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Book review: “Moving Pictures” by Terry Pratchett


As Terry Pratchett created his series of 41 Discworld novels, he took his world from a fairly medieval place into modernity through his introduction of a variety of civilization’s great innovative technologies.

These included a form of telegraph, the clacks (The Fifth Element, 1999), the news media (The Truth, 2000), a postal system (Going Postal, 2004), coinage (Making Money, 2007) and railroads (Raising Steam, 2013).

My suspicion is that, in some vague way, Pratchett had plans for bringing still more innovations to Discworld, as, maybe, the telephone, computers and supermarkets.  Alas, he didn’t get the chance, cut down as he was at age 66 in 2015 by Alzheimer’s disease.

In the books he did write about innovations in Discworld, Pratchett brought his usual skeptical eye to the great dreams and pitfalls of such changes to the everyday world.  The introduction of a new contraption often resulted in a crisis of some sort, but, by and large, when the novel was finished, the contraption with all its warts had become part of life for the Discworldians.  (Discworldites?)

Except the innovation that was introduced in Pratchett’s 10th Discworld book, Moving Pictures, published in 1990.


Not benign

As the title suggests, the plot involves the discovery — or was it the re-discovery? — of motion pictures which, in the novel, are called the clicks (for the click-click-click sound the picture-thrower [projector] makes).

The making of clicks takes place in an obscure location where the weather is always sunny and temperate, a place called Holy Wood.  And the click industry makes celebrities of the two central characters in the story, Victor (a self-failed wizard [i.e., he deliberately and annually avoided passing his final test in order to stay in the easy life of school]) and Ginger who has always dreamed of being famous.

This innovation, though, unlike the other ones that are plot points in later Discworld books, is not inherently benign.  Behind it are the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions who are trying to use the Holy Wood magic (very distinct from Wizard magic) to enrapture enough people to enable them to break through into the real world.

Needless to say — since there was an 11th Discworld book — Victor and Ginger successfully keep the Things from doing so, but it’s a close-run thing, and, in the end, the Patrician and everyone else bans clicks forever.  (OK, so sue me for giving away the ending.  Let me just say it’s pretty apparent from the start how the book will end.)


“The legendary Sceptre of Magma”

Why does Pratchett have it in for movies?  Later on, he shows himself to be OK with newspapers and railroads and all those other newfangled contraptions.

He certainly knows movies inside and out as he demonstrates every few pages with a screen reference such as this one to Mae West.

The troll torch singer Ruby smolders through her song at the club, at one point, sitting on another troll’s lap and whispering in his ear. Victor asks his troll friend Rock what she said.

Rock scratched his nose.  “Is play on words,” he said.  “Very hard to translate.  But basically, she say, ‘Is that the legendary Sceptre of Magma who was King of the Mountain, Smiter of Thousands, Yea, Even Tens of Thousands, Ruler of the Golden River, Master of the Bridges, Delver of Dark Places, Crusher of Many Enemies,’ he took a deep breath, “ ‘in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?’ ”


“In your heart”

So, Pratchett knows his movies.  And he knows fantasy, and the movie industry is nothing but fantasy.  However, as Pratchett notes in Moving Pictures, the movies are like a drug; they go right to the brain, weakening the person’s grip on reality:

Books wouldn’t do it.  Even ordinary theatre wouldn’t do it, because in your heart you knew it was just people in funny clothes on a stage.

But Holy Wood went straight from the eye into the brain.  In your heart you thought it was real. 

I think, perhaps, this may have been what got Pratchett turned off to having movies survive in Discworld — the loss of contact with reality.  All of Victor and Ginger’s fans think they know the two.  They think that the two people they see on the screen are real.  But they’re not real, not even to — not especially to — Victor and Ginger.


“Some sort of sense”

One glaring bit of unreality that is transferred from the screen to everyday life is something the Patrician notices when he attends the premiere of a new Victor-Ginger movie and is seated next to them.

They were, he had to admit, a pleasant enough young couple.  He just wasn’t sure why he was sitting next to them, and why they were so important.

He was used to important people, or at least to people who thought they were important.  Wizards became important through high deeds of magic.  Thieves became important for daring robberies and so, in a slightly different way, did merchants.  Warriors became important through winning battles and staying alive.  Assassins became important through skillful inhumations [jargon for killing someone and, hence, requiring their burial].  There were many roads to prominence, but you could see them, you could work them out.  They made some sort of sense.

Whereas these two people had merely moved interestingly in front of this new-fangled moving-picture machinery.

The Patrician had never gone to the clicks before, but he knew, vaguely, that Victor was famous for a smoldering look that “had middle-aged ladies who should know better swooning in the aisles,” and that Cindy, aka, Delores De Syn, was famous for “looking fantastic while lying among silken cushions.”


“For being, well, famous”

I’m not sure if Pratchett ever before or since took the reader into the mind of the Patrician to such depth.  Here, Lord Vetinari isn’t being deviously scheming.  Here, he is truly perplexed.

Yes, it was fascinating.  You could become famous just for being, well, famous.  It occurred to him that this was an extremely dangerous thing…

Even so, amid his puzzlement, the Patrician realized one other thing:

In the meantime, there was a kind of secondary glory that came from being in the company of the truly celebrated, and to his astonishment, he was enjoying it.


Celebrated celebrities

That was written in 1990.  I’m not sure what Pratchett came to think about a certain sort of fame that turned a person into a celebrity, even though the person had done nothing at all — not even a movie.

If he had written about this aberration, he might have called these celebrated celebrities “kardashians” or something.

Also, dying when he did, Pratchett did not see the election of Donald Trump as US President.

Who knows what fun he might have made of that?

There would have been a much greater threat than simply Things coming from the Dungeon Dimensions.  You can bet on that.


Patrick T. Reardon




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