If we did this right, then by now both Jamas over at The Truth Behind and I will be blogging on the same topic, the 1982 made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters. The movie has gained infamy for two things: firstly as an early entry in the oeuvre of two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, and secondly, as a memorable adjoinder to the great Satanic panic episode that accompanied the mainstream entry of Dungeons and Dragons into popular culture. Adapted from the book of the same name by Rona Jaffe, it takes its inspiration from the real-life story of James Dallas Egbert III, a Michigan State student whose disappearance into the university's steam tunnels and later suicide were investigated and later documented by private detective William Dear in his book The Dungeon Master.
I discovered the whole shebang wildly out of order, having played the game at fourteen through sixteen, discovered Dear’s book in, of all places, a roadside diner near Lake Ohau in ’86 (I didn’t buy it, though the dust jacket blurb was intriguing, if a little sensationalist), and then the movie itself, played on local TV around 1993. I also saw, before all of these, the Wizards and warlocks episode of Greatest American Hero; which was surely inspired by the Edgar incident but remains, I’m afraid, complete bobbins, even if it did get me into the game in some form. Most recently, I discovered my father-in-law has the movie, as a double pack with a portmanteau National Lampoon-style series of shorts called Loose Shoes and billed as a Bill Murray movie. At $4 from the Ashburton warehouse it’s a steal, but the transfer is the worst I’ve ever seen, with a poor picture quality and often indecipherable audio. It all adds to the mystique, I guess.
Mystique of course is something the early game had in spades, especially down here in NZ, where its press was almost non-existent, relegating one’s discovery of it to browsing in bookshops, or the subject of school gossip. Oh, there was gossip. And regional TV provided an interesting primer when it ran a news article on the phenomenon in 1982 or so. As much as we protested, the rulebooks of course did cover demons and devils – the AD&D ones at least, and the concept of assuming the personality of a fictional character and playing with lots of strange dice but no board? With no clear winner? It genuinely baffled my parents and older relatives, and I loved it for that. It made the game my own, a private world I could share only with my friends.
M&M’s conceit, borrowed from the case of Egbert is that a player of in-movie-analogue Mazes and Monsters, already traumatised by the childhood disappearance of his brother, “flips out and freaks out” during a Live Action Role Playing version of the hitherto table-bound game. Hank’s level-headed character Robbie (something of a dark horse as you’d be expect his erstwhile Egbert-like and serial hat-wearing fellow player JJ), has a nervous breakdown culminating in hallucinatory episodes, and him assuming the personality of his Mazes and Monsters character. Absconding to Manhattan to look for the ‘Great Hall’ (his absent brother Hall), endures some harrowing scrapes before making his way to the top of one of the World Trade Centre towers and… and… well, I’m not going to tell. Suffice it to say, it’s an area of the movie that happily doesn’t replicate the real life story of Egbert, and happily doesn’t speak for the experiences of most players of Roleplaying games I grew up with. For what it’s worth, our little band of teenaged adventurers did go through adolescence and roleplaying at the same time – real life is nightmarish enough at that age. And a couple of us struggled with the reaction the game had provoked in the more fervent (US) Christian literature, as we were churchgoers (the same can be said for our choice of music, of course). But our encounters with the game were much more mundane to be any sort of movie, even a made for TV one.
But having said that, the movie is at least neutrally inclined toward RPGs in that it doesn’t present the game maze and monsters as the cause of Robbie’s breakdown, although arguably the high stress environment of its play-acting episode could be construed as some form of catalyst. By comparison, Egbert’s steam-tunnel escapade has been attributed to external influences outside of his roleplaying – for Rona Jaffe it’s easy to see how the two elements (dungeons and dragons and real-life tunnels and mystery!) could make for a compelling combination. In her world, Mazes and Monsters is a pretty far out game:
And Mazes and Monsters is a pretty far out kind of movie. Silly in a lot of places, with amateur acting I many scenes (hanks shows early form though), and far too many hats. One to watch with a liquid friend or two, perhaps. I don’t think it deserves the scorn and ridicule heaped on it by the RPG community over the years, poor things. We can’t blame the writer for such a hackneyed analogue of D&D in her movie; Spielberg was no better, and it might help to view ‘movie’ RPGs as needing the same necessary ‘oomph’ as Hollywood OS; when the reality is mundane, who wouldn’t film a more exciting version? Incredibly, for a fictional game with very little on-screen detail, someone’s actually made a playable clone, complete with Mazemaster screen and playing board. Cool!