Adaptation, Inspiration and Mutilation
Is it me, or is it a bad sign that nothing in this picture looks remotely funny?
A recent tweet by Rhianna Pratchett, (https://twitter.com/rhipratchett/status/1292573726194704385) , 'clarifies', to use an euphemism, the relationship between forthcoming series The Watch and the beloved Discworld novels of her father Terry. Whatever Rhianna's exact views on the subject (which I do not know and will not assume), it's fair to say that the fan reaction to this rather drastic re-interpretation of the characters has been heavily negative.*
Among the more dramatic changes are the fact that Lady Sybil Ramkin has gone from being a classic 'battleaxe' noblewoman, middle-aged, heavily-built and not particularly attractive, to being a young, athletic-looking and strikingly beautiful woman. Cheery/Cheri Littlebottom is now non-binary, which is if anything the exact reverse of the original character who starts off as an apparently male Dwarf (complete with beard) and 'comes out' as female. (Whether Cheery is even a Dwarf in this interpretation remains to be seen.)
The Patrician is now also a woman, an oxymoron which I suspect Terry might have found funny and possibly even would have done himself at some point.
We also need to look at the weasel-words being used about the series. Calling it 'inspired by' the books, rather than based on, seems to be being used as a sort of carte blanche to change things. (Though in Rihanna's case it's more to express some distance between the project and the source material, if I read it correctly.) My concern here is that I would call my own books 'inspired by' Ghost In The Shell and Dragonlance (among others) but I don't use that as an excuse to call my main character Motoko Kusanagi and have her go to a world called Krynn, nor do I own the rights to do so. If you're lifting character names and key ideas from an existing IP, in my view you've exceeded mere 'inspiration'.
There's probably an entirely separate discussion about what exactly The Watch** might be trying to achieve here. Certainly some decisions, such as a non-binary Cheery and the fact that Sybil's actress also happens to be black***, feel like they could have been made to allow critics to be easily labelled as racists or, erm, whatever the word for people who don't like non-binary people is.**** But instead of that, I thought I'd look at the difficulties of adapting the Discworld books 'straight'.
We've seen several attempts at this over the years. Some of the most successful are the stage adaptations by Stephen Briggs- I had the pleasure of seeing “Guards! Guards!” in this format, starring Paul Darrow as Vimes, and it was an absolute joy. It's tempting to suggest that simply filming these with modern production values and some tweaks might be the way to go.
If you don't know why that was awesome casting, go watch Blake's 7 right now.
However, the biggest issue with adapting the Discworld seems to me to be that so much of the humour is in the writing- more specifically, in expositionary writing and footnotes. So much of the world-building and description is implicitly funny whilst describing something that visually isn't. This problem plagued the TV adaptations made by Sky, which despite having the budget to cast actors like David Jason often weren't able to be consistently funny.
I hate to say it because he looks perfect, but David Jason was too old for a young Rincewind.
To be clear, it's not that they weren't funny at all or weren't entertaining or mangled the story- it's simply that shorn of Terry's writing, they mostly elicited the odd chuckle rather than making me fall off my sofa with laughter, a feat the books achieve regularly.
From a 2015 project to post a picture with our favourite joke. Imagine trying to film this one!
An interesting parallel is The Hitch-hikers' Guide To The Galaxy, which again relies on expositionary writing for a lot of its jokes but gets around the issue by using the device of the Guide itself, most famously in the legendary BBC TV adaptation with animated segments voiced by Peter Jones. Douglas Adams, having originally written the story for radio, was a master at tweaking the humour and the story to fit the various different formats, be they print, radio or television, though the movie version is generally regarded as the weakest.
We could also look at the Cosgrove Hall animated stories (Soul Music and Wyrd Sisters). Mostly better received than the Sky adaptations despite a somewhat limited artistic style, they still suffer the same issue in that the humour feels diluted.
The voice performances, such as Christopher Lee's Death, are a consistent highlight, however.
When we consider these less-than-perfect adaptations though, there's one thing they all have in common. Whatever changes format caused to be made, whatever jokes were omitted, they felt like they were trying to be faithful to the source material. There's a lot to dislike in Zack Snyder's infamous 'Watchmen' movie but ask any fan of the original graphic novel what they hated, as opposed to disliked, about it and there's a good chance they'll say The Squid. Like the Discworld adaptations, Watchmen fell short when it tried to directly replicate the source material, but only inspired actual anger when it chose to change it.
That, and one of the worst sex scenes in cinematic history
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good example of the opposite approach. Comic-book fans, in particular those of Marvel and DC, have got used to the idea of alternate versions of their favourite characters. They're quite happy to read 'what if Superman were Soviet' or 'What if Wonder Woman wore trousers'***** but superhero movies only truly became a world-conquering force when Marvel Studios took the bold(!) move of actually making the movie versions of their characters recognisable as the same people in the comics. Do that, and fans will tend to wear quite a few artistic liberties, so long as it feels like the originals are getting the respect that they deserve. (A discussion of why the DCEU has so far mostly failed to replicate this success, and why on TV the situation is almost diametrically reversed, is beyond the scope of this piece.)
With one notable, and stunning, exception.
This is a point that bears repeating- these are characters that absolutely do deserve respect. The Colour of Magic came out in 1983, almost forty years ago, and there were 41 Discworld novels all-told, not counting tie-in books. Just like Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman, there's stuff in the early books that later evolved- a more malevolent Death who has demons working for him, a borderline-cackling Granny Weatherwax- but that's the point. Just as Wonder Woman no longer uses bondage as a plot device and Batman has (mostly) stopped shooting people, these are characters who have been refined into icons. Whilst a screenwriter may well be able to come along and adapt a one-off novel and make some tweaks, doing so to such long-established and well-known characters is practically guaranteed to get fans' backs up. The Star Trek franchise has had its problems recently, but it's notable that even the harshest critics of the JJ Abrams movies or of Star Trek: Discovery will generally admit that the depiction of returning characters like Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Captain Pike was well handled- for the simple reason that both actors and writers approached those characters respectfully. (One of the few changes they did choose to make, having Sulu be openly gay, was even criticised by original actor George Takei for not being true to the character, despite he himself being gay.)
We could even look at Shakespeare here. There have been many productions of Shakespeare that move the setting of the stories around, such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, change the races and/or genders of characters, and more, but it's generally only those which actually try and change the core of the Bard's work that tend to meet with intense criticism. Luhrmann's film, for example, cleverly uses TV news anchors as the Chorus and has guns made by a company called 'Sword', allowing the original dialogue to be used verbatim in a modern-day setting.
This, I feel, hits the heart of the problem with The Watch, a problem it shares with the most recent Fantastic Four movie among other things. When the writers of an adaptation come into such a long-established and well-loved world and start making radical changes to it and the characters, it inevitably feels like a criticism of the originals. This is almost certainly not the intention, but when a writer those long-term fans have never heard of suddenly seems to think that they know better than Terry Pratchett the resulting reaction is both predictable and inevitable. What's particularly tragic here is that there's every possibility that the show itself, which is apparently a sort of CSI:Discworld story, will be perfectly watchable and a lot of fun. It's just a shame that rather than create their own new characters to slot into Terry's world the creators have chosen instead to unrecognisably warp the existing ones.
I'd still also be a lot happier if someone in that promo pic was smiling.
* Based on what I've seen. It's entirely possible that someone, somewhere thinks this is all a great idea, but I've not seen them say so.
** Someone is going to start calling it “The Woke” at some point. I hope I didn't just give them the idea.
*** Ironically the change that is the least bothersome, given that the races of most Discworld characters other than human/ dwarf/ troll etc are barely ever mentioned.
**** Other than 'arseholes'.
***** OK, maybe not so much that second one.