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Dungeons & Dragons Ruins Lives in Tom Hanks’ First Lead Role

Mar 8, 2024


The Big Picture

Tom Hanks began with minor film roles before achieving legendary status, with his first lead role being in the 1982 made-for-TV film
Mazes and Monsters
.

Mazes and Monsters
was influenced by a moral panic around Dungeons & Dragons during the 1980s, with Tom Hanks’ character suffering from mental illness due to a roleplaying fantasy game.
Despite the dark ending of the film, Hanks went on to enjoy a successful career and the beliefs regarding the dangers of D&D have been debunked.

Tom Hanks has had an incomparable acting career and is truly a legend in the industry, beloved among households for his countless exceptional performances. The multiple Academy Award-winning actor has turned in memorable performance after memorable performance, capable of captivating audiences, whether he’s portraying a stranded castaway, a diligent FBI agent, or an endearing rom-com lead. As one of the quintessential movie stars, it’s hard to picture Hanks as anything other than an acclaimed and successful actor, but even Forrest Gump had to start somewhere. Though it’s been lost underneath the mountain of critical and commercial success, Hanks’ first few film roles weren’t exactly clear indicators of the career that was to come.

Hanks first appeared in a low-budget slasher film released in 1980 called He Knows You’re Alone, but he became the lead for the first time in a made-for-television picture, Mazes and Monsters. But even the most ardent Tom Hanks fan may not be familiar with the film, and that’s because of its niche and complicated history and subject. That’s because Mazes and Monsters wasn’t just an ordinary TV fantasy movie — it was a “moral panic” reaction to the popular role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, based on sensationalized stories about the demonic dangers of the game, meant to dissuade viewers from ever picking up the dice and character sheet. The film’s success in this pursuit, as with many other movies released with the same goal, was mixed-to-inconsequential, but even though Mazes and Monsters never halted D&D from becoming wildly popular, it still served as the starting point for one of the most illustrious careers in all cinema.

Mazes and Monsters Peter Brooks is a hard-working, hard-up college student whose dislike of women attending college weakens under the amorous advances of spoiled socialite coed Joan Madison.Release Date December 28, 1982 Director Steven Hilliard Stern Cast Tom Hanks , Wendy Crewson , David Wysocki , Chris Makepeace , Lloyd Bochner , Peter Donat , Anne Francis , Murray Hamilton Runtime 100 Minutes Writers Tom Lazarus , Rona Jaffe

What Is ‘Mazes and Monsters’ About, and Who Does Tom Hanks Play?
Mazes and Monsters was a straight-to-television movie based on a book of the same name by author Rona Jaffe, released in 1982 and inspired by sensationalized news stories released a couple of years prior. Though unlike the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series released in that same decade, Jaffe’s story held a wildly different opinion of the game. The film follows Robbie (Tom Hanks), a college student entering a new school, as he befriends a trio of classmates who ask him to join their Mazes and Monsters group. Based on D&D, Mazes and Monsters is a fantasy roleplaying game filled with, well, monsters and mazes. Robbie’s new friends include Jay-Jay (Chris Makepeace), Daniel (David Wallace), and Kate (Wendy Crewson), the latter of whom Robbie begins dating as they get closer. However, despite its initial levity, the game soon bleeds into life in a way that is darker than Robbie’s friends could have anticipated.

Robbie’s history with Mazes and Monsters is revealed to have been complex and detrimental to his mental health, as he was kicked out of his previous school for obsessing over the game. While playing with his new friends, Robbie becomes inundated with bad dreams about his missing older brother and eventually suffers a mental break that causes him to genuinely believe himself to be his character Pardieu, a magical and devout cleric. When the group makes a foolhardy decision to play the game in the service tunnels underneath the school, Robbie hallucinates monsters that he cannot see, becoming so entrenched in his character that he cannot split fiction from reality.

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The self-destructive behavior continues as Robbie breaks up with Kate to maintain Pardieu’s vow of celibacy, then suddenly goes missing. Still believing himself to be Pardieu, Robbie travels to New York, where his hallucinations only get worse. When he is accosted by muggers, Robbie mistakenly believes them to be monsters and stabs one of them with a knife. His friends are able to track him down due to a map Robbie had left in his room, and catch up to him thanks to a moment of clarity that Kate is able to leverage while they are on a payphone call. His friends find Robbie on the roof of one of the Twin Towers, about to jump off in order to reach the fictitious “Great Hall,” but Jay-Jay is able to talk him down by asserting his authority as the “Maze Controller,” the dungeon master of the game.

Why Did People Think Dungeons & Dragons Was Evil in the ’80s?

Mazes and Monsters is a time capsule into an intriguing and shocking period in Dungeons & Dragons history, as the public perception and opinion of the game in the 1980s was wrought with sensationalized stories and panic from certain groups. D&D was accused of being dangerous to its players, harmfully indoctrinating them with “demonic” influences and witchcraft. Though there was no tangible evidence of the game’s negative influence, it was falsely correlated to several real-life tragedies that occurred in the decade. Examples of suicide and violent crime were associated with the game simply because people involved had a history of playing the game, largely ignoring the other extenuating circumstances that often affected those peoples’ lives.

The most notable of these stories was that of James Dallas Egbert, a Michigan State University student who had gone missing and became the subject of nationwide fascination. A private investigator, William Dear, investigated Egbert’s disappearance and put forth the idea that the student’s self-destructive behavior was connected to playing Dungeons & Dragons. Dear himself later asserted that he did not believe D&D had anything to do with the case, but the idea had already run rampant as news stations began reporting sensationalized stories about the dangers of the roleplaying game.

Rona Jaffe, the author of Mazes and Monsters, based much of her story on sensationalized media reports of Egbert’s disappearance. While Robbie’s obsession with Mazes and Monsters is the obvious parallel, Jaffe had also written Jay-Jay with several traits taken from Egbert’s story. Egbert was a prodigious student who was studying computer science at university at just 16 years old and had spent time exploring the steam tunnels underneath the school while fantasizing about D&D. Egbert didn’t pass away in the tunnels, despite university service tunnels soon becoming an urban legend, but a number of complicated mental health issues sadly led to his passing by suicide just a year after he was found. Organizations such as Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) continued their campaign against the game, even going so far as to appear on 60 Minutes in conversation with D&D creator, Gary Gygax. But despite all the negative press, sales of the game actually grew, and in the coming decades the TTRP would evolve from a niche gaming community to an internationally popular fantasy staple. And thankfully, despite criticisms of the game, continued studies by the American Association of Suicidology, the US Centers for Disease Control, and Health and Welfare Canada have asserted no identifiable link between D&D and suicide.

‘Mazes and Monsters’ Didn’t Have a Happy Ending — But Tom Hanks’ Career Did
Image via Paramount Pictures

Keeping in line with the movie’s intention to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of D&D, Mazes and Monsters does not conclude with a happy ending for Robbie. Though he was saved by his friends from jumping off of a skyscraper, Robbie never recovers his sanity and continues to believe himself to be Pardieu. Living with his mother in a more rural house, his friends visit him and are discouraged to see that their friend is forever gone, and only Pardieu remains. They play out Robbie’s fantasies one last time to slay monsters with him until the sun sets, though they will forever lament the loss of their friend. The movie remains a complicated piece of fiction, both for its inspiration from a loose set of facts from a real-life missing person case and its portrayal of the dangers of D&D. Robbie and each of his friends are introduced bearing serious interpersonal and emotional issues with their families that ultimately affect their actions more than the movie ever admits. While Robbie’s obsession with the game is vilified, it’s hard to believe that his home life with an alcoholic mother and controlling father aren’t also serious causes for his poor mental health.

But while the movie’s ending was bleak, Tom Hanks’ career was fortunately spared from being lost before it began. Despite much of the silliness of the role, Hanks still turned in the most exceptional performance of the film, from its more comedic moments to the genuinely heartwrenching. The ensuing decades of success for Tom Hanks leave little more to be said, as he went on to star in countless successful films, received multiple awards and recognition, and became one of the most beloved actors in cinema history. Dungeons & Dragons, as well, wasn’t foiled by the moral panic movies attempting to tear it down in the 1980s. The game continued to grow in popularity, spawning a trilogy of cult classic movies, a variety of actual play content, and one of the most enjoyable films of 2023, with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Mazes and Monsters is available to stream on Peacock in the U.S.

Watch on Peacock

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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