Terry Pratchett’s “The Hogfather”
More freelance film dramaturgy
This is the movie that I’m talking about here–the three-hour miniseries adaptation that the BBC did in 2006 [EDIT! Actually, this was the Sky Broadcasting Network; I do not understand how British TV works], not the book. I streamed it off of Netflix and here’s the thing: it wasn’t very good. But it does bring up some interesting questions/points about the nature of adaptation that I think are worth discussing.
I’m not going to skewer it (though I could, and it would probably be hilarious) because I like Terry Pratchett and so I consider all adaptations of his work to fall under the “Heart in the Right Place” exemption. Considered criticism to follow.
The first problem with this adaptation is that it’s dark and claustrophobic and there’s not really room to do anything on screen except talk to each other. I don’t know if those background are CGI’d or something, or if they just really built very tiny sets for this, and then maybe they didn’t have any lights? Maybe they purposefully made it dark so that you couldn’t tell if the sets were CGI’d? I don’t know, but it was dark. And, as I said, not in a good Ankh-Morpork film-noirry kind of way, just in a way that I couldn’t really see anything, and no one had any space to move.
This wouldn’t be so bad, theoretically — you could make a really good Terry Pratchett movie with a noir sensibility, I think — except for the second problem which is that the adaptation itself is painfully, crushingly slow. Slow like in the old Heinz Ketchup commercials, where the guy puts the ketchup on the top of the building and then runs downstairs and catches it on a hotdog before it hits the ground. Slow like at the end of A Fish Called Wanda when Michael Palin runs over Kevin Kline with a steamroller, and you’re just there laughing at him and yelling at him and talking about how you ate his fish and then you realize that YOU CAN’T GET AWAY and it very lethargically kind of rolls you into the wet concrete.
And Terry Pratchett shouldn’t be slow (for those of you who don’t know Terry Pratchett…ah…I guess think of him as the Douglas Adams of fantasy). Terry Pratchett books are hilarious and you can read them in three hours. I once accidentally read the entire (twenty-some book) series over a weekend at the bookstore when my air conditioner was broken.
The question is, how did this happen?
Here’s the story: The Hogfather takes place on Discworld, Terry Pratchett’s fantasy world that just gives him open license to make fun of anything he wants. The Guild of Assassins is hired to “inhume” the Hogfather (Pratchett’s Discworld equivalent of Santa Claus) on Hogswatch Eve. Death, who likes human beings and is generally nice, if a little emotionally dysfunctional, takes over as the Hogfather while his grand-daughter — Susan — tries to figure out what went wrong and how to stop it. With the help of wizards, the oh, God of Hangovers, and some tooth fairies.
So, you can see that the premise here has a lot of room in it, and the book is hilarious. But one of the things that you don’t notice until someone tries to make a faithful adaptation of the book is that the bit with the wizards? It’s all exposition. It occupies half the narrative and it is, literally, ENTIRELY explanation for what’s going on. You can get away with this in a novel, though, because in the novel there’s narration, and narration can be funny, and if something’s funny, it doesn’t really matter how tangential it is. Funny is a destination, so the audience will forgive you digressing for a page and a half about Bloody Stupid Johnson, the Worst Inventor in History, because it’s funny.
In a screenplay though, you don’t get narration. You can only adapt dialogue (and I may not be remembering precisely, but it seems to me that Vadim Jean, who did the adaptation, ONLY used dialogue that appeared in the book). Which is fine, except that Pratchett as a novelist doesn’t have to make every bit of dialogue funny — he doesn’t even have to make every fifth line (a fairly reasonable pace for a comedy) funny, because he can put jokes in his narration.
Now that the narration is cleaned out, it’s obvious that the Hogfather adaptation just isn’t funny. Or, it’s not funny at a rate that merits it’s three-hour length. Three hours is a long time to listen to wizards talking about congruent reality and the power of belief. There are notable moments — almost exclusively when Death’s servant Albert is trying to explain something about how human beings are, and Death just kind of doesn’t get it — but for god’s sake, it’s a three hour adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel and there are no fucking jokes.
The whole thing is just turgidly serious. Something like this needs to have the same sensibility to it that…that…uhm. Help me out here; what’s a good light-hearted action-comedy fantasy? Aren’t…there’s got to be one, at least, right? Something that’s not some heavy-handed dissertation on the battle between light and darkness? Huh.
I guess most of Labyrinth, if you take out the weird David Bowie singing about Sarah’s dream sequence bit.
Fast, because pace is the most important thing in a comedy, ever. I mean that; you could actually not have any jokes, but if things happen snappily enough, you’ll achieve a similarly euphoric effect. Witty — this is tricky, because you might need to actually ADD LINES to the script. I know you don’t want to do that, because who among us is as witty as Terry Pratchett? No one, obviously; but at the same time, you haven’t really put any of his wit into the adaptation that you have no, and surely our inferior wit is better than no wit at all, right?
And for god’s sake, does it have to be so serious? I know the stakes are high, yes, but jesus shit man, you need to lighten up. The juxtaposition of the serious and the comic is what makes Discworld absurd, instead of simply glib.
Anyway, that’s all for now.