I’ve written before about the difficulty of translating Terry Pratchett’s funny, witty, silly, insightful, wacky and clear-eyed novels into other art media.
A year and a half ago, I saw a wonderfully entertaining version of Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment at Lifeline Theatre here in Chicago, but I’ve been underwhelmed by television and feature-length movie versions of several of his books.
What worked with the Lifeline presentation was, first of all, that it was a top-notch production with a great amount of talent and gusto. Also important, I think, was that it was on stage with real human beings moving through the story. Unlike a television show or a movie, a play doesn’t purport to be realistic. These are people here in front of another set of people, the one group pretending to be someone else and the other suspending disbelief to pretend that the characters of the story are actually there in front of them.
The problem with television or movie versions is that, by their nature, they seem realistic, even if told from a fantasy point of view. In a stage play, we see people pretending to be other people, but, in a video version, the people on screen seem like the people in a documentary. We’re looking at them through a window, as it were, rather than sharing the same room with them.
This is significant for the translation of a Discworld novel since Pratchett, in no way, is attempting to depict anything real in terms of plot — although the actions of the characters are all rooted in Pratchett’s deep (and very realistic) understanding of human nature.
What’s worse is that all of the video versions I’ve seen have had very low production values. I imagine the translation might work a bit better if there were particularly good special effects. Even so, there wouldn’t be the let’s-pretend ambiance that exists with a stage play.
Actually, now that I think of it, making a Discworld movie more realistic with special effects might undercut the unbelievability that is at the heart of Pratchett’s plots. Think of it: Discworld is a flat, round Frisbee-like thing flying through space on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a humongous turtle. How believable is that? If special effects made it seem believable, would the result still be a Pratchett story?
What’s worst is that, in Discworld videos, Pratchett’s authorial voice is absent. After watching the TV versions of Hogfather and Soul Music, I’ve come to realize how critically important Pratchett’s running narrative is.
These video versions have characters that move through the story, but so much of the Pratchett experience has nothing to do with the plot. It’s about how Pratchett tells the story and comments on the story and comments on his characters and comments on all of us in the human tribe.
Consider the opening lines of The Light Fantastic:
The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure if it was worth all the effort.
That has nothing to do with plot, and everything to do with the author’s voice and particularly skewed perspective on reality.
In The Discworld Graphic Novels, here’s how the Light Fantastic section of the story begins:
The Discworld Graphic Novels work much better than the video versions of Pratchett’s books because this medium permits the inclusion of Pratchett’s voice in telling the story.
This graphic novel version of Pratchett’s first two Discworld books — The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic — was originally published in four parts in 1992-1993, and republished in a single hardcover volume in 2008.
Adapted and illustrated by Scott Rockwell and Steven Ross and some associates, this book is, of course, a very visual translation of Pratchett’s books. However, the form not only permits but also expects a goodly amount of narration, and the Rockwell-Ross team pours much of Pratchett’s best lines into those narrative boxes.
As far as I know, none of the video versions of Discworld stories employs a narrator. But, even if I’m forgetting a few opening and closing words, the only way for this to work would be to involve the narrator as a major presence throughout every minute of the screen time. That’s not the way movies are made. At least, not usually.
I’d be interested to see someone try to give life to a Discworld book on screen with the heavy use of a narrator, but maybe that would only work if the production didn’t have actors on screen but was peopled by ‘toons.
Or maybe only if Werner Herzog were the narrator. Now, that’s a fantasy!
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is a great deal of the science fiction-fantasy experience that is geared to appeal to teenage boys — and those of us with some amount of teenage boy within us.
That’s why so many of the covers of sci fi-fantasy novels, and so many of the inside pages of sci fi-fantasy graphic novels, have to do with slinky-looking temptresses, warriors, priestesses and so on.
Pratchett’s early Discworld books explored this territory pretty thoroughly although, as the series went on, he felt less and less need to provide this particular sort of titillation to his readers. The Discworld Graphic Novels builds on Pratchett’s descriptions in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic to provide a sextet, as it were, of such slinkiness:
They are, clockwise from the upper left, Bethan, Liessa, Death’s daughter, Druellae, Herrena and Lady (whose last name can’t be said or she will immediately disappear).
Those who were adapting the books created these images based on Pratchett’s mildly prurient descriptions, such as this one for Liessa, the blood-thirsty daughter of the sorta-late king (he’s dead but not exactly) of a kingdom where dragons are war horses:
[Her hair] was red, flecked with gold. Erect, Liessa Wyrmbidder was entirely a magnificent sight. She was also almost naked, except for a couple of mere scraps of the lightest chain mail and riding boots of iridescent dragonhide. In one boot was thrust a riding crop, unusual in that it was as long as a spear and tipped with tiny steel barbs.
Even as he provides such descriptions throughout the book, Pratchett also pokes fun at these slinky conventions of sci fi-fantasy when he brings Herrena, a redheaded woman-mercenary into his story. In The Light Fantastic, he writes:
Now, there is a tendency at a point like this to look over one shoulder at the cover artist and start going on at length about leather, thighboots and naked blades.
Words like “full,” “round” and even “pert” creep into the narrative, until the writer has to go and have a cold shower and a lie down.
Which is all rather silly because any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn’t about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialized buyer.
Oh well all right. The point that must be made is that although Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan would look quite stunning after a good bath, a heavy-duty manicure, and the pick of the leather racks in Woo Hun Ling’s Oriental Exotica and Martial Arts on Heroes Street, she was currently quite sensibly dressed in light chain mail, soft boots, and a short sword.
All right, maybe the boots were leather. But not black.
And how does The Discworld Graphic Novels deal with this moment in the story? By using nearly all of Pratchett’s words and a relatively restrained image of Herrena:
Living in my head
Of course, with a graphic novel version of Pratchett’s two books, there is the odd sensation of seeing people who have been living in my head suddenly shown in full color on the pages. And, usually, they don’t look as I’d imagined them.
Here are two characters — the Luggage and the Patrician:
That’s just exactly the way I pictured the Luggage, but, when it comes to a trunk with a hundred feet, I’m not sure how else it might be depicted.
The Patrician is another story. As shown in The Discworld Graphic Novels, he’s a pale, youngish, clerkish-looking sort of fellow, though scary in his way. I’ve always imagined the Patrician as more middle-aged with longer hair, character lines on his face, a bit world-weary, and with a ruddiness that hinted at an athletic, military past.
By contrast, Rincewind, the central character of Pratchett’s first two novels, is depicted in these graphic novel versions as older and more competent than he is in my mind. I envision a pretty callow guy whose personality is filled with simple cowardice — a sort of non-character character (like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield in Dickens) who provides a weak nexus for the cross traffic of wildly vibrant personalities.
Any visual version of a novel is going to be jarring to some extent since it takes the very personal relationship that a reader has with a book (that happened to be produced by another human mind at some time in the past) out of the reader’s mind.
Now, with the presence of pictures, the story becomes much more literal. Instead of each reader having a personal image of, say, the Patrician, there is a common image that is on view for anyone and everyone to see and accept. There’s really no option to reject this image, short of not reading the graphic novel or watching the video.
To my mind, these graphic novel versions of Pratchett’s books are superior to any of the video presentations that I’ve seen. That’s because they weave in much of Pratchett’s narration.
But, of course, to enjoy the full pleasure of his narration, all one has to do is read one of his Discworld novels, and let the place and the people take root inside your imagination however you may imagine them.
Patrick T. Reardon