Wednesday, December 27, 2006


The (long-)awaited television adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather was shown on SkyOne in the UK on December 17th and 18th. Part One was the most successful SkyOne production ever, with 2.6 million viewers. Part Two wasn't quite so successful, but 1.5 million viewers is nothing to sneeze at.

Thanks to the miracle of bittorrent remote viewing, I managed to watch Hogfather in the comfort of my home in Australia, many weeks before it is due to be broadcast here.

As a huge fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, I was looking forward to this programme, but not without a certain amount of trepidation. What if they mucked it up? You might not be able to make a Savile Row suit out of hessian sacking, but the best materials in the world won't help if the tailor can't sew.

So, with great relief, let me say that Hogfather didn't suck. Nor did it blow. It didn't even bite. Am I damning the show with faint praise? Yes and no -- it could have been better, but it was good enough that I wasn't disappointed. I give the first episode a generous B- and the second a conservative B+, for an overall mark of B, or if you prefer, a Distinction.

To my mind, the highlights of the show were Marc Warren and Michelle Dockery as Teatime and Susan. Warren's Teatime was off-putting and disturbing in all the right ways. So many people have commented on the similarities of Warren's performance to Johnny Depp's version of Willy Wonka that it would be amiss of me not to do so as well. Teatime's Wonka-esque voice, the inappropriate laughter, and the skewed way he looked at the world made the character so much more than just another nasty bad guy. After Warren's excellent role in the Doctor Who episode Love and Monsters (an episode I didn't especially like, but that's another story), he is certainly an actor I'll be watching out for in the future.

Likewise, Michelle Dockery was excellent as Susan, although probably a little more attractive (roaw!) than Pratchett's concept. Well, it is television, and the conventions of television are such that the female lead must be a hottie. Fortunately, Dockery is not just a pretty face: she can act, and succeeded in capturing the essence of Susan: slightly put-upon, slightly more than slightly annoyed, determined, independent, and a real Hero despite her wish to be "normal". Unwilling she might be, but when a job needs to be done, you won't find her wanting.

I was pleased that they managed to capture Susan's wild and uncontrollable hair without going for the crazed dandelion look of Paul Kidby's drawings.

Death was amazingly believable. Ian Richardson, who did the voice of Death, did a truly excellent job. I had always imagined Death as speaking like James Earl Jones (Darth Vader) on steroids, but Richardson's performance won me over. The 6'7" Dutch actor who played death, Marnix van den Broeke, did a fine job: Death moves likes an animated "skellington" should, animated without being alive, every movement deliberate and careful. And Death of Rats was as cute as a tiny skeletal rat could be.

David Jason's portrayal of Albert was also well done. It wasn't the Albert of Pratchett's novels, who is edgy and quite nasty and on the side of good for purely selfish reasons, but it was an Albert. A gentler Albert, like the slightly disreputable kindly uncle you wished you had, a bit of a chancer but still a rough diamond, and always good for a laugh. So not the terrible head of Unseen University from the days when being a wizard meant using magic to turn your enemies into wisps of slightly greasy smoke.

The choice to play Albert as comedy relief actually did work, but it did mean that one of the great lines from the book fell completely flat in the movie. In the book, when Albert introduces himself as the pixie "Uncle Heavy", there is genuine menace in it. In the movie, it just comes across as pathetic. Good ole Albert trying to be tough? Don't make me laugh. As wonderful as the line is, it should have been left out of the movie.

And that illustrates one of the problems with the film adaptation: it followed the book too slavishly at times, which meant that those poor benighted souls who have never read the book would often be confused. Adapting a novel for the screen requires more than merely cutting entire scenes because they won't fit within the time constraints.

Take the introductory voice-over, about the Big Bang and the Discworld, which was taken virtually word-for-word from the novel. In the book, it worked. As a narration, yawn. Especially since it was repeated on the second night.

It was disappointing that so many wonderful scenes from the book had to be left out, like the old boots and shoelaces. Of course you can't fit the entire book into a three-hour movie, but I'm sure there are many gems on the cutting room floor, and even more that never even made it into the script. That's why it is such a pity that the entire narration was repeated at the start of part two. Between the "Previously On Hogfather..." recap, and the repeated narration, episode two lost all of eight minutes. Eight precious, precious minutes, which would have been more than long enough for the beggars' feast. Programmes like Buffy and Battlestar Galactica manage to run through their "Previously on..." in under a minute, and they sometimes show scenes from two or three years previously.

And what was with the narration "a midwinter festival bearing a remarkable similarity to your Christmas"? Breaking the fourth wall works when it works, but breaking it to insult the viewer's intelligence does not work. ("What? The Hogfather is like Father Christmas??? Who would have guessed?")

But I don't wish to pick at every little weakness of the show. It is enough to mention a few of the things that could have been done better. Some of the scenes felt like they were being performed on a stage instead of filmed for television. The two media are very different, and what works on the stage doesn't work on television. Nigel Planer overacted in his role as Sideney the wizard, treating it as pantomime instead of television. So did Tony Robinson in his minor role as department store owner Crumley. The actor playing Medium Dave Lilywhite was merely adequate, but Chickenwire was grossly mishandled. Chickenwire in the novel is supposed to be a vicious criminal, streetwise and tough. We saw virtually none of that in the movie. At least Medium Dave looked tough; Chickenwire didn't even do that much.

The wizards, sadly, were mostly played as doddering, frightened old men, especially in the first half, without capturing any of their magisterial greatness, or their argumentative personalities. They improved slightly in the second half, and Archchancellor Ridcully did a fine job in both episodes. (Like Albert, Ridcully wasn't quite the Ridcully from the books, but he was a Ridcully.) So did Ponder Stibbons, and Hex was a fine piece of the filmmaker's art. It was amazing how much emotion a Rube Goldberg machine and an animated skeleton can put into a conversation. And the Eater of Socks was very well done indeed.

I prefer to emphasise the glass half full, so I'll say no more about the flaws. I liked the show, despite them. The minor characters of Violet and the Oh God of Hangovers were done very well. Death's final confrontation with the Auditors was filled with real power and emotion. For a skeleton with no facial expression, Richardson and van den Broeke made Death come alive, pun intended. They came close to the remarkable performance of Hugo Weaving in V For Vendetta, and I consider that high praise indeed.

In my opinion, Hogfather is one of the more difficult Discworld novels to adapt to the screen. It has a number of intertwining subplots and is more explicitly philosophical than many other Discworld novels. To really get the best from the story, the reader needs to know the characters of Susan, Death and Albert from previous books. SkyOne were aiming very high by choosing Hogfather as their first Discworld production. Having aimed so high, it isn't so surprising that they fell short of perfection, but what they accomplished was well worth watching. Let's hope that they will learn the right lessons from this, and the next Discworld movie will be better still, with a bigger budget, and a director who will do things my way.

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