mark? None of the main characters wields a weapon, casts a spell, picks a lock, uses a magic item, or indeed does much but flee danger. Aside from Tom taking the ruby, they resolve problems only by praying to the Onelord. You don’t feel like they are player characters, you feel like they are spectators, just watching powerful forces play out, which is exactly the opposite of playing Dungeons & Dragons. It reads like a children’s fantasy book where everyone depends on the grown-ups: more of a Narnia than, say, than a Lankhmar, but even Aslan makes you fight your own battles.
Yet Gygax heartily endorsed the finished product. “The script is a remarkable piece of work,” he continued, “one which could well lead to a film as successful as Star Wars or E.T. It will do a world of good for our hobby.” But that was not to be. By the spring of 1983, TSR had fallen on hard times. The D&D fad had peaked, and after a string of expensive and unsuccessful acquisitions the year before, TSR posted its first loss and began downsizing rapidly. It also reorganized its media properties into a spin-off company, which Gygax oversaw personally, leaving the game itself in the hands of his business partners.
Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Company famously created the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon series. It is probably no coincidence that it focused on a group of adventurers from our world who travel through a magical portal to a world of fantasy-though they at least wield weapons, cast spells, and act as adventurers.
Despite years of further efforts, Gygax never managed to get this script optioned, let alone produced. So ultimately, we have no finished film to compare against Star Wars. But we might wager that if the film had been made, Gary would have owed us his promised apology.