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‘The Watch’: adapting Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the most beautifully crafted, funny and insightful fantasy series of the last century. Over the course of 41 books, Pratchett introduced us to a wide range of characters, cities and absurd situations taking place across a flat disc-shaped world. The world sits atop four elephants standing on a giant turtle that flies through space. As is the case with many popular works of fantasy, film and TV producers have looked to bring it into their particular mediums, with mixed results.

Discworld is hard to bring to the screen for various reasons. One of them is that the joy of reading the books is often in the writing style itself which cannot easily translate to the screen. Pratchett’s character observations, descriptions of bizarre customs and frequent use of hilarious footnotes adds so much to the text. Without an equally impressive visual language, his books translate to meandering slogs on-screen. Structurally, the books are winding and do not easily fit into the three-act structure. They contain many digressions and are often so imaginative that depicting them on screen without the greatest of budgets, which would never be allocated to such a project, leads to disappointment. 

Efforts in live action include The Colour of Magic, Hogfather and Going Postal, all made for TV and having the budgets to make that obvious. There are also animated efforts such as Soul Music but these were also made without the money to bring the work to its full potential. None of these films have been exceptional: at best, they’re functional case studies as  to why Pratchett is hard to adapt and may be best left alone.

With the right budget, format and vision it seems that Pratchett can be adapted successfully

However, that has recently changed somewhat with the strong reception given to a book adaptation which Pratchett co-wrote: Good Omens. With the right budget, format and vision it seems that Pratchett can be adapted successfully. Granted, Good Omens isn’t perfect. It has a somewhat Americanised feel which takes the sharp wit and cynicism out of the story where it was often most needed, and it injects needless drama as padding where it isn’t needed. But, in a six-episode format, it works as a faithful adaptation and had the budget to convey its ideas.

And so, we come to The Watch, a series which is looking to hit the small screen in 2020. On paper it looks to be a solid approach to adapting Discworld. The six books which focus on the Guards, the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork, are among the best and most coherent in the entire series. They have a variety of fascinating characters, thrilling plots and feature Pratchett’s imagination on top form.

If you’re planning to start reading Discworld but aren’t sure where to begin, then starting with book 8, Guards Guards!, is a perfect entry point. It certainly was for me. They’re relatively grounded, easy enough to follow and the mysteries of each one are both deeply funny and often poignant. So, is this the dawn of a new era for Pratchett adaptations?

It’s also not the first time that a departure from a witty British style has hurt an adaptation, as was the case with the confused Dirk Gently series

So far, the publicity materials for the show make it appear as though it’s going for a steampunk aesthetic, which doesn’t conform to the hyper-stylised Medieval look of the books. It has the look of a post-apocalyptic series, one which is more loosely inspired than actually based on the books. It could work, but it may also raise the question: why call this ‘Discworld’ if it’s going to blatantly disregard the aspects of  the Discworld books which make them so endearing and iconic?

The books have a lot of fun with anachronisms, such as how they handle concepts like guns, printing presses and postal services, and having a series which doesn’t take advantage of such things may hurt the show’s reception. It’s also not the first time that a departure from a witty British style has hurt an adaptation, as was the case with the confused Dirk Gently series which replaced dry wit with excessive bloodbaths. Ultimately, we’ll have to see if this can work, because previous efforts have struggled, and taking the Pratchett out of Discworld has never helped them succeed.  

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