Appellate Judge James A. Stewart hopes Terry Pratchett's next novel features Death playing Cupid to save Valentine's Day.
"It's a time when humans are really human—and they don't want a skeleton at the feast."—Susan Sto Helit, to her grandfather, Death, at Hogswatch
Terry Pratchett's Hogfather is sort of a belated Christmas present for me. Back in 2005 when we did Christmas wishes here at DVD Verdict, I asked Santa for Discworld movies. Suddenly, there was one in the works. Thank you, Santa—or perhaps the Hogfather—for this present. Now, let's proceed.
If you haven't read him yet, Terry Pratchett would best be described as a sort of successor to Douglas Adams, except that Pratchett has been a lot more prolific, writing more than thirty novels about Discworld, a flat earth that rides on the back of a giant turtle, and selling around 55 million books in the process, by Agence France-Presse's latest count. By the standards of anybody but J.K. Rowling, he'd be considered a successful author. Pratchett has had a lot of fun with the conventions of fantasy novels and, by now, just about everything else. Hogfather, for example, takes its shots at myth and Christmas traditions, but also manages to take aim at Miracle on 34th Street, Doctor Who, and The Little Match Girl, among others.
Hogfather is drawn from one of Pratchett's novels that features Death as a protagonist (other major heroes include the wizard Rincewind, witch Esme Weatherwax, Ankh-Morpork Watch commander Sam Vimes, and, most recently, stamp inventor Moist von Lipwig). As the villainous, shadowy Auditors put it, "Death gets worse and worse. He seems to like humans. How illogical." While Death is a part of almost all of Pratchett's writing, offering good news and bad news to the newly deceased, these novels show the "anthropomorphic personification" trying to understand and, often, protect humanity. He does this with the reluctant help of his half-human granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit. If a memory of William Hartnell's Doctor Who, who traveled time and space with his granddaughter Susan, flickers through your brain now, it's probably intentional; the popular sci-fi serial would be a natural target for Pratchett parody.
In Hogfather, Death takes a holiday. Let's see what he does with it.
Facts of the Case
"It was the night before Hogswatch…"
Wishing to lead a normal life, Susan Sto Helit has taken a job as a governess in the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, content to deal with little problems like monsters and boogeymen—by clubbing them with her trusty poker. She asks her charges if they believe in the Hogfather, the jolly fat man who brings presents to all good boys and girls on the Disc.
"Does it matter if you get the present anyway?" Susan inquires.
"Yes," young Twyla answers.
"If you don't believe in the Hogfather, there won't be any presents," Susan wisely answers.
Meanwhile, the Auditors are preparing for Hogswatch by contracting with the Assassin's Guild to "inhume" the Hogfather. "He must exist. How else could you so readily recognize his picture?" one of the Auditors asks Lord Downey, the head of the guild.
Downey has just the psychopath for the job in the person of Teatime (Marc Warren, Hustle), pronounced "Tee-a-tim-eh." The up-and-coming assassin has actually considered the question of how to "inhume" the Hogfather, the Soul Cake Duck, and even Death. "Only as a hobby," he acknowledges. The first step in Teatime's master plan is to kidnap a Tooth Fairy (they're franchised!) and head for the Tooth Fairy's storybook castle.
Soon Susan hears cries from a child's drawing, gets an unwelcome visit from the Death of Rats and his raven buddy, and finds Death himself (voiced by Ian Richardson, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) paying a call, in the Hogfather's familiar red outfit. "The Hogfather is…unavailable," Death tells Susan.
The skeletal figure warns his granddaughter not to intervene, but you can tell that he needs—and wants—her help. Just as easily, you can tell that Susan will don the black garb of the Deaths, stop time, and ride to the Hogfather's castle of bones on Binky, Death's white horse, to find out what's going on.
As a four-hour production for British TV, Hogfather stays fairly close to the book in terms of story and characters, but there's a different feeling to it overall. In print, readers are in control—if they can control their laughing at Pratchett's asides, comic observations, parodies, and wordplay. On screen, when there's a director and actors in control, the story takes on a more dramatic tone. Pratchett's humor is there throughout, and I found myself laughing a lot at lines like Death's "I don't normally care if they've been naughty or nice," but the emphasis is on the story and the action. It seemed like a few funny lines were sacrificed to preserve the story's flow, but the end result works well.
Marc Warren steals the show as the villainous Teatime, sounding perfectly childlike and innocent as he casually discusses offing enemies and committing unnecessary acts of violence during assassinations. Even so, he's got a lot of competition. Michelle Dockery plays Susan as unflappable in the face of both the lethal and the absurd; there even seems to be a little bit of Death in her deep voice. Ian Richardson voices Death with a sense of awe toward humanity that brings home the Auditors' concerns about him, and has good rapport with Dockery and David Jason (A Touch of Frost) as Albert, Death's assistant and smoking, drinking temp elf. While there's lots going on, it's the debate between Albert and Death about the meaning of the holiday that forms the backbone of Hogfather. Good performances bring to life less central characters such as Banjo (Stephen Marcus, Angela's Ashes), the slow-witted member of Teatime's team; the clueless Archchancellor Ridcully (Joss Ackland, Mad Dogs and Englishmen) and the nerdy Ponder Stebbins (Ed Coleman, 28 Weeks Later) at Unseen University; the Oh God of Hangovers (Rhodri Meilir); and Nobby Nobbs (Nicholas Tennant, Oscar and Lucinda), a member of Ankh-Morpork's Watch who has a small part here but plays a larger role in the Discworld series.
There's a dark, gloomy look to much of the miniseries, but that seems to be part of the production design. The halo effect I noticed in a scene near the end wasn't, however, so the transfer could be better. The score came across well here, managing to convey both holiday spirit and an ominous sense simultaneously.
For an extra, you get an interview, roughly 20 minutes long, with the lad himself, Terry Pratchett. He talks about the Discworld series, how he meant to deal with "what makes us human" in Hogfather, and meeting Death ("figuratively speaking") on his first day on the set. When he did this interview, The Colour of Magic, the second Discworld movie now in the works, was just a hope. I liked the interview, but it would have been nice to hear from someone involved in the TV production on how they dealt with the book. There's also a trailer, which introduces the Discworld to newbies and gives fans a chance to see what the characters look like on screen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Is Discworld Victorian or medieval? Nobby Nobbs' armor and crossbow had a definite medieval flavor (as I personally was expecting), but the rest of the production seemed Victorian. Probably every fan has an impression of Discworld in their mind, and no production can match all of those impressions exactly.
If you've got wee ones, there are a few moments that could potentially send a kid diving behind the couch in terror, as Brits brag about doing when they grew up with Doctor Who.
Some of the plot twists in the second half of the miniseries will feel a bit like the Doctor's cliffhangers, since they rely on the powers that Death and the not-quite-human Susan share, and Teatime's lack of understanding of those powers. They also keep going and going since, as Death puts it, "There is always time for another last minute."
As you might have guessed, I'm rather addicted to Terry Pratchett's novels, and am happy to see a filmed version that keeps their spirit. If you're not a Pratchett fan but have enjoyed Doctor Who or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you should like Hogfather.
I write this shortly after Pratchett gave half a million pounds to efforts to find ways to deal with Alzheimer's Disease, according to Agence France-Presse. Pratchett has announced that he is dealing with early Alzheimer's symptoms; it made a few quotes about the strange world in his head during that interview seem surreal. Like most Pratchett fans, I wish him the most successful fight possible—and a continued streak of Discworld novels. Selfish, to be honest, but Pratchett's writing brings joy into the world for millions of readers and makes life that much easier to cope with.
Not guilty. I've finally found a skeleton I'd invite to a holiday feast.
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• Interview with Author Terry Pratchett
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