Geek Exclusive: ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ Co-Directors Took Inspiration From Their Time On ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘The Flash’

Think movie adaptations – be it books, video games, foreign films or comics – and they all have one thing in common – source material rich for the taking. Some filmmakers choose their favourite tales and use it as a foundation, while others create their own. Some may opt to do something different, but how do you adapt a table top game that audiences make up as they go along, and have been doing so for the last 40 years?

Why, you try to roll for a natural 20 of course, and by all accounts, the filmmaking duo of John Francis Daley and Johnathan Goldstein (Game Night, Vacation), along with producer Jeremy Latcham rose to the challenge and have delivered one of the better film adaptations, this one based on Dungeons & Dragons, a popular and long-running tabletop role-playing game that has a team of players take on campaigns in a fantasy realm, and survival is based on choices made, and the roll of a dice. 

Geek Exclusive: Regé-Jean Page

“We rolled the dice!” joked Goldstein, when asked how he and his partner Daley decided on the cast for their new movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, starring Chris Pine as bard Edgin, Michelle Rodriguez as barbarian Holga, Regé-Jean Page as paladin Xenk, Justice Smith as sorcerer Simon, Hugh Grant as rogue Forge and Sohpia Lillis as druid Doric. 

“We wanted each of our characters to be very different from one another. Very often you see in these ensembles, what brings them together are their similarities but what we liked was the fact that they were all so different from one another and that to me, creates a well rounded out ensemble,” said Daley. 

The game is played with rule books but a lot of improvisation and imagination of the Dungeon Master leading, and players in the campaign, different combinations of players and play styles have led to a franchise that has evolved and come to mean different things to players globally.

So how did they decide on what to bring to life?

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Latcham explained , “I think also, we wanted an adventure party that kind of felt like a classic adventuring party from the books, one that would kind of represent how you would go about playing the game so that no one was too superpowered. No one was too weak and like, where do you find those balances? What are their strengths and weaknesses? And so we kind of tried to emulate what makes the game great in that regard.” 

In Honor Among Thieves, the team of heroes embark on an epic quest to retrieve a long lost relic. What starts as a charming adventure goes dangerously awry when they run afoul of the wrong people. Classed as an adventure and action film, Honor Among Thieves’ approach to the fantasy world is light-hearted and humorous unlike many other fantasy adaptations like Netflix’s The Witcher or The Lord of the Rings franchise. 

In fact, as one of the first few fantasy series to become a global phenomenon, audiences would be surprised to know that this isn’t the first time D&D has been adapted for live action, and based on the current acclaim that this film is getting, unlikely to be the last. This rich history gave the filmmakers a lot of wiggle room in terms of how to present their film for an audience used to superheroes and special effects.

honor among thieves

“We hadn’t really seen it done before, at least not in many years. There’s a side of fantasy that is fun. It doesn’t all have to be grim and gritty and Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect way into that version because it is something that people laugh while they’re playing. You’re enjoying yourself with friends, while your avatar is facing life and death situations in this mediaeval setting so it was a natural way to bring our kind of sensibility to a bigger scale movie,” explained Goldstein. 

“That doesn’t diminish in any way the epic spectacle of the film because it couldn’t be bigger. You’ve got some incredible action sequences that will really surprise people but to be able to have that sense of humour throughout all of it makes it truly unique,” continued Daley. 

It’s no surprise that Daley and Goldstein have taken a humorous approach to their film. The duo are best known for comedy films Game Night, Vacation and most popularly, for their work in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. They were also tapped to write and direct DC’s The Flash movie but left the project after working on it for a year. Their The Flash story would’ve seen a ground-level superhero learning his powers and is somewhat dysfunctional with his life. There’s something about an imperfect hero that come to their powers and their identity that scratches this duo’s itch. Fans have seen it in Spider-Man: Homecoming and now, Honor Among Thieves too. 

honor among thieves

“I think there’s something universal in the hero’s journey, especially in one of those depictions of superheroes where they aren’t perfect when they’re starting off,” shared Daley. “That’s what makes a great movie, because you’re not just seeing people being perfect the whole time. You’re seeing them grow.” 

“Both The Flash and Spider-Man have kind of young protagonists who have their powers thrust on them. When we were working on those, we wanted to make clear that just because you get superpowers doesn’t turn you into a superhero. That’s a journey that you have to travel to,” expanded Goldstein. 

“Same with Edgin, and Holga and everybody else. Some of them have power, some of them don’t. They have flaws and strengths, but the journey to your better version of yourself is very much like a superhero’s journey.” 

Creating a movie based on an IP that is so beloved around the world is not easy, especially with scrutinising fans protective of their hobby. And despite how popular Dungeons and Dragons is within their own community, it is one of those tabletop games that the mainstream have consistently deemed as “nerdy”.

honor among thieves

The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things, which takes inspiration from D&D, might have shifted perceptions and created awareness of its existence, but many are still unclear and unknowledgeable of what Dungeons and Dragons actually entail. With its various classes, expansive world and terms like ‘Dungeon Master’ and ‘D20’, the everyday Joe is not going to understand what it is. 

Thankfully, Daley is fairly experienced and Goldstein’s and Latcham’s fresh new eyes and naivety allowed the trio to make a movie that can be enjoyable by both fans and the general audience. 

“I never did [play Dungeons and Dragons]. I wasn’t allowed to as a kid and I think that the fact that I had not played much made me a useful partner in this in terms of like, going as a regular person who hasn’t played D&D. I don’t understand this or I have questions about this and how do we make this clear to just a regular person walking in off the street? I think it’s that combination that was really, really fun as we were putting it together,” said Latcham. 

And in case you’re wondering, Daley is a paladin. 

“Well, I played as a paladin who was a half elf. I think I ended up at level four, five, but it was very much a loose playstyle with our campaign. Our Dungeon Master was very creative and adhered to some of the rules and didn’t to some of the other ones,” said Daley.