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Words from the wise
on March 21, 2008
Terry Pratchett fans long waited for the transformation of Discworld tales into visuals. Computer games, animations and stage productions were all right in their place, but film adaptations are the mark of success. Pratchett resisted adaptations because most producers "didn't get it". Vadim Jean "got it" and has made the story of "Hogfather" into a fine film presentation. As a TV production, there are limitations and omissions, but these do not detract from the success of Jean's efforts to bring Pratchett's story of intrigue, power and imagination to the small screen.
But what of the newcomer to Pratchett and his Discworld? Will they gain the same satisfaction from the visual presentation of one of the more compelling [and best-selling] authors of the past generation? The DVD opens with a Bang. Not a very Big one, but enough to discharge a wondrous sight - a disc sitting atop four elephants who stand on the carapace ["shell"] of a giant tortoise. The vision certainly imparts the feeling that something unusual will follow. Which it does: a young governess is reading "Jack And The Beanstalk" to a pair of youngsters on Hogswatch Eve. Tucking them in, Susan notes: "If you don't believe in the Hogfather, there won't be any presents." It is the film's key statement.
For the Hogfather has gone missing. This may be because the Auditors of the Universe, who resent life and loathe humans because they're unpredictable, have commissioned Guild of Assassins to have the Hogfather "brought to an end". The Guild's Head assigns the job to a young Assassin, Mister Teatime ["Tee-ah tim-eh, most people get it wrong, Sir."] who has already devised a plan to accomplish it. Teatime gathers a team to put his plan into effect. This scheme starts by kidnapping the Tooth Fairy. Wot?
Meanwhile, across town, the wizards of the Unseen University are experiencing some bizarre events. Strange new beings enter their lives - not entirely strange, however, since they all seem to represent tales of their childhood. Among the wizards is one who has constructed HEX, a "thinking machine". You can tell what it is from the label "Anthill Inside" pasted on one side. Archchancellor Ridcully is suspicious of such devices, but thinks he can make HEX do his bidding by mere shouting.
Throughout these events, an Anthropomorphic Personification, known as Death, feels an imbalance in the universe. Discovering the Hogfather has failed to go out on his rounds delivering gifts, Death dons a red suit, a false beard and, with his assistant Albert, undertakes the role. Death is interested in humans, finding their habits and prejudices fascinating, and he wants to know more about them. The rituals of Hogswatch [Christmas] are but one aspect. Those rituals extend from deep time and are thereby fundamental. Resolution of the Hogfather's disappearance and the Teatime Gang's invasion of the Tooth Fairy's castle are gently woven into the film's concluding scene. There are many threads and the novice Discworld viewer will note there are many levels to the story. That's what turns the first Discworld encounter into a habit.
There are "big names" in this film - listed lead David Jason does a fine job as Albert, while Ian Richardson's voice of Death is peerless. The surprise here is Michelle Dockery, who picks up this film early and keeps it essentially hers throughout. She is relatively unknown, but won't be after this. As a robed "skellington", Death is hardly visually appealing, but Richardson's inflections on Pratchett's text keep us smiling. Unlike many "fantasy" or SciFi films, "Hogfather" relies on little in the way of "special effects beyond Death's character. Some snow stops falling and a few sparkling things are used, but the story is too straightforward to need extra dazzlement. As with Pratchett's stories it's the characters and what they tell us that counts. Watch this and see. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]