Greetings from the Edge!
Seasons greetings from the Edge, my friends. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be taking a trip to the Holiday side and there is no better way to start than a little Terry Pratchett goodness with the 2006 movie Hogfather. Starring Michelle Dockery as Susan, David Warner as Lord Downy, Tony Robinson as Vernon Crumley, Ian Richardson as Death, and Sir Terry Pratchett himself as The Toymaker.
Fair warning: I’m a huge Pratchett fan and I’ll be looking at Hogfather both as a stand-alone film and as an adaptation of the original novel in the Nerdy Speculation Corner. With a cast of British acting greats, a classic Pratchett story, and some beautiful set design, can this special live up to the novel’s promise? Let’s find out!
Hogfather opens with a shot of the Discworld being carried by four giant elephants who themselves are carried on the back of Great A’Tuin, the stellar turtle that moves the Discworld on its journey through space. This leads to a musing on the nature of myth and segues into the Ankh-Morpork guild of assassins, where the head of the guild, Lord Downy – played by perennial sci-fi favorite David Warner ( why hasn’t he been Dr. Who yet, that’s what I want to know! ) – is doing some late night bookkeeping and is visited by a spectral being offering a staggering amount of money to eliminate the Hogfather. The Hogfather being the Discworld’s equivalent to Santa Claus, although some of his mannerisms come more directly from the English Father Christmas than the American Santa. More sherry and mince pies than milk and cookies.
Lord Downy assigns the Hogfather’s inhumation ( assassination, “wink” ) to Mr. Teatime, played by Marc Warren, a rather unpleasant gentleman even by assassin standards. But what can you say about someone who would nail a dog to the ceiling? Teatime gathers a band of confederates and sets in motion a roundabout plan to make all the Discworld’s children lose belief in the Hogfather. Soon the Death of Discworld, voiced beautifully by Ian Richardson, is all that stands between the Hogfather and oblivion, and if the Hogfather dies, the sun may never rise again. So with the reluctant aid of his granddaughter Susan (played by Michelle Dockery), Albert (played by David Jason), his butler standing in as a less than jolly elf, and the wizards of the Unseen University, Death must keep belief in the Hogfather alive while Susan races to solve the mystery of his seeming demise.
The special effects in Hogfather are refreshingly practical, for the most part. CGI is definitely relegated to a supporting role and it is all the better for it, in my opinion. Being a production for the BBC, the effects are not as polished as you would see in a Hollywood style blockbuster, but between the practicals and the obvious love that went into Hogfather, it is hard to fault them.
In fact, I want to take a moment to praise the wonderful set design. One of my few complaints is that we didn’t get to see more of the big Discworld locations like Ankh-Morpork and the Unseen University, but the production team did so much with their relatively modest budget that I just wish I could have seen more. Which isn’t a bad thing. Remember kiddies, always leave them wanting more!
The effects team manages to be simultaneously charming and macabre with their efforts, and Death himself comes across as both intimidating and huggable in turns, not an easy feat. On a semi-unrelated note, if you happen to suffer from Odontophobia ( the fear of teeth ), you may wish to steer clear of Hogfather as much of the darker action takes place in a castle made of children’s teeth. Just going to leave that there and walk away…yeap.
Hogfather is a story about belief and how belief shapes both people and the world, and I know how hokey that sounds but trust me, this isn’t your typical Holiday season tripe. Hogfather is set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a series of novels clocking in at 41 books with numerous short stories, specials, movies, and video games thrown in for spice.
Chances are, if you’re interested in fantasy or sci-fi, you’ve at least heard of the Discworld series. Filled with humor, comedy, and more than a little sly social commentary and philosophy. The Discworld novels have grown from modest beginnings to become a cultural juggernaut with many imitators… *Cough* JK Rowling *Cough*.
I’m not going to mince words: watch it, it’s great, seriously my highest recommendation. Even if you’ve never read a Terry Pratchett novel, even if you’re not really a big Christmas special person, give it a try. I don’t know about in America, but I’m sure Hogfather will become as much of a Christmas staple in Britain as the Rank and Bass Christmas specials like Rudolph and Frosty and best of all, I think it’s the kind of film that will grow with you over time. Watching it again year after year, I can’t help but feel you’ll pick up more of the story and message of Hogfather.
I also hope that if you enjoy Hogfather as much as I do, you’ll take a chance on the novel and let yourself be introduced to Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series.
Nerdy Speculation Corner: Warning, may contain both spoilers and dangerous amounts of geekery!
A Double warning this week: most of the corner will be devoted to the adaptation from novel to film. So if you haven’t read the book or at least some of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, there might not be much for you this week.
So does Hogfather succeed or fail as an adaptation? I feel it does succeed as much as any movie could. Maybe with another three hours added to the running time, a more omniscient narrator, and a complete lack of catering to children so that the novel’s much darker moments could be included, it could have been better. And I’m sure I and the other Terry Pratchett fans who would be willing to sit through a six hour movie would have absolutely loved it. Probably not practical from a production or marketing stance, though.
Now while I’ve heaped Hogfather with praise, I wouldn’t be true to my black and twisted nerd heart if I didn’t have some adaptational nitpicks. So let’s pick away, shall we?
Nobby Nobbs as played Nicholas Tennant… what can I say. Tennant does a good job. In fact, he manages to be wonderfully unctuous as Corporal Nobbs, but I don’t think there is an actor alive who could do justice to Nobby Nobbs with enough prosthetics to make Ron Perlman blanch. Maybe Andy Serkis doing mo-cap with the full Gollum treatment could pull it off, but outside that, I can’t say how it could be done.
I missed some of the novel’s Bilious the “Oh God” of hangovers content, but if anything could be cut for a family Christmas special, I can’t help but feel that was first on the chopping block.
The Librarian! I missed everyone’s favorite academic orangutan and permanent Unseen University fixture, the Librarian. I know why he was cut. The effect budget to carry him off would have been way too expensive, but I still miss him. He does get a shout out in the library scene where the wizards confront Death. His absence is sorely missed, though. It almost doesn’t seem like the Discworld without him.
For what I’m sure is a similar reason, we only get a brief appearance of the Death of Rats, but he does get an exceptionally cute scene, so that’s forgivable in my opinion.
Also, we never do get an explanation of Chickenwire’s name in the movie, but seeing as we don’t want to send all the kiddies to bed with holiday nightmares, that’s probably for the best.
A lot of the philosophical musings of the novel are reduced, but I was happy to see Death’s belief speech remains intact… and as utterly true as the first day I read it. We miss you, Sir Terry. We’ll never see your like again and we are the poorer for it. In Pace Requiescat, my friend.
Next time on the Edge, we’ll be reaching back into our Holiday stocking with Bernard and the Genie, a 1991 sugarplum of quirky delights. With Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, and Rowan Atkinson, there will be magic aplenty and mayhem insured in one of the oddest Christmas stories ever to come from the BBC.