Terry Pratchett’s “The Hogfather”

Posted: January 27, 2010 in Braak, reviews
Tags: , , ,

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.

SLOW.

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.

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Comments
  1. katastic says:

    Oh my God, Braak, I work at RHI, the company that created this movie. Let me give you some insight into the creative process here: IT SUCKS. Everyone at this company, including the CEO, acknowledges that they make terrible movies cheaply, which they then sell off in bulk to networks. The networks are just looking for filler, and buy three or four of these movies at once to air during slow times. It’s a cynical, turgid operation designed only to make money, with the bulk of whatever money is spent going towards marketing, and very little done in the way of creation. They know it’s terrible. They don’t care. They buy up rights to books as cheaply as possible, knock out a quick adaptation, shoot it quickly, and get to work selling it.
    The sad part is that this is one of their better movies. Every day I have to watch snippets of films du art such as “BLOOD MONKEY” and “SHARK SWARM.” They are the bloated tainted bologna-makers, and I am their unhappy meat-chopping assistant.

  2. katastic says:

    TRUE STORIES FROM MY WORK PLACE:

    (CEO walks by, shouting at a subordinate): THAT MONKEY BETTER START KILLING PEOPLE IN THE FIRST SCENE!

    (CEO walks by reception, watches a few moments of movie onscreen): God, this is terrible.
    (Me, lowly assistant): Uh….
    CEO: What IS this?
    Me: (frantically searches for title): Aztec Rex?
    CEO: Is that dinosaur fighting Indians?
    Me:…yes.
    CEO: ……God.

  3. braak says:

    It’s very depressing because, you know, it’s not actually any more expensive to make a good movie than it is to make a terrible movie. It doesn’t even take longer!

    And I’d think that making good (or, at least, not bad) movies quickly and in bulk would be better for their long-term sustainability than making shitty ones.

    We’ve probably had this conversation before, but where do they buy their scripts from?

  4. braak says:

    Listen, wait. BLOOD MONKEY is not an endemically terrible movie. It is not essential to the nature of BLOOD MONKEY that it be terrible. In fact, based entirely on the fact that the monkey needs to start killing people in the first scene and that it is called BLOOD MONKEY, I could make an mind-blowingly awesome movie.

  5. katastic says:

    Listen, you are preaching to the choir. Everyone at this company is deeply depressed. You are presuming that the management here cares at all- at all- about what dreck they produce. They don’t! They just want what sounds marketable, and then they want to hire the cheapest possible people to do it. The CFO walked by my desk the other day talking about how they needed more hot lesbians in movies, lesbians really sell. Evidently decades ago they used to care, made some ‘risky’ artistic choices, lost money, and now they’re just about making a product as quickly and cheaply as they can, with maybe one “blockbuster” (read: still crappy but with slightly more expensive CGI) a year so that they can submit themselves for awards. They don’t care! They PROFOUNDLY do not care if they make good products, because they care about the numbers in which they sell them, not the products themselves. They would produce hamster-squishing porn if it were profitable!

  6. braak says:

    Hmmm.

    Okay. But do they commission scripts? How much do they pay for them?

    Because, seriously. I could write BLOOD MONKEY in three days.

  7. katastic says:

    They have one guy at the company who bangs out a fair number of the scripts- the others are all farmed out to people they’ve worked with before, who work very very quickly and cheaply. Imagine- some writer, somewhere, gets to write movies as illustrious as “Merlin the Magical Puppy!” and “I was a Teenaged Hamlet!”

  8. katastic says:

    They’re not currently looking. Trust me, I could write “Aliens in the Wild Wild West” high and using only crayons.

  9. braak says:

    God damn it. Now all I want to do is write BLOOD MONKEY.

  10. katastic says:

    You should feel free to assist me at my job fetching cups of coffee for semi-famous actors at the nadir of their professional careers.

  11. braak says:

    I’ll get right on it, as soon as I finish my job being a professional shakesperean actor.

  12. braak says:

    I am imagining that the theme song to BLOOD MONKEY would be a remix of the B-52’s “Rock Lobster.”

  13. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I’d watch an RHI film knocked out of “The Braak et Holland Sweatshop of Scriptwriting”. Just saying.

  14. jck b. quick says:

    Interesting dissection, but I wouldn’t be much of a pedant if I didn’t point out that it was SKY, not BBC, and that there are now 40 (!) Discworld novels. We should only be so lucky that the BBC held the rights to Discworld adaptations. Sigh.

    I’d also like to point out that Hogfather is a masterpiece compared to the absolute crap that was the adaptation that followed, The Colour of Magic/The Light Fantastic. Where does one even begin describing it? One doesn’t, except to say don’t see it .

    There is a third one in the works, this time Going Postal. Like Hogfather (unlike CoM/LF) it initially looks promising, but that is purely on account of the actors involved, like Richard Coyle, Tamsin Greig, Andrew “Manuel!” Sachs and David “Poirot” Suchet. I’m sure it will be proportionally as bad as the other adaptations, but at least those actors will keep us amused. David Jason failed to do so in CoM, and how the casting people managed to bollocks up the casting of David Thewlis as Rincewind I will never understand (I tell a lie, I get it; they’re both named David. Cue Frisky Dingo “Hunter”-clip). Also, what if they decide to do an adaptation featuring both Albert AND Rincewind? The mind boggles!

    And katastic, condolances.

  15. katastic says:

    Dude, RHI also made “The Colour of Magic”, and is making the third one.
    It is going to be terrible.

    Run. Run far away.

  16. katastic says:

    AND TODAY, they laid me off. So double fuck them.

  17. braak says:

    TRIPLE FUCK THEM.

    Now I have no compunction at all about trying to make sure that no one ever watches any of their crappy movies, ever again.

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