Is The Discworld Unadaptable?

In the furthest reaches of space, in one of those second- hand dimensions you will see the, let’s call it peculiar, sight of the galactic turtle Great A’Tuin who, with the help of four elephants on its own back, carry a flat world in the shape of a disc (though their are some on this world that are convinced their planet is a globe and keep falling off the edge in a valiant effort to prove their point.) This madcap world is home to wizards (and one Wizzard), witches (who do all the actual work), the most diverse police force in the known universe (even Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t have gargoyles) and a permanently existentially confused Death. Sorry, DEATH. Millions have seen this sight on beautiful art, bad TV special effects, and in their own minds, but never have we seen this wonderful world on the silver screen. Which leads me to the question of this article: is Discworld unadaptable?

Created by the late Sir Terry Pratchett, Discworld has been adapted a few times before for television, to mostly middling success. There were two animated series in the mid-90s, Soul Music and Wryd Sisters, that are very good as long as you focus more on the jokes, commentary, and themes, than the bloody awful animation. Then there is the Sky live-action productions of Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, and Going Postal between 2006 and 2010. Apart from some spot-on casting (Michelle Dockery is my Susan Sto-Helit), these adaptations have aged poorly in the effects department, while also making Pratchett’s more biting commentary a bit soft and gooey. There is a real feeling that Sky thought these were straight-up kids’ shows rather than the finely balanced art of a family show.

Then, for a long time, nothing. Pratchett died, he – typically – started getting the reverence he deserved (I mean as an artist, I’m aware that he was the best-selling author in Britain for a while), and fans like me were left wondering just how good Helen McCrory would have been as Granny Weatherwax. In the last few years, there have been two further attempts to adapt his work for television: Good Omens and The Watch. Good Omens is a delight, mainly down to the talents of Pratchett’s writing partner, Neil Gaiman stepping in as showrunner which is the best way to ensure the integrity of the work. David Tennant and Michael Sheen are sharp-tongued enough to give it a bit of elbow, but the heart and humanity is still there.

The Watch is not worth talking about. An aggressive point-missing action adaptation of the best cop series ever written, The Watch has been decried by pretty much everyone anywhere close to Pratchett, and with good reason. I feel like the more people that know about The Watch, the more likely it is some bone-headed studio executive will think that this is the way you adapt Discworld. Not on my shift, pal. I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t exist.

So, the TV has mostly sucked, so why hasn’t a big screen adaptation been attempted? Most fans of the novels point to Pratchett’s writing style: mainly his footnotes and stylistic flourishes, that take every advantage available of working through the medium of prose. You can’t translate that kind of magic on screen.

But why should you? This is an argument that has been bugging me for years. Because of the way the book is written, it shouldn’t be a movie? Isn’t that what adaptation is all about, finding a way to move stories between mediums? A Discworld movie doesn’t need to rely on these skills to tell a story. This is a world that plays with the very building blocks of story-telling, so why can’t it play around with cinematic conventions in the same way? I want to see someone fully let loose. Break the fourth wall, play with perspective, get someone like Taika Waititi or Edgar Wright (and here is my never-gonna-happen left-field choice, Miranda July) and let them use every narrative and visual trick in their arsenal. Discworld is malleable enough for this to work. Use film language with the same gleeful and shameless playfulness that Pratchett does in his books – the magic of Discworld isn’t just in the stories or the characters, brilliant as they are, but in the way Pratchett tells them, a celebration of how words and language can be used.

Now for the final and most important question. Where would you start? The Colour of Magic is out, as should most Rincewind stories. I know, I know, I love the cowardly beggar, but he’s too wrapped up in the Sky productions. The Watch is radioactive at the moment, and, while brilliant, the Death, sorry, DEATH, books are a hard sell for an introduction. Which leaves us with the obvious. The Witches, and to make it an easier sell for the kids, make it a Tiffany Aching story.

Just, for the love of all that is good and pure, don’t let Kenneth Branagh direct it. We already saw what he did to Artemis Fowl, and I’m not letting him near another iconic fantasy franchise.

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By Kevin Boyle

(header image via Nerdist)

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