today’s mental writing exercise
This is totally cat-vacuuming — it’s unproductive speculation on something that probably won’t ever happen, and even if it did, I certainly wouldn’t be involved — but I started it on my walk to and from the post office, to keep myself occupied, and it’s an interesting exercise in thinking about story structure. Spoilers for the video game Dragon Age: Origins follow below the cut.
How would you go about making DA:O into a movie?
It’s possible someone will try to do this; after all, Hollywood loves adaptations, especially in the hideously expensive spec-fic genres. They like to start from a pre-tested foundation. So when you have a very successful high fantasy game built on a strong narrative base, you have a property that somebody will at least think about adapting.
The first thing you have to do, of course, is cut the thing down to size. DA:O takes about 60 hours to play on the short end; my own run-through went for over a hundred. Of course, a lot of that is monster-mashing, but presuming this is a single movie rather than a trilogy, you still need to hack practically everything out of it. So good-bye to the filler content, i.e. the Chantry board quests, the work for the Mages’ Collective and the Blackstone Irregulars, and the companion quests, along with most of the companions. Fantasy may love its Motley Band of Heroes, but you don’t need a whole herd of them. Alistair and Morrigan are the only ones who are structurally integral to the plot; they’re the ones you keep.
You also, I think, have to cut the treaty quests. If you try to include them in reduced form, their plot-coupon nature will be stripped of its disguise, because you’ve taken away everything that makes them more than just items on a checklist. So no Paragon of Her Kind, no Nature of the Beast, no Circle of Magi. At most, I think you keep the Arl of Redcliffe line, minus the Urn of Sacred Ashes detour — interesting as that is in game terms, the High Dragon kind of dilutes the impact of the Archdemon, and it complicates the plot unnecessarily. You also probably eliminate Conor’s Desire Demon, and just stick with the poisoning of Arl Eamon. But maybe not even that.
So what you’re left with now is: recruitment, Ostagar, Lothering, Denerim, Landsmeet, Final Battle. That’s a much more manageable skeleton to work with. Now we pause for a moment and think about where we’re beginning, and where we’re ending.
Ending first. Presuming you stick with the game material rather than pulling something out of your ear (which you could do), there are four options for how to gack the Archdemon. Morrigan’s ritual, quite frankly, I think is impossible. Sketchy sex magic to turn her unborn child into an Old God? NOT HAPPENING. You can’t have the Warden do the honors (presuming a male hero); it’s too dubious. Can’t really have Alistair do it for the same reason. Loghain could, but then the conclusion of the plot has been taken away from the protagonist. So it’s going to be a Warden’s death instead, and the question is which one. Heroic self-sacrifice is a powerful choice, but I doubt Hollywood would do it, especially if they want the option of making a sequel. Alistair could die if you have a male Warden marrying Anora (since of course you need to resolve the kingship issue as well), but personally I favor Option C, Loghain. Rewrite things so Loghain’s made a Warden without Alistair leaving the party, then have an argument between Alistair and the protagonist as to which one of them will go down in flames, but at the last moment Loghain redeems himself Darth Vader-style. (Maybe because of a scene with Anora — if you sell us on the idea that he cares what she thinks of him, he could be motivated to do the right thing. Or make convincing him be the protagonist’s job.)
A lot hinges, though, on who the protagonist is. And that’s probably the big challenge of this adaptation; DA:O deliberately leaves that mostly open, because they want to give the player as much freedom as possible. This works well in a game, but not so well in a movie. So before you can answer the question of screenwriter toddalcott (“What does the protagonist want?”) you have to figure out who the protagonist is.
Well, which origin are we going with? I’m thinking not mage; you’ve already got Morrigan in the party, and the only time I can think of that I’ve seen wizard-as-hero is when everybody’s a wizard (e.g. Harry Potter). If we’ve chopped out the treaty quests, it seems random to go with either of the elven or dwarven origins. Which leaves a human noble, and that works well, because it gives a personal motivation to go alongside the more general one of “stop the Blight”: the protagonist wants revenge on Arl Howe, who betrayed his/her family on Loghain’s orders.
His or her? I’d love to see this done with a female Warden, and it adds a nice bit of pathos to our hypothetical ending: Alistair trying to insist he’ll be the one to die to save the woman he loves, her trying to do the same thing for him, and then Loghain does the right thing to make up for all his crimes and you end with heroine and king living happily ever after. Unfortunately, Hollywood would almost certainly point to Morrigan as sufficient female presence in the movie, and go with a male Warden instead. A male human noble fighter (seeing as how a backstabby rogue is not sufficiently heroic, especially when there are no treasure chests to be picked open), out to get the guy who murdered his family.
But hell, this is my hypothetical screenplay, so screw Hollywood. I hereby decree that our protagonist is Teyrn Cousland’s tomboyish daughter, and Arl Howe will rue the day he let her survive.
The difficulty of that origin, of course, is that it’s a weak justification for becoming a Grey Warden. Unlike (say) the city elf or mage, recruitment doesn’t save the heroine from being executed for her crimes. And becoming a Grey Warden sort of screws over her ability to inherit the teyrnir, what with the infertility thing, but you probably have to sweep that under the carpet regardless given that any way you slice it, you’re ending up with a Grey Warden King at the end, and maybe a Queen, too. So you probably have to rejigger the origin entirely — maybe she doesn’t know who’s responsible for the betrayal, or it’s staged in a way to make her look like she’s to blame, and the only way to save her is for Duncan to conscript her.
From there, your through-line looks like this. Zip through the Korcari Wilds stuff; at most, have the heroine and the other two recruits collect their darkspawn blood as part of their test. But get to the Joining ritual as fast as possible, with maybe a cameo entrance by Morrigan somewhere in there. Then the Battle of Ostagar — OMG, Loghain’s betrayed us — then rescue by Morrigan, leaving her mother out of it. Once the heroes have recovered, head for Redcliffe, intending to tell the sympathetic Arl Eamon that Loghain’s lying about the Wardens having betrayed Cailan. Arriving there, they discover that oh noes he’s been poisoned; maybe bring in a demon here, but have it be linked to Jowan, who’s (of course) in Loghain’s pay. Fix that problem, and tell the recovered and grateful Arl the truth about what happened at Ostagar. Onward to Denerim, having to dodge Loghain’s people along the way, because now he knows two Grey Wardens have survived, and is trying his damnedest to get rid of them. Somewhere in there, bring up the fact that Alistair is Cailan’s illegitimate half-brother; this could happen before or after Redcliffe. Oh, and there should be encounters with the darkspawn, too — basically, create a sense that all the world other than Arl Eamon is out to get them, and that their time to stop the Blight is running out. In Denerim, stage some variant on the Rescue the Queen quest, and get useful information about Loghain from Anora; also perhaps gack Arl Howe along the way. Then a nice exciting scene where our heroine confronts Loghain with his crimes, using the Arl Howe thing, info from Anora, and proof of what happened at Ostagar. (As opposed to the way the game runs it, where bringing up Ostagar actually hurts your cause, because then it’s he-said/she-said.) Duel Loghain — of course you have to duel Loghain — defeat him, turn him into a Grey Warden, and then have the Archdemon attack Denerim, without the Redcliffe detour. Morrigan possibly makes the offer of her ritual, especially if you set her up as a dark-horse ally, somebody you’re not entirely certain you should be trusting; if the screenwriter is efficient enough (and you de-psycho-bitchify Morrigan enough), you could even have the heroine worry earlier about Morrigan’s designs on Alistair. But the ritual is rejected, and then Loghain sacrifices himself at the last instant (after the heroine and Alistair have brought things to the brink), and Ferelden lives happily ever after.
I’m not sure that plot’s actually condensed enough to fit into the time allowed, and a lot would depend on the smaller details weaving everything together. You’ve also lost a great deal of what makes the setting interesting — the qunari, the history of the Chantry and the Tevinter Imperium, the elves as an oppressed underclass, the dwarves’ situation in the Deep Roads, and most notably the issue of where darkspawn come from. I do think you could have an encounter in Lothering, on the way to Redcliffe, where the Chantry and Templars try to grab Morrigan as an apostate; that would let you bring in the problematic mage situation, while also expanding her as a character. Possibly there could be another scene or two of that sort for the more important bits, like the darkspawn origin. But working all of that out would require taking this exercise way past the point of an afternoon’s entertainment, so I’ll leave it where it stands.
Thoughts? Addenda? Would you be interested in a Dragon Age movie, if they made one and it didn’t look like complete crap?