Dungeons & Dragons began life as a role-playing tabletop game played with a bunch of dice and a bunch of imagination. Since then, its influence and reach has been seen in all kinds of tabletop expansions, role-playing computer games, excellent Community episodes, and yes, a particularly reviled big screen adaptation starring a very shouty Jeremy Irons. Now, a new take is coming to television, which feels like a particularly appropriate medium for such a lore-drenched, multi-faceted world as D&D. And our own Steve Weintraub spoke with the man behind it: Derek Kolstad.
Kolstad (John Wick, Nobody) is approaching the project, developed through Entertainment One, Hasbro‘s film studio, with a deep reverence for the fantasy genre, citing favorites like Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even D&D novel offshoots like Dragonlance. But Kolstad‘s take on the D&D material — the series bible of which he delivered to eOne the day of Weintraub‘s interview — will have a much narrower scope than these mammoth properties with mammoth worlds. As Kolstad put it, “I want to do a tinier sliver of that world. And it’s been a joy.”
Kolstad explained why he wants to keep the series’ focus intimate and character-driven, comparing it to other classic franchise-starters like Star Wars and First Blood.
“In the first Star Wars, you heard about Jabba the Hutt and you don’t see him until the third one because you earn at that point, and whatever the budget was for the third one compared to the first one, who cares, right? And I think in Dungeons and Dragons, who has this massive, dedicated community of acolytes, I don’t want to suddenly throw everything on screen and say, ‘Here’s the buffet.’ You’d much rather keep the story intimate. When you think of our favorite movies, I’d rather do the First Blood version. It’s a guy in the woods being hunted. And it’s very small, but you allude to the other things through conversation. You have your USS Indianapolis [in Jaws], you see something in the background. You hear a name that 3% of the audience is like, ‘Ho ho, I think we’re going to see him soon.’ I think the thing is just to take a deep breath, to go into it slowly, and to just respect the world, and as you adapt, certain things need to change. But you better not touch the heart and soul of why people love this thing.”
Kolstad went on to explain the kinds of changes he is willing to make to the series, especially as it relates to his current series bible: “I stick with macro at this stage in the game, because this thing is such important IP, you have to be malleable. And so I’ll stick to my guns when it comes to the characters and certain aspects of the world, but as to the story, by the time you start shooting, you throw away the bible going, ‘Hey, it got us here, but now look where we are.’ And you have to rebuild.”
But this isn’t the only D&D screen adaptation in the works. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Game Night) are directing a feature film version of the material starring big movie stars like Chris Pine. It doesn’t worry Kolstad, however, saying that “you want everything to succeed because that’s only good for the franchise as a whole… if it’s this massive spectacle at a quarter billion dollars that does well, great, because I want my show to exist in a little, little subset shadow of it.” Kolstad also explained why he’s leaning into TV’s room for quieter, character-driven drama without the need for constant action: “In TV, you get to pause. And let’s be honest, our favorite episodes of our favorite series tend to be the one where they ran out of money, and it’s two guys in a room. It’s the bottle episode, and they talk, and they go deep, and they say, ‘I am the man who knocks,’ or whatever the classic line is that I can’t remember right now from Breaking Bad. Those are your favorite moments. Action is action, and we’ll get to that, and it will be cool, but when a guy says or does a certain thing, that’s where TV has its strong point.”
Thus far, Kolstad has indeed been ideating on the macro level of his series, stating that the first season will likely have six to 10 episodes, he likes the Disney+ approach of episodes that have “breathing room that it doesn’t have to be a certain number of pages or certain number of format length” like The Mandalorian, that it will be “a serialized show, much like the old radio,” and that his first and second episodes are more specifically planned out within the overall Season 1 arc (“Here’s the first episode, and I think the first episode of any series is the second most important because it’s the second episode that gets its talons in you. Everyone will watch the pilot, but are you going to stick with it?”).
Kolstad also revealed that he isn’t sure what the series title will be (“I don’t know. The document is a work in progress, I just call it D&D”) especially given the logistic and legal hurdles with the feature film take on the material that will likely just be called Dungeons & Dragons.
But does he know anything specific about characters, setting, or plot moves?
Kolstad cited the many legal meetings he has to have to see what characters are actually available in his playground, especially given the shifting rights situations with that Dungeons & Dragons movie. But he did reveal that when it comes to many of the big events D&D fans know and love, he doesn’t “want to go in the middle of the mythos. I want to come near the end where everything is canonical, it’s biblical, it’s happened. Or, it’s about to happen. That way you can revisit certain sequences and storylines that everyone loved in the past through flashback, but where we go is new. The unique yet familiar of it all is why we return to the games we love.”
Kolstad also gave one possible detail for where his show might take place, saying that he wants to “go deeper and deeper into the Underdark.” D&D fans will know that the Underdark is a specific setting within the mythology, a series of connected, underground, globally-spanning tunnels and bridges that is often home for many shadier, more nefarious, more magically intimidating, and obviously more hidden adventures for enterprising Dungeon Masters to create. Is Kolstad being literal here, saying his show will take place in this Underdark and feature the kind of subterfuge-laden creatures, interdimensional sewer doors, and sneak attack-using rogues that often populate this environment? Or was he simply using a colloquialism from the world to describe how deep he wants his undefined show to go?
Until we find out for sure, go ahead and roll an anticipation check for me…