Two years ago, when the BBC announced it was working on a television adaption based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, it created a real buzz among Discworld fans. Fast forward to today, and just about anybody who has read one of Pratchett’s novels has condemned its not-yet existence. Here’s why.
Fandoms are a weird and wonderful thing. To have a group of people that are unequivocally positive and interested in the same book/film/comic/tv series/sports (and so on) as yourself can create an immediate bond. Whether it be in an online forum or the topic coming up in conversation with a fellow student or colleague, it’s remarkable how often that small relatively unimportant link has opened the door into many a longterm friendship.
Owing to this, fandoms mean a lot to the fans. They hold important memories and emotions for long after the initial excitement wears off or the humdrum of life takes away the time you would like to dedicate to it.
The Discworld fandom may not be the largest out there, but it concerns a series of 41 books spanning over 30 years. It’s a group that includes people from all over the world, friends who bonded over it and families who have passed it on. In a very real way it is a community all of its own, existing rather outside the rampant radicalism that consumes the internet and social media. There are no “sides” here. Nobody angry about the latest books or hating on particular story lines. There are just people who like the Discworld and its inhabitants.
So when BBC America sought to adapt some of Pratchett’s works as a series, there was a good deal of excitement, and perhaps a little trepidation. It had been some time since the low budget Sky TV adaptions in the early naughties, none of which were particularly special. Though for their lack of polish, the stellar cast and quirky British humour lent the productions a certain charm.
The initial noises were promising. It would be a series, so likely a longer and more in depth run than anything that had been seen before. As the name denoted it was to be based on The Watch series of books, and so it seemed likely it would be a Samuel Vimes story. Vimes is perhaps the easiest character to transition to television, as in essence he is the embodiment of an old school TV detective within the Discworld universe. He also develops the most of any of the Discworld protagonists, who are certainly entertaining, but do not grow as much as Vimes.
Unfortunately this positivity was not to last. As early as August 2019 Rhianna Pratchett, Terry’s daughter and manager of his estate had already started to distance herself from the production.
Though Terry Pratchett died in 2015, his daughter is herself an accomplished writer and creative in the video game and television industry. And although she did not write the novels herself, someone so close to the creator distancing herself from a production so early is rarely a positive sign, at least if you are hoping for a faithful adaption.
In January 2020, the first set photos of the show began to materialise.
With them came some tidbits of information, including a little more on the setting. The biggest point of note was that this would not be the classic Discword, but instead a more “punky” modern environment. There is electricity, so not sure it can qualify as steampunk, but no screen has appeared yet so not cyberpunk either. In fairness, though the Discworld of the books is typically a “magic and swords” fantasy setting, it has the odd industrial era elements thrown in to play on more modern satire. That said, the aesthetic on show differed massively from expectations, but perhaps not so much as the cast and the characters they portray.
Richard Dormer on paper was not a bad choice. In HBO’s Game of Thrones he played a gruff, fair but firm knight in Beric Dondarrian. For many a Discworld fan the parallels with Sam Vimes were clear, and Dormer just about looked the part too. Newcomer Adam Hugill as the heroic Captain Carrot looked a good fit, and Marama Corlett may not have the statuesque build of Sergeant Angua, but at the end of the day that isn’t the defining trait of her character.
Unfortunately though, it went downhill from there. Steeply. Whilst there are a few underwhelming choices that could ultimately pay off (Romcom and period actor Anna Chancellor playing the beloved Lord Vetinari springs to mind) there were two choices in particular that raised some serious eyebrow. The casting of Jo Eaton-Kent as Cheery Littlebottom and Lara Rossi as Lady Sybil Ramkin.
In the books, Lady Sybil is portrayed as a large, older woman, fiercely capable in her own right and with a fussy, motherly disposition. Rossi on the other hand is a slim, attractive young woman, and from what we have seen so far, a fighter. This is not the first or I daresay not the last time that women in television and cinema are beautified at the expense of source material. You can name on one hand well known actresses either under 60, plus size or not conventionally attractive. Most of those end up being funnelled into comedic roles.
It’s particularly sad to see here, as Lady Sybil in the books is a fantastically positive depiction of a female character that in no way relies on looks or physique to be formidable. For this she is her own person, and respected by those around her. Whilst we lose these qualities of Lady Sybil, it makes the the casting of Cheery Littlebottom even more confusing.
In the books Cheery Littlebottom is a dwarf woman. In Discworld, dwarf women are expected by dwarven society to act and dress like men (beards included). It is part of Cheery’s arc over the series of the Watch books that she sheds these expectations and indeeds starts to revolutionise dwarven society into accepting women for who they are.
Jo Eaton Kent is a non-binary actor, and in all images seen thus far does not look to be portraying a woman, or a dwarf. This decision makes it likely that the producers of the show are looking to “update” the struggles of Cheery into an issue which is prevalent in 2020, that being the challenges of the LGBTQ community. There is a logic to this, taking the theme of acceptance associated with the character and applying it to a more current issue.
The drawback of this change, is that you take away a character journey that many women can (and have) associated with. You also replace it with one more niche, topical and in current climate more likely to divide opinion. As I mentioned earlier, Discworld is a fandom often without sides. By introducing themes which are unfortunately controversial, it will undoubtedly create them.
When you combine this decision with that of Lady Sybil, there is a mismatch in messages. One could try to argue that the move to embrace the LGBTQ community is one of inclusivity. But if this is a goal of the show, then why cast a young attractive actress as Lady Sybil over an age appropriate actress? The show has taken perhaps the two most interesting female characters, made one non-binary (perhaps) and stripped the other of the qualities that made her unique and representative.
The conclusion that many fans were starting to draw: this show is trying to be edgy. Discworld is many things, but edgy is not one of them. Yes it often strays from the status quo, that is very much the point of satire, but it never much cares to do so for the sake of appearances.
The Watch adaption however seems to be hyper focused on appearances. Actors are young and/or attractive, issues are current and the aesthetic could well have been determined by a focus group in target demographics. At the very core of Discworld is substance. It may be a thick, gloopy unpleasant substance at times, but it’s the kind of substantial substance one can be proud of. The very idea of a show which is style over substance is, to a Discworld fan, quite troubling indeed.
At NYCC 2020 the first trailer dropped and it would appear to confirm some of our worst fears, and add shiny new ones as well. Punk bands, metal soundtrack, explosions, and worst of all the most promising casting (in Dormer) seems to be playing Captain Jack Sparrow as opposed to Captain Samuel Vimes. The trailer has clearly not gone down well. As of writing, the like/dislike ratio sits at 1:3.
A notable absence from this trailer and indeed all promotional material thus far are the characters of Corporal Nobby Nobbs and Sergeant Fred Colon. In the book on which the plot for the adaption will seemingly be based (Guards! Guards!) these two are front and centre, far more so than Lady Sybil. Cheery and Angua don’t even show up until the next book. Yet to all appearances they may not even be present in the show.
The more we hear, the clearer it is why the Pratchett estate is continuing to distance itself from this property.
Taken on their own merit, each change is not necessarily a bad one. The growing issue for fans is the sheer extent of changes, and the potential motivations for those changes. Discworld, as I have covered, is a relatively niche property, a fantasy pudding with a heavy dollop of surrealist satirical cream that is not intended to appeal to all. The subtle, sarcastic humour may not hit with some, whilst the pointed nature of the comedy means there is often a butt of the jokes. And nobody likes being the butt.
So this is a 2020ing of Discworld to appeal to a wider audience. Out with charm and subtlety, in with hot actors, pumping soundtracks and a zany Johnny Depp impression. Has fantasy been done to death? Well it’s a punk world now. Too many old white guys for 2020? We’ll cut them, or cast female actors. On top of Vetinari, it would appear that CMOT Dribbler and Doctor Cruces are also getting the gender swap treatment.
It’s these kind of decisions that has made fans continue to question the motivations of the show runners. Harmless in themselves, but layered up with many other decisions that indicate the desire for a facade of progressiveness, rather than one of substance. Vimes, the central character of the Watch novels takes a back seat in the first released image from the show to Sybil, a young, attractive woman of colour. This isn’t a brave new step in 2020. It’s in vogue.
What would have been genuinely brave is having this same character played by a large, middle aged woman in her 40s, standing aside a run down, average looking man in Vimes. But that is not the image that gets key media-consuming demographics between 16-35 streaming is it?
It’s easy to interpret fan criticism of a show which has not even released yet as the frustrated ramblings of those seeing their much loved property being taken away and distorted. The truth is this is the case, at least in part.
By and large, people don’t like change, particularly of something close to their heart. The frustration for myself and many other Discworld fans, is whilst we have the books, we haven’t really had many on screen adaptions to write home about. Of the 41 novels, 4 have been adapted to live action, in low budget, straight to television movies. Sure they had a certain charm, but a well funded, polished Discworld adaption has never been seen.
The Watch will be the first big budget adaption, and it’s pretty clear it’s as loose an adaption as it could possibly be. To all appearances it’s effectively a totally different concept now, disowned by both the writer’s estate and the fans. It begs the question: if you wanted to change the show so much – why call it Discworld? Why say it’s based on the characters by Terry Pratchett? Surely by doing so you are making some attempt to entice fans of the existing source material.
Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote the wonderful Good Omens with Pratchett summed it up perfectly:
Batman is quite a good example. The Dark Knight is a property which has been around for near on a century, has appeared in hundreds of comics, movies, television shows and video games. Batman is many things to many people. When the London gothic take on Batman, Gotham by Gaslight was released, it was celebrated as a fresh take rather than an abomination. This is because Batman as a mythology has evolved and changed so much over many years, that it can afford many derivations. Discworld is a younger, less mature property, which has yet to realise its full potential in its original form.
Imagine if in the first Lord of the Rings movie adaption Frodo had to fly his space ship to Planet Mordor and upload the ring virus to the Sauron mainframe. Sure, there would have been those who found the idea interesting, but to the many fans of the original content you are establishing the mainstream idea of Lord of the Rings as something completely and wholly different from the original. To the point you have to ask, why even call it by the same name? The reality is, BBC America likely know the IP hasn’t realised its potentially, hence why it is looking to capitalise on it.
This is the real fear of the Discworld fandom. Should this show be successful, it could become the definitive on-screen representation of Discworld for some time, making a faithful adaption all the less likely. If it’s unsuccessful, that could be even more damaging, as it could be misinterpreted as there being a lack of interest in seeing Discworld on the screen.
The Last Hero
There is perhaps a glimmer of hope for the Discworld fandom. In April this year, it was confirmed by Discworld.com that Terry Pratchett’s Narrativia had done a deal with Motive Pictures and Endeavor Content for a whole host of Discworld TV adaptions, purported to remain “absolutely faithful” to Pratchett’s works.
It’s now been 6 months with no update, and though the deal was struck there is no knowing how this will proceed, if at all. It may well be that this production is keeping tabs on The Watch to gauge a reaction as how best to proceed.
Personally, whilst the changes mean I may not feel as though I am watching a Discworld adaption, I will give the Watch a go. There are undoubtedly interesting ideas here (as it was likely designed to have) and perhaps if not a good Discworld show, it can be a good show in its own right.
Either way these are odd times to be a fan of Discworld. For the longest time nothing seemed to happen, only for a great deal of developments to occur, throwing everything out of whack. Or maybe that is just 2020… Here is to hoping one or both of these adaptions result in some joy for some people, the least we can wish from Discworld.
What do you think of the Watch? Are Discworld fans right to be concerned? Or should we be happy to see an adaption of any kind? Leave your thoughts down below.