By Matthew Stephenson
Games have become a rich source of inspiration for the film and television industry in recent years. Some adaptations have been modestly received, i.e., Sonic the Hedgehog. At the same time, most now languish on one of the dozen major streaming services. However, the first quarter of 2023 has provided a few worthy examples of quality entertainment based on beloved game franchises. Tetris, the recently released film on Apple TV+, provides a solid dramatization of how the addictive puzzle game went global despite being invented behind the Iron Curtain at the height of Cold War paranoia. It has received positive sentiments from moviegoers and gamers alike. HBO’s newest hit show, The Last of Us, based on Sony’s game of the same name, is perhaps the best all-time screen adaptation of a game. It has earned massive audiences and critical acclaim, and has now been blessed with a second season as HBO’s newest flagship show.
Two of the most successful movies currently in theatres are based on games. And both have been adapted for film before. From the amount of chatter about these new adaptations, it is safe to say that Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and The Super Mario Bros. Movie are the best screen adaptations to date of the classic TTRPG and the beloved platformer. Despite long odds and wavering support amongst the fans, both films have hit the mark in their translation from game to screen.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023, dir. Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley)
Dungeons & Dragons has captivated players’ imaginations for decades. Unfortunately, 23 years ago, the first foray of D&D reaching cinema multiplexes did not do the same for audiences. Dungeons & Dragons, starring scenery-chewing Jeremy Irons, was a critical and commercial failure. It could have captured the spirit of the tabletop game. TTRPGs like Dungeons & Dragons are beloved for complex storytelling, immersive world-building, and nuanced character relationships, whose camaraderie usually creates an abundance of humor. Unfortunately, the first feature film had none of these elements. Besides its lack of heart, its special effects looked amateurish compared to blockbuster contemporaries like The Matrix and X-Men. Everything about that film was box office poison.
After that blunder of a first cinematic impression, success for any D&D movie was dependent on being faithful to core threads of the TTRPG, being a broad story that non-gamers could follow and enjoy, and featuring at least the standard-level quality of CGI set by modern blockbusters. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves succeeds in all these regards, for which its predecessor failed.
The script captures the nuances and complexities of a party of misfits. But the movie shines in the chemistry of the cast. Novice and veteran TTRPG players will enjoy the banter between Chris Pine’s bard, Michelle Rodriguez’s barbarian, and the heelish Hugh Grant, who obviously relishes playing another villain like the one he did in Paddington 2. While Rodriguez, Grant, and Rege-Jean Page’s paladin relish the spotlight at every opportunity, each party member does indeed have their hero moment. It’s likely that the movie’s directors and screenwriters have probably been competent Game Masters in earlier times.
The story is not groundbreaking for anyone who’s roleplayed in the Forgotten Realms. But this is chicken soup for TTRPG fans, some of whom thought this movie would be beyond disappointing. Instead, the film feels like a party slaying and bantering through those dusk-till-dawn play sessions. Despite that, 20 to 30 minutes of runtime should have been left on the cutting room floor since Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves didn’t have to emulate the length along with many other aspects of tabletop roleplaying.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023, dir. Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic)
Like D&D, Nintendo had horrible luck launching Mario as a movie franchise. The success of the aforementioned Sonic the Hedgehog a few years ago maybe allayed some fears fans had of console mascots appearing on the silver screen. The first Super Mario Bros. was a tonal mess with an inconsistent look and poor writing. Nintendo didn’t let another character appear in a movie until Bowser had a cameo in Wreck-It-Ralph.
While the new Super Mario Bros. plot is pretty simple and tame, it is at least more faithful to the source material than its precursor. No one could ever mistake this for any other franchise. It looks like Mario. It sounds like a Mario game, even if the audience can tell Chris Pratt and Seth Rogen sound like every other Chris Pratt and Seth Rogen performance instead of our favorite video game plumber and gorilla.
Whether you started playing on the NES or the Switch, fans of Mario can find something to chuckle at with this movie. Is it the most fantastic animated movie of all time? No. It was never going to be the Super Mario World of the film industry. Instead, it is a wholly respectable entry to a franchise that is still beloved worldwide and will surely bring in more new fans to games. Much like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, this movie does exactly what it needed to do, just maybe not to the level of success of its game-to-movie counterpart.
Jack Black’s Bowser is worth the price of admission, along with Anya Taylor-Joy’s Princess Peach and Keegan-Michael Key’s Toad. Charlie Day’s Luigi is criminally underused but should make many fans wait with bated breath for a Luigi’s Mansion adaptation one day. The visuals contain motifs from the various Mario games. The extended Rainbow Road sequence stands out as the film’s action centerpiece and makes me hopeful for a better sequel.
So now what?
Are these films full of fan service? Well yeah, of course they are. But both these films indicate that game adaptations for the screen are not necessarily bargain bin quality. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and The Super Mario Bros. Movie are signs that even dreaded game-to-screen adaptations can have a second chance to get it right. Based on the reactions from critics and audiences alike, we’ll probably get at least one more installment of both properties on screen. These films do not break the mold of blockbuster movies based on game properties. Still, it’s evident that they capture the essence of beloved games while also delivering engaging stories and memorable experiences on the screen. These adaptations have succeeded in staying faithful to their source material, incorporating familiar elements while bringing fresh ideas and showcasing the talents of filmmakers, writers, and actors. As fans of games, it’s exciting to see how these adaptations have raised the stakes for what fans expect. We can only hope that it gets better from here for gamers at the local movie theater.
Matthew Stephenson is the Public Services Librarian at the Pendleton Community Public Library in Indiana. He has been a member of GameRT since 2021. He is also a GameRT Member-at-Large and serves on the Outreach and International Games Month committees. He studied film for his undergraduate minor and immediately stopped paying attention to movies when he first played Mass Effect 2. Nowadays, he plays a gratuitous amount of Mario Party with his wife, Ashley.