With the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin dominating the big screen and the small, which fantasy series should get a live-action adaptation next? There is one massive series of fantasy novels that is ripe for a series of film adaptations: Dragonlance.
When I was in grade school, I picked up a copy of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's collected Dragonlance Legends from a school book fair and delved into a strange but intriguing tale about a noble priestess and a dark-hearted wizard. It was my babysitter who pointed out that I had started the series in the wrong place and loaned me her copies of the Dragonlance Chronicles, which, ungrateful child, I never returned. (In fact, they are sitting on my bookshelf as I type this. Sorry, Patricia.) From there I was hooked on the epic about a group of Companions attempting to free preserve their home from the forces of the dark goddess Takhisis and her evil Dragon Highlords.
I've wanted to see a Dragonlance movie since I first became aware of the books and my earliest days on the Internet were spent reading fantasy cast lists and hunting down movie news. Finally, in 2007, the movie Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight came to DVD…and it was not good.
Now we live in an era where the armies of Sauron have rattled and railed across the big screen, when Game of Thrones is an HBO phenomenon. As much as I love to see the current bounty of fantasy on television and film, I still long to see a live-action Dragonlance film series, placed in the hands of people who can balance the grandeur of dragons, undead knights, and a continent-spanning war with the human (and human-like) characters dealing with their own ambitions, insecurities, and desires.
What is Dragonlance?
Dragonlance is a series of books, gaming modules, and other media created as part of a shared universe for TSR's Dungeons & Dragons game. In fact, much of the storyline and characters of the Chronicles series (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning) came out of a series of D&D sessions held by Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, and their fellow gamers at TSR. Weis and Hickman's first Dragonlance novel came out in 1984, and there are currently more than 190 books in the series, written by numerous authors and spanning the history of the planet Krynn. But the central Chronicles focus on the War of the Lance, a continent-spanning conflict that sees the world's evil dragons awaken in the service of the goddess Takhisis. It's a series that a lot of fans picked up when we were pre-teens and teenagers, and a lot of us remember it fondly for its use of fantastical creatures, its jam-packed plotlines, and—perhaps more significantly—its memorable characters.
So why does Dragonlance warrant a movie adaptation?
A Post-Cataclysmic Setting with a Rich Mythology
Dragonlance is set on the world of Krynn, primarily on the continent of Ansalon, which 350 years before the events of the Chronicles by an event known as the Cataclysm, when the gods hurled a fiery mountain at the head of blasphemous priest. The Cataclysm left Ansalon physically and culturally scarred. Feeling abandoned by the gods, man of the peoples of Ansalon turned to false prophets and false religions. Humans and dwarves went to war over the protected underground cities. One prosperous elven nation closed its borders, even to its elven cousins—leaving the two nations alone and vulnerable when trouble came to Ansalon again. Once grand cities still lie in ruins, or exist only as shadows of their former glory.
Amidst all of the familiar breeds of monsters and cast of knights, mages, and barbarians, this post-Cataclysmic world gives Dragonlance a very specific flavor. We are exploring a world that is, in many ways, unfamiliar to the very characters who inhabit it, which allows for some rather spectacular surprises along the way. Dragonlance isn't quite post-apocalyptic, but it has post-apocalyptic touches. Many of the long-lived elves, for example, still remember the horrors that followed the Cataclysm, including their own time spent starving as refugees. Some of the demolished cities have been reclaimed in unexpected ways, while other lands have never quite recovered. Even centuries after the Cataclysm, Ansalon is a land still in upheaval, and it hasn't gotten a chance to settle before the crisis that arises with the War of the Lance.
Krynn is also a richly detailed world. After nearly 200 books in addition to numerous gaming modules, dozens of writers have had their hands on the world, building out its character and its history. And artists like Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Clyde Caldwell, Matt Stawicki (whose illustration of Raistlin and Takhisis is up top), and more have developed the series visually. Certainly not every piece of media made for Dragonlance is a winner, but there is a wealth of material to draw upon.
Fun Twists on Classic Fantasy Tropes
It would be easy to dismiss Dragonlance as a sort of inferior clone of Lord of the Rings; after all, it centers on a fellowship attempting to prevent a dark, divine entity from gaining power over the world. And when you encounter the various dwarves and elves, not to mention a befuddled wizard named Fizban the Fabulous who looks an awful lot like Gandalf the Grey, it becomes clear that there is a lot of Tolkien love among the writers—if not Tolkien's close attention to language. It makes sense; Dragonlance has long served as a classic medieval European campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons.
In fact, Dragonlance is packed with fantasy tropes: griffins, goblins, lost cities, knightly orders, magical conclaves, warring gods, lands twisted by dark magic, cursed gemstones, legendary weapons, a hell dimension, and, of course, loads of dragons. (And that's all before we get to the time travel in the Legends trilogy.) It's clear that the folks who developed Dragonlance, Weis and Hickman included, are omnivorous consumers of fantasy fiction, and whenever I revisit the Chronicles, I'm struck by how much they managed to pack into their novels while still creating a coherent—and what's more, fun—story. As they synthesized those fantasy tropes, they made them their own and then expanded upon them in ways that are unique to Dragonlance.
The most striking example of this is the creation of the kender, a race of beings invented to replace the Hobbit-like halflings from the Dungeons & Dragons game. Starting out with the idea of a petit people, the Dragonlance team came up with a child-like race possessed of a sort of non-violent id. The kender are perky and playful wanderers, best known for their immunity to fear and their almost unwitting kleptomania. As you might imagine, many folks on Krynn regard the kender as irritating, and by including a kender among the series' main cast, Weis and Hickman risked creating a character who would annoy the readers as well. Yet their kender hero, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, is endlessly resourceful and his tendency to steal any small object in sight proves more useful than annoying. Plus, his cheerful demeanor is often a welcome ray of light in the books' darker moments, though his gradual journey to maturity is one of the series' most satisfying arcs—and the reason he becomes such a heroic figure in later volumes.
Companions Who Feel Like a Dysfunctional Family
The Dragonlance Chronicles are much more from the Lord of the Rings mold than the Game of Thrones mold, with a group of heroes struggling against the forces of evil. And more than its world and its various racial and political factions, the series hinges on its core characters, the Companions and Heroes of the Lance. The Companions are a group of long-time friends and allies who parted long ago to search for evidence of Krynn's true gods and have reunited just in time for the coming war. But as much as they are searching for truth, each of these individuals is deeply flawed: Tanis Half-Elven is consumed by his inability to fit completely into either the human or elven worlds; Sturm Brightblade is a would-be knight who masks his insecurities behind a strict code of honor; the mage Raistlin Majere has dealt with a lifetime of physical weakness by embarking on a dangerous quest for magical power; Raistlin's twin Caramon is physically strong, but has invested so much of his life and identity in protecting brother that he's blind to Raistlin's growing darkness. Then there's Flint Fireforge, the group's father figure whose crankiness serves as a bromantic foil to Tasslehoff's good cheer. And they're joined the Plainsfolk Riverwind and Goldmoon, so-called "barbarians" in a strange land, the spoiled elven princess Laurana, and Tika, a barmaid who has been swept up in the action.
That's a lot of characters to balance on the page (or on the screen), but the dynamics work because they are tied together by the bonds of war. These characters can be selfish and foolhardy, but the stakes are so high that they have little choice but to move forward in their campaign. They must function in a familial sort of way, recognizing each other's strengths and negotiating around their weaknesses. And it's their flaws that make them human, that let us recognize who they are—Sturm, an ordinary man who just means to do the right thing, Riverwind, who is proud and protective of his wife above all, Raistlin, who resents being seen as the weaker half of a pair of twins, and Caramon, who isn't sure who he is without his brother—even in a crowded field of characters. That's what lets us weep over doomed characters, shake our heads at foolish ones, rally at moments of true bravery and growth, and sigh over star-crossed lovers. Weis and Hickman may stuff their books with all a sorts of magical creatures and artifacts, but they clearly love their characters and never forget that it's the human(ish) stories that form the series' heart.
Great Female Characters
The core Dragonlance books were co-written by a woman (Weis) and developed with the help of Hickman's wife Laura, and there is no shortage of wonderful female characters running through the book. Granted, two of the strongest female characters, Kitiara Uth Matar and the princess Laurana, are rivals for the heart of Tanis Half-Elven, but their status as romantic rivals isn't what makes them compelling characters. I'll admit that reading the books as a pre-teen, I admired Kitiara, who was sexy and manipulative (and attracted some of the most powerful male characters in the books), but also respected as a military leader and seen as a peer by a mighty dragon. Laurana, however, gets the more significant arc, after starting out as a lovelorn girl with a romantic view of the world. As she is thrust into war-torn Ansalon, however, Laurana proves herself a competent fighter and military leader in her own right, one who watches friends die, who sees herself shunned by her family, but who marches on tirelessly to protect Krynn from the forces of Takhisis. As seductive as Kitiara is, as a young girl I was inspired watching the growth of Laurana.
And they aren't token female characters, not mere metaphors for the appeal of easy evil versus hard-won good. We meet plenty of interesting women along the way: the prideful Alhana Starbreeze, the tragic Silvara, and Tika, who in times of peace is more hearth mother than warrior, but when pressed in action will pick up a knife (or a frying pan) to defend herself and her friends). The women of Krynn are much like the men—no better and no worse. (Although some of them did tend to be a bit less dressed than their male counterparts in the artwork.)
Two Words: Raistlin Majere
The most memorable character from the Dragonlance series, the one whose name is almost synonymous with the books, is Raistlin Majere. Weis and Hickman have often commented the Hickman is better at writing noble characters and Weis better at writing darker ones, and Raistlin is Weis' signature. A lot of readers over the years may have identified with Raistlin to some extent: a frail young man who sought power through knowledge instead of physicality. There is more to Raistlin as a character, however. Among a crew of largely good-natured heroes, Raistlin is delightfully cynical, with eyes that literally show him a withered view of the world. Of all the heroes, Raistlin is the most built for suffering, the one who has the easiest time facing the horrors of the world at war, and he finds a perverse sort of strength in it. Unpacking the mystery of Raistlin—what happened to him during his test to become a mage and what kind of power he is really after—is an intriguing undercurrent of the books, one that left many readers clamoring for more.
On the other hand, despite his aversion to being pitied, Raistlin is a fairly tragic character, one who can't confess to the small bits of beauty he sees in the world. And as despicable as he often is, he has one particularly wonderful moment of softness in the Chronicles, one that suggests that he can swayed by acts of kindness from the lowest of creatures. He's an interesting take on the party's magic user, not a bumbling boy wizard, not a grey old man, and not a noble scholar, but an ambitious young man with a dark sense of humor and a capacity to do what's right—even if it's just a stepping stone to what he really wants. Plus, he's got that cool staff.
Dragons Who Are Fully Realized Characters
A while back, we talked about J.R.R. Tolkien's approach to writing dragon characters, how he sought to create dragons that were creatures with their own personalities, not allegories, not pets, and not mindless monsters. The dragons of Dragonlance are just that—long-lived creatures with their own cultures and personal histories. The series relies heavily on the D&D idea of evil chromatic dragons and good metallic dragons, but Dragonlance doesn't make it quite that simple. Chromatic dragons might be inclined to serve the interests of their goddess, but they can also be scarred by tragedy or serve their own selfish desires. And a great deal of plot centers around the metallic dragons and their reasons for staying out of the war. Plus, the dragons of Krynn experience romance—and not necessarily with other dragons.
Gods and Monsters Abound
Gods are a tricky subject for fantasy fiction; they can come off as cheesy or simply hang about off-screen. Dragonlance takes a rather interesting approach to its gods, letting them interact with the world in a variety of ways—through objects, as malevolent forces in the background, or sometimes, in disguise. More present, though, are the monsters of Krynn, notably the Draconian lizard-men and the death knights of Lord Soth. Some of the most memorable moments in Dragonlance are, in fact, moments of horror—the revelation of what created the Draconians is a key example. And Lord Soth is one of those great, classically styled villains. The undead man in a suit of armor is nothing new, but Soth is played to nicely creepy effect, and he comes with a horrific backstory straight out of a dark fairytale, one filled with wife murder and lost honor. That he's not even the main villain of the piece speaks to Weis and Hickman's ability to balance a host of powerful and terrible characters.
It Deserves Better Than Its Animated Movie
As I mentioned above, Dragonlance has gotten one screen adaptation, the animated film Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Despite a solid voice cast, it's a rather unfortunate movie, blending poorly mixed 2D and 3D animation, and using lazy animation cycles as placeholders where the movie was never quite finished. In an era of stunning visual effects technology, Dragonlance could be adapted in all of its magical, dragon-filled glory. And I hope we don't have to wait forever to see another, better Dragonlance movie come to life.