(In Eight Easy Steps!)
Terry Pratchett is fond of making light of the attempts to turn several of his Discworld novels into films, with most initial proposals described as coming from people with too much money and not enough sense, or the opposite.
Despite nearly 40 novels – not to mention annotated companions, stage adaptations, maps, cookbooks, short stories and several science books – and over 80 million sales, we’re yet to see any genuine attempt to adapt one of Pratchett’s books into a film.
There was the failed Terry Gilliam adaptation of Good Omens – which might’ve kickstarted a cinematic interest in Pratchett’s stories (Gilliam reportedly had found a way to film footnotes) – and then came the handful of made-for-TV adaptations which seemed to take all the silliness and ramp it up to twee while missing the narrative urgency that Pratchett books deliver.
So, in the spirit of Mark’s earlier post about the stalled Dark Tower adaptation, I offer without prejudice – as I would dearly love to be proven wrong – here’s why I think the stars will never align for a successful cinematic adaptation of a Discworld story.
1. It’s too damn big
The books are nothing if not encyclopedic. Gradually, with each installment, Pratchett has filled out his disc-shaped world (on the back of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space) with all manner of wizards, witches, vampires, werewolves, dwarves, trolls, dragons and golems, as well as guilds of assassins, thieves, seamstresses, clowns, and the most comprehensive depiction of a police force you’ll ever see in a fantasy series. It’d take a very good director (and a stack of money) to even hint at the depth of thought Pratchett has put into his Discworld.
2. Where to begin?
Anyway you look at it, it’s difficult to know where to start. Chronologically wouldn’t make much sense, unless there’s a director wanting to plan a 40-film franchise. So the next bet would be to look for pre-existing sequels or trilogies within the series.
There are ongoing narratives across the books, but ultimately each one deals with its own story, and its own protagonist. Should they choose one major character and film their story? Vimes could get a good deal with Guards! Guards! kicking off a sequence of eight novels, or Granny Weatherwax starting in Equal Rites (although more officially in Wyrd Sisters) and carrying on her begrudging way for at least six major novels.
There are the wizard novels, usually featuring Rincewind and his collection of wizard university academics, though frankly I find these the least interesting of the Discworld series.
3. The trope factor
Pratchett plays with the tropes of the fantasy genre endlessly in his books. There is an element of his stories that requires an active participation of the reader to know at least the basic tenets of fantasy stories, and this translates perfectly on the page. On screen, however, it might not work the same. Cinema fantasy has its own traditions and tropes, and no doubt this is the process of adaptation – not just translating but transforming according to medium – but I feel the essence of what makes Pratchett’s stories work might be lost.
Pratchett’s books are celebrated continually for their humour. The term ‘Pythonesque’ is thrown around a fair bit. Sometimes with merit. It’s difficult to imagine Granny Weatherwax jump-starting her broomstick in Witches Abroad without feeling a connection to Michael Palin clip-clopping coconuts together in The Holy Grail. Somehow, it feels as if the only way to do true justice to Pratchett’s humour in a film would be to throw a bunch of amateurs together on a shoestring and watch them improvise. Polished effects and a substantial budget might do more harm than good.
5. Real life fantasy
Though the Discworld series clearly falls under the fantasy genre’s umbrella, his readership is not limited to only those who read fantasy. (Interestingly, Pratchett claims his readership increased when the book covers changed, arguing that the earlier Josh Kirby covers turned a lot of non-fantasy readers off.)
However, lately Pratchett’s books have become increasingly focused on the real day operations of the Discworld’s citizens – Going Postal was all about the burgeoning postal service, The Truth was about the first newspaper. The Watch novels have also shifted from men defending a city against dragons to remarkably poignant depictions of a middle-aged father struggling to balance the perils of work with his home life. All in all, the stories become problematic, from a marketing perspective. How could you sell it as a film?
Death pops up as a character continually in the books, often peripherally but occasionally he gets his own starring role (Mort, Reaper Man). This in itself isn’t a huge issue, and the character is ripe for humour and drama, but Death’s presence in the books is so tied to how it’s written on the page (running jokes across books, ALL CAPITALS DIALOGUE), it’d be a challenge to render cinematically, other than the obvious big guy in a cowl with James Earl Jones by way of Christopher Lee doing the voice.
Incidentally, Mort was rumoured to be adapted at one point, until the producers requested they drop the death angle. And let’s be honest, Hollywood doesn’t have the best record at films concerning Death as a character.
7. Breaking free of the books
In the end, because the books are so comprehensive, and have covered so many different types of plots, it’d be a challenge for a director to create a film that utilised the Discworld characters and setting, but broke new ground with its own original plot. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, but would run the risk of just feeling like a warm-up for those that want to read the books – a trivial bit of fun.
8.It probably suits TV better
Despite my complaints about the TV adaptations – which seem to have had a target audience of 8 year olds – most of the books would fare well given a longer-form TV treatment. Certainly the grittier novels of the last few years would work perfectly as TV fantasy, and this certainly seems to be what Pratchett thinks himself. He had previously bequeathed the continuation of the books to his daughter Rhianna – now she is reportedly writing the TV series The Watch, taking the crime-of-the-week approach to the Discworld, and Terry Jones is also apparently involved. Which sounds brilliant. Not sure about the ‘Terry Pratchett does CSI’ tagline though.
With The Watch going ahead, it appears future film deals are less likely, and television seems to be the preferred (and confirmed) medium.