Last week to my surprise and delight, I discovered that Hogfather was out on DVD. I hadn’t been aware that any of Terry Pratchett’s novels had been turned into films, and given the very positive reviews on Amazon and no easy way to rent it, I bought it. This, it turns out, was a mistake.
The Hogfather DVD is amazingly, phenomenally, mind-boggling bad.
Perhaps bad, even with all those adverbs, isn’t strong enough. Hogfather is horrible. Tedious. A crime against the book. Worse, it doesn’t even manage to be the good kind of bad (where the badness is in itself entertaining). I had to force myself to watch it all the way through, and I couldn’t do it in a single sitting.
At least some of my disgust with the movie comes from the fact that it’s not a movie. It’s a made-for-TV special. Perhaps if I’d been watching sitcoms and soap operas for a week or two and then watched Hogfather, it would be a lot more appealing. Unfortunately, as a rule I don’t watch TV. The closest I come is popping in my Arrested Development DVDs.
Despite my too-high expectations, though, it wasn’t low-budget special effects that ruined Hogfather. It was the fact that the movie completely failed to capture the book.
For anyone who has seen the DVD, this may seem an odd statement. The Hogfather DVD is very faithful to the book (the consistent comments in Amazon reviews to that effect were a big reason I bought it), which would normally make me overjoyed. I despise movies that abandon the books from whence they came (assuming it’s a book I’ve read and loved, that is). I practically can’t watch Howl’s Moving Castle. I loved Stardust, but was all but cursing as I walked out of the theater because of the Hollywood ending.
And yet Hogfather, which sticks fantastically close to the book, is nigh unwatchable.
I’d never thought about it before, but there are two things that a movie adaptation of a book needs: 1) the important details, and 2) the soul of the book.
Terry Pratchett’s work is exuberant, vivid, slapstick, witty, action-packed, and above all fun. The Hogfather DVD, although it got the witty dialogue right, completely missed out on the vivacious core that makes Terry Pratchett’s novels such great reads.
In any given scene in the Hogfather DVD, the actors stand around and talk. If they want to be threatening, they stand really close to each other and talk (“Ooh, I’m calling the personal bubble fairy!” *glingleglingleglingle*). Sometimes they do something while they’re talking, but not very often. Albert (Death’s helper) tries unsuccessfully throughout the movie to roll his own cigarettes. Not surprisingly, Albert is one of the best characters in the movie because he is capable of concentrating on two things at once.
I can only think of two times in my life when I have stood perfectly still (or close to) and talked to someone. Once was in debate class in eighth grade. The second time was during my brief stint as an actor in my final year of high school.
Why is it that mediocre actors think that conversation is about standing still? Human existence is, for the majority of people, about movement. We do things with our hands. If we’re feeling threatened or stressed our muscles tense up (and you can see that in every minor movement we make, even if we’re trying to stand still). Even if our mind is wholly engaged with a fascinatingly witty conversation, our body is up to something.
Terry Pratchett’s characters in the books are constantly moving. Even if there is an extended dialogue sequence, the reader still imagines the characters doing things, because Pratchett is a master at breathing life into spots of ink on a page.
What the Hogfather DVD spectacularly failed to do was capture this living movement. I’m not sure if it was bad acting or bad directing (I suspect both, with a bias towards directing), but the most exciting action in the show (apart from the badly animated CGI pigs) was people walking from place to place (and, in one memorable moment, walking from place to place while a building collapses around their heads; heaven forbid you should run to save yourself). Because the DVD is three hours long (two one and a half hour segments) you’re liable to fall asleep if you try to watch the whole thing in one go.
I could go on. There were innumerable other bad decisions that led to Hogfather being such a spectacular failure. The bizarre materializing beehive hairdo (which ruined the one attractive actor in the movie). The voice effects applied to the Auditors. The choice of Hogfather at all (while arguably the book with the best insight into the human existence, it’s far from Terry Pratchett’s best book and certainly not an easy one to translate to the screen). The fact that everything took twice as long as it needed to in order to fill the time.
There are some books where taking the time to present all the details works. The BBC six hour Pride and Prejudice special, for instance, is a good example (don’t ask how many times I’ve seen it; two younger sisters, ‘nough said). Of course, it had a better cast, as well, which can make all the difference.
Terry Pratchett’s novels deserve better treatment. Getting the dialogue and plot details right isn’t enough. Perhaps it isn’t even preferable. When a movie completely fails to capture the creative spark that’s animating the book, it doesn’t matter if it got every detail right; it’s still going to be a terrible adaptation.
I do not recommend Hogfather at all, even to die-hard Pratchett fans. People who haven’t read the book will be confused by the seemingly random rules of Discworld, while those who have will be forced to endure a lackluster attempt at capturing Discworld on film. Maybe someday a decent Terry Pratchett adaptation will arrive, but that day is not today.