After the seminal ‘Hogfather’ and before the rather brilliant ‘Going Postal’ Sky 1 decided to turn their hand to where the Discworld series began with………………………………..
We begin with a shot of the stars and a voice over by Brian Cox telling us how amazing all of this truly is and how the only way to really comprehend it is to fly halfway across the world and start playing with his lunch in a roadside cafe, Oh wait sorry wrong Brian Cox. Instead this one is telling us about elephants atop turtles and worlds atop elephants. Worlds known as the Disc. We then descend onto said Disc to the ‘Unseen University’, home of the “greatest” wizards in the world*. One of those is Rincewind a man as adapt to wizarding as a fish is for cycling. A wizard who took a peak into the greatest most magical tome in creation and ended up with one of the eight great spells stuck in his head. This was 40 years ago.
See the other two adaptations of Pratchett’s work are really good, they trim a few bits of fat and rework some stuff for t.v but other than that they are straight up adaptations that are highly recommended for any Discworld fan. ‘The Colour of Magic’ not so much. First is the fact that while every other book they’ve covered has got a thee hour run time to tell their tale this one gets the same for the first two books in the series. The two books that are arguably the least like the rest of the series and thus often the least popular. Spending less time on each of them does make a certain kind of sense** as they turn it from a rambling travelogue esque series of vignettes to a coherent story. The problem is they’ve done it really badly.
Now to answer why they’ve chosen this one to do next there is a definite sense of feeling obligated to do this one rather than anyone particularly wanting to do it. For objective facts to back this up nowhere is this more apparent than in the casting of David Jason as Rincewind. Now David is a fine actor and was great as Alfred in the previous Discworld entry but why they decided to cast him as the young to middle aged wizard drop out nobody knows. Even David himself has said that he only took the role because he liked the book and it gave him something to do while he waited for a better part to come along and when you’re lead is taking the part to fill time you know you’re in trouble.
Now I could sit here and complain about how it doesn’t follow the book and they changed this and they changed that but I’d rather just focus on the movie as it is taken as an independent creation simply inspired by the first two novels in the series because that will give me enough to complain about. First up as it is possibly the smallest that being the movies aversion to magic. This is a bit of a problem considering the subject matter and while the spell in Rincewinds head is brought up very early on, every time it intervenes to protect him you can write it off and or explain it quite easily. We meet Rincewind on the banks of the river Ankh wanting to off himself after being kicked out of the university, a nice cheery intro for our lead in this light hearted fantasy romp, the spell kicks in and he simply lands on some luggage being lifted from a ships hold. Likewise when he is tumbling off into space and the spells rewrite reality to save him, a magical event that wrecks havoc in the university ending up with the kitchen range growing legs and running away and the librarian becoming the orangutan we all know today, we find out that instead of rewriting reality so that he is simply back on the disc via magic they instead just asked the world turtle Great A’Tuin to swing down and pick him up. Something that is far worse as it becomes the second time in the series that he manages to fall from an impossible height to land unscathed due to lousy story telling. Not to mention leaving you question what was felt on the world as the planet did a sudden nose dive and cork screw in the space of a few feet. I know that can be explained by magic but if you’re going to use that explanation for why every nation was not torn asunder then why not just have him magic back onto the disc and get on with it.
Rincewind isn’t the only one who gets a make over for this movie as we see Trymon grow to be a much bigger deal than in the two books. This isn’t that bad an idea and even showing how mean he is by having him be the one to kick Rincewind out of the University making the whole thing a bit more personal isn’t that bad an idea. The problem is that while Tim Curry is always watchable and entertaining he struggles with what he’s got. Gone is the notion that every wizard is a self serving blow hard willing to bump off the person ahead of him for a better title and comfier room and while that makes him a bigger threat and better villain it makes everyone else look ridiculous for keeping him around. Even genuine accidents in the book, like forgetting to put air holes in your death proof room, are here turned to machinations by the evil Trymon.
Some people would also complain Twoflower who is one of the most obviously changed characters from the novel receiving a whole different race from the far eastern caricature of the novel. I can understand wanting to side step that whole thorny issue and making him a loud mouth American isn’t that big a problem for me if they wrote him like that. Just like you can’t have Rincewind have him saying how his grandfather saw Cohen in his prime when Cohen is played by someone younger than Rinceind you can’t just change something basic and expect it to work the same. If you want a more evill pantomine esque villain then the rest of the characters need to change too to fit that altering of reality. Likewise if you’d like to get around the question of the language barrier by having Twoflower say he took a course and only uses the translation guide to complete the image of a tourist***, You can’t really have Rincewind sat bad mouthing him to everyone whilst right next to him at the table and still have us believe that Twoflower is seeing Rincewind through such rosy coloured spectacles.
The movie struggles to know what it should be. If they wanted to turn it into a more traditional story with a clear three act structure then do so. Introduce the star much earlier perhaps as the two leads leave Ankh Morpork under the smoke of the city thus missing it the first time out and cut out Death’s domain like they did with the temple of Bel-Shamharoth rather than giving us a pointless detour that lasts less time than it does to make a cup of tea.
If you want to preserve the less ad hoc feel to the tale then don’t have Cohen recruited by the luggage dangling soft lavatory paper in front of him and leading him on a merry goose chase considering they could have just ran into him in the next scene at the druids circle anyway just like they do in the book.
It’s a gorgeous looking movie for the budget and time and the cast is amazing so it’s a shame that it’s such a dud, especially if this helped kill off the Discworld line for Sky 1 with a decent enough batting average of two out of three.
*Depending on who you asked. For instance if you were to ask them they would say so, if you were to ask most of the inhabitants of Ankh Morpork they would say they were little more than a bunch of dangerous nutters in dresses and if you were to ask most five to six year olds they would say their Daddy was the greatest wizard because he can split his thumb in half and make coins appear behind their ear. Which begs the question of how he manages to never have any money. But as you can see it’s all relative.
**Though perhaps not as much as just not doing them altogether when they were content to start and number 20 in the series and then jump to number 33. Two books that only just about share a city.
***Something the movie tells us he is the first off so how would he have the awareness of what a tourist looks and or acts like?