Why The Works Of Terry Pratchett Slither Away From Screenwriters

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As far as on screen adaptations go, those based on works by late author Terry Pratchett seem to be like Marmite; you love them, or you hate them. 

They are either excellent or painfully mediocre, and there has always been plenty of speculation on why this might be—especially given the two most recent attempts, Good Omens (2019) and The Watch (2021). The former has been well-received by fans of the book and new audiences alike, and is widely considered a faithful adaptation of its source material that retains the heart of the text—possibly due to Pratchett’s co-author, Neil Gaiman, being at the helm. The latter, meanwhile, is considered a bewildering butchery of the world that the book was set in. Previously there have been several more attempts, both animated and live-action, to adapt books from Pratchett’s extensive Discworld series to the big and small screen, but none have been particularly fruitful. With this in mind, what exactly makes these works so notoriously unfilmable?

There is no set formula to counteract the hit-and-miss nature of these adaptations, but in order to figure out what’s being done wrong, it might be best to start off with what’s been done right—and to return to Good Omens. Based on Pratchett and Gaiman’s 1990 novel of the same name, the Amazon Prime series has been praised for staying so true to its source material while adding new, unexpected twists. Gaiman deserves much of the praise for this. After his co-author’s passing in 2015 he took up the series for him and put great effort into ensuring the story wasn’t warped or twisted once in the hands of the TV industry.

However, Good Omens‘ success may also be to do with the fact that it is a series with six episodes, each of which is almost an hour long. Many attempts to adapt the Discworld novels have been feature film length or shorter, which is almost never enough time for a novel adaptation. Good Omens in its entirety is nearly three times the length of your average film. In addition, many small notes to explain how things work within the universe of Good Omens (Pratchett and Gaiman were very fond of their footnotes) are kept in via the narration of Frances McDormand, voicing God, throughout the show. A scene or bit of dialogue will happen, and then it will cut to a short aside from her about why something works the way it does, thus making the show less restrictive in terms of the level of detail it can retain from the novel. In addition, there was a larger budget (and more evolved software) with which to create any necessary special effects than would have been available for, say, the failed 1992 attempt at a film adaptation.

Pratchett’s work is extravagant and fantastical by nature, meaning that it is difficult to get an adaptation the amount of screentime it needs. This being the case, it is extremely rare that a series or film of his work is produced that doesn’t have to significantly alter the substance of the story. A reader of Guards, Guards! would likely not be able to view BBC’s The Watch and recognise them as the same characters and world. In addition, the sheer number of his books—many of which interlink in complex ways—means that not all of them get adaptations, and those that do can feel disjointed and confusing as a result. 

A reader who chooses a Discworld book at random can often still get a good idea of the context of references to other novels because, once again, the famous footnotes will explain things. A film or series is often not suited to the insertion of such contextual information, especially if its format doesn’t have room for a narrator. An example of this would be the adaptation of Hogfather (2006). The main complaint about it is that Hogfather is part of another series within Discworld, but it isn’t even the first book in its sequence. Main characters such as Death have significant storylines in the first book in the sequence, Mort, and so many viewers thought it made no sense to adapt Hogfather before Mort. This inadequacy is despite a three-hour duration, proving that even with ample screentime some of Pratchett’s stories do not translate well. They are almost too multi-faceted, so much so that attempts at adapting them are incomprehensible. Although Good Omens neatly navigated this slalom of issues, it would admittedly be difficult for every adaptation to skirt these obstacles in the same way. Much of the heart of Pratchett’s stories lies in the internal monologues of his characters. Introspection is not the easiest thing to show onscreen, especially for multiple characters.

One adaptation hoping to buck this trend is the upcoming 2022 adaptation of The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents, Pratchett’s 2001 novel inspired by stories of The Pied Piper. The first looks at The Amazing Maurice were released in early November, and the fact that it’s animated may serve it well. Live-action Pratchett films, especially those produced before significant improvements in special effects and CGI, all too often end up canning the uncanny. The marketing of The Amazing Maurice as a children’s film means that it is less likely to fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously, a mistake made before. If a Pratchett adaptation fails to make you laugh, it isn’t a Pratchett adaptation. The designs are pleasing to the eye, and the voice cast is intriguing. It’s a relief to see that it doesn’t appear to have been determined based solely on celebrity status, akin to the recently announced cast of the upcoming Mario movie. (Some people out there must have, at some point, woken up in a cold sweat at the idea of Chris Pratt voicing Maurice the cat.) Instead, he’s to be voiced by Hugh Laurie, whose portrayal of Bertie Wooster is memorable for all the right reasons.  Voice actors who can mix silly and serious seem ideal for this adaptation. The cast also includes Himesh Patel as human boy Keith, and the likes of David Tennant, Hugh Bonneville, and Rob Brydon.

With the support of Terry Pratchett’s estate and, clearly, a good amount of care put into the making of the film, we can only hope that it has been put in good hands. Perhaps it can escape the rut past adaptations have fallen into and show the world just how, if at all, Pratchett’s amazing works can find a new life on the big screen.

The Amazing Maurice will leap onto Sky Cinema and NOW on 16 February 2022.

Words by Casey Langton


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