Top 5 Discworld Screen Adaptations
“Didactylos shrugged. “The Turtle exists. The world is a flat disc. The sun turns round it once every day, dragging its light behind it. And this will go on happening, whether you believe it is true or not. It is real. I don’t know about truth. Truth is a lot more complicated than that. I don’t think the Turtle gives a bugger whether it’s true or not, to tell you the truth.”
The Turtle in question’s name is The Great A’tuin, he swims through the eternal ether, and upon his back, stand four elephants, whose names I can’t be bothered to look up, and upon their mighty shoulders rests the Discworld.
One of the hidden tragedies of the world is that most Americans have never read a single Discworld book.
I am not unreasonable. I understand that reading is harder for some people than others and not all books have those very helpful pictures inside. But there is good news. Being well-read can simply be feigned by watching a few movies!
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books have had several adaptations for the small screen. They vary drastically in quality and content BUT all of them are a much more sincere effort than the BBC’s abomination called The Watch.
None of them are anywhere near as good as reading Terry Pratchett’s caustic, sadly stoic, yet hilarious prose.
5. Colour of Magic:
“Ankh-Morpork! Pearl of cities! This is not a completely accurate description, of course — it was not round and shiny — but even its worst enemies would agree that if you had to liken Ankh-Morpork to anything, then it might as well be a piece of rubbish covered with the diseased secretions of a dying mollusc.”
Unlike their American cousins, the English like prefer comedies with a sad ending. They like some tears with their laughter. And at first, the Discworld books followed that formula. And so we are introduced in the Colour of Magic to Rincewind the “Wizzard.” An incompetent magic user who only ever learned one spell but it’s so powerful there is no room for any others in his head. Also, he doesn’t know how to use it.
This mini-series condenses the first two books of the series (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic into two TV movies.
Colour of Magic is my least favorite of the tv shows and I’m not a huge fan of the book either. Frankly, I’m not that fond of Rincewind come to that, none of his books are on my recommended reading list. Although, a lot of that can be attributed to a new author not having had enough time in the bottle.
However, this show had a worse problem than that. Pratchett’s world had changed considerably between the publication of the first book and the making of this mini-series. Originally Ankh-Morpork was a very obvious pastiche of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar when it was first published in 1983. Flash forward to 2008 and it was very much its own thing with its own presence in British pop culture. The mini-series had to try and achieve a compromise between popular perception and the actual narrative. This was back when the BBC cared about entertaining an audience rather than subverting its expectation.
And some things were simply a bad idea to begin with, like the character of Two-Flower a (kind of) Mandarin from the other side of the world who was touring Ankh-Morpork. In 1983 you could still get away with a few of the old “flied lice” tropes from Charlie Chan’s day. By 2008 you could not, so Two-Flower was whitewashed into Samwise, because you couldn’t have an Asian actor playing a clown like Two-Flower. I kept expecting Sean Astin to call out for “Mister Frodo” throughout the mini-series.
At the end of the day, this show took place in a hybrid world caught between past and future Discworlds.
Hence it’s low rank.
I am willing to grant that as an American I prefer the trope of “The Fool Triumphant.” And Rincewind never triumphs. Neither does Arthur Dent, nor Basil Faulty.
Upside: I did like Jeremy Irons as Vetinari. He killed it. And Tim Curry makes anything better just by being in it.
Currently available on Amazon streaming for free with commercials.
4. Wyrd Sisters:
“The storm was really giving it everything it had. This was its big chance. It had spent years hanging around the provinces, putting in some useful work as a squall, building up experience, making contacts, occasionally leaping out on unsuspecting shepherds, or blasting quite small oak trees. Now an opening in the weather had given it an opportunity to strut its hour, and it was building up its role in the hope of being spotted by one of the big climates.”
For those who are wondering NO this was not inspired by the band from Harry Potter. Rowling included the Weird Sisters as a tribute band to Terry Pratchett. Once you know where to look, it’s obvious where a lot of JK’s inspiration came from. Harry Potter fans are incensed at the idea of Rowling taking inspiration from anywhere and she’s history’s greatest monster anyway.
On to the cartoon.
I’m a fan of hand-drawn animation, less so of cheaply made hand-drawn animation. And sadly this one was pretty cheap. But it is a fairly faithful rendition.
We meet the Maiden, the Mother, and… Granny Weatherwax. There is something very English countryside about the Lancre stories, which is the core of the appeal this cartoon managed to translate. It did its job in that regard. It certainly felt like a Discworld story. The characters feel like they should. Granny Weatherwax is hard as oak, she is publically known as the most powerful witch since Black Aliss (who featured prominently in every fairytale that had a witch in it). Nanny Ogg is the Mother and is very motherly, she’s has more grandchildren than a dog has fleas, and adores them one and all even snotty-nosed Pewsy. According to Pratchett, Nanny Ogg was actually the most powerful witch on Discworld but was way too crafty to let anyone know it. Magrat is the Maiden, she’s not wild about that. She tries awfully hard to be a herbal earthmother and Wicca kind of witch but at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, and creatures from the deepest dark come to prey on the simple folk of Lancre, she’s a Witch.
The story itself was takeoff on MacBeth before Pratchett gave up doing stuff like that.
The cartoon itself was originally a mini-series so make sure you have time on your hands before you start it. The show runs for 2:18.
Currently available on YouTube but it’s a pirate upload so don’t count on it being there for long.
3. Going Postal:
“There is always a choice.”
“You mean I could choose certain death?”
“A choice nevertheless, or perhaps an alternative. You see I believe in freedom. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.”
My second favorite of the books. Maybe my expectations were a little high in consequence. I also had to wait a long time for it to become legally available in the US. It certainly had the highest production value of any of these, (they could afford Charles Dance as Vetinari). It was trying, but what was it trying to do? Was it trying to tell Pratchett’s story? Not so much really. It was following the A-Story narrative from the book but was more interested in telling the B-Story the producer wanted to force on the audience. Woke was starting to push against the door at the BBC but hadn’t broken it down yet.
Going Postal was the last of Pratchett’s great books. There was plenty that came afterward but you could tell it was becoming a team effort as his dementia did its horrible work on him.
It’s a redemption story. Moist von Lipwig was probably the best conman on Discworld. If he followed you into a revolving door he would somehow come out in front of you, then sell you the door which he naturally didn’t own. That career ended when Lord Vetinari finally caught him, executed him, and then gave him a new job. He became Ahnk-Moorpork’s postmaster general, then turns into a better man by helping people.*
I also had objections to some of the details. Angua was decently cast in this version but she turned into a wolf in a tavern in front of everyone in it, which Angua would never do. And Death wasn’t in it at all.
However, I can forgive it some of its problems. Most of Pratchett’s funniest lines were narrative and didn’t really translate into literal action on screen. And of all the shows on this list, this was the only one to have Terry Pratchett make a cameo, this was after he was diagnosed with premature dementia.
Available on Amazon Prime free with commercials.
2. Soul Music:
“Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.”
The second animated feature on this list. And the first appearance in the books of Susan Death (Dutchess of Sto-Helet), who was one of my favorite characters in the entire series.
Death is a major character in all of the Discworld books. He has an interest in humans but doesn’t quite get them. He comes across as a mildly autistic but well-meaning gentleman. He protects his charges, is unfailingly polite to them and even cares for them although doesn’t comprehend the whole of humans. Consequently, he adopted a girl, who then married his apprentice and they left his realm. Susan was their child. Soul Music starts with this couple falling off a cliff in their carriage, with his daughter screaming, “F-A-T-H-E-R!” Death is watching all this from a mountain top, he turns to the audience and says, “Yes, I could have done something.”
Death could not save them but he could have granted them eteranl life in his realm. They refused because they had been there and done that. Opted to die which left Death in a somber and melancholy mood. He walked off his job for a bit to try and deal with his grief. Susan being his granddaughter got sucked in to world in conseqence and had to fill in for him.
Susan became over interested in the lead harper for the band “Music with Rocks In It” who was fated to live fast and die young. She had to try and save him.
This animation was made by the same company that did Wyrd Sisters, and again its primary weaknesses are in the art design and the jerkiness of the animation. It’s true to the original story and I like that story.
Available for free on YouTube but again, it’s a pirate upload.
“You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’
IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
‘What if she cuts herself?’
THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.”
The first Discworld adaption I ever saw, so perhaps I overrate it. But then this list is based on nothing more subjective than my own preferences in the first place. This is the second Susan Death book on this list and her first live-action appearance.
The show starts with the head of the Assassin’s Guild (played dashingly by David Warner) accepting a contract to kill the Hogfather (the Discworld Santa Claus). However, if successful it will mean the end of all life on Discworld. Consequently, Death takes an interest since he rather likes people (and since killing all of them at once is likely to be taxing). He impersonates the Hogfather as best he can while his granddaughter Susan does battle with the assassin.
Not quite filling in for Death this time but she does get to ride his white horse, Binky, whom she has always adored. This is the first of Susan’s battles with the Auditors of Reality, Death’s arch-enemy((ies) the plural is a little complicated as they don’t like individualism even if they are individuals.
Available for purchase on Amazon video free with commercials.
Bonus: Discworld, the Game
““We’re dealing here,” said Vimes, “With a twisted mind.”
“Oh, no! You think so?”
“But… no… you can’t be right. Because Nobby was with us all the time.”
“Not Nobby,” said Vimes testily. “Whatever he might do to a dragon, I doubt if he’d make it explode. There’s stranger people in this world than Corporal Nobbs, my lad.”
Carrot’s expression slid into a rictus of intrigued horror.
“Gosh,” he said.”
Second Bonus: A while back there was a BBC production of Pratchett’s discworld books. The adaptation of Night Watch is the best adaptation of any of Pratchett’s works.
“There were plotters, there was no doubt about it. Some had been ordinary people who’d had enough. Some were young people with no money who objected to the fact that the world was run by old people who were rich. Some were in it to get girls. And some had been idiots as mad as Swing, with a view of the world just as rigid and unreal, who were on the side of what they called ‘the people’. Vimes had spent his life on the streets, and had met decent men and fools and people who’d steal a penny from a blind beggar and people who performed silent miracles or desperate crimes every day behind the grubby windows of little houses, but he’d never met The People.
People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up. What would run through the streets soon enough wouldn’t be a revolution or a riot. It’d be people who were frightened and panicking. It was what happened when the machinery of city life faltered, the wheels stopped turning and all the little rules broke down. And when that happened, humans were worse than sheep. Sheep just ran; they didn’t try to bite the sheep next to them.”
Okay, I’m done here.
*Con men never become better men. They just don’t.