Screencaps courtesy Bilamus Icons.
Susan: “All right, I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need … fantasies to make life bearable.”
Death: “No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: “But Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”
Death: Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
Susan: “So we can believe the big ones?”
Death: “Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.”
Susan: “They’re not the same at all!”
Death: “Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through with the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act as if there were some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”
Susan: “Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point—”
Death: “My point exactly.”
In Ankh-Morpork, the largest city of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, it’s the night before Hogswatch. Not a creature was stirring, and all similarities to Christmas are obvious and intentional. The children are being put to bed with visions of sugarplums dancing in their head, their stockings nailed to the fireplace with care and pork pies and sherries left out in case the Hogfather (basically Father Christmas with fangs and a snout) will be there. It’s a glorious time to be young or to look at the young and revel in their innocent beliefs.
Well, this belief is an anethema for the Auditors of Reality — animorphic personifications of the physical laws of the Universe. It’s their job to ensure that atoms keep spinning and suns keep burning, and their lives are irretrievably complicated by life in general and human beings in particular. If your job is to quantify absolutely everything the universe, just what do you do about the human imagination? How much does the monster under the bed weigh? So the Auditors would much rather that humans lose their creativity or, failing that, cease to exist altogether.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), intervening directly to end human existence would be against the rules of the Universe (something particularly galling given that the Auditors are the rules of the Universe), so the Auditors can only operate indirectly. Even to contact Ankh-Morpork’s Guild of Assassins is pushing things, but they are desperate enough to take out a three million dollar contract on the Hogfather. The head of the Guild of Assassins is left to his own devices to figure out just how an imaginary being is to be killed, but he decides to hand the job to the young (and bat-shit crazy) apprentice Mr. Teatime (pronounced Mr. Tia-Ta-Meh, thankyouverymuch) who takes up the challenge eagerly, and sets to work by kidnapping… the Tooth Fairy.
The Auditor’s interference brings them up against the personification of Death, who you might think would be an unlikely defender of humanity. But Death considers himself an integral part of life, the ending of the story which is as important as the beginning. Besides, he’s spent centuries taking humans into the hereafter, and he’s grown to like them. After all, he adopted a daughter, took on an apprentice, and found himself taking care of their daughter Susan after they fell in love and unfortunately met with an accident that sent their stagecoach off a cliff.
So, when Death realizes that the Hogfather’s life is in jeopardy and, indeed, has vanished on the night before Hogwatch, he has to move fast to shore up human belief, which is waning in the wake of the Hogfather’s disappearance. This means putting on the Hogfather’s red suit and donning on a fake beard and a cushion to spread joy the children around the world (as best as a cowled skeleton can), while granddaughter Susan (now a hyper-practical governness desiring a “normal” life) is left to figure out what Mr. Teatime’s is planning, and where the Hogfather has disappeared to.
This hoot of a book has been adapted with considerable alacrity for Sky One television in Britain. Featuring a big budget cast (including Ian “House of Cards” Richardson as the voice of Death) and excellent set design, this three hour, two-part miniseries lives up to the spirit of Terry Pratchett and is a perfect evening movie to watch, whatever the season.
The script is the work of writer and director Vadim Jean, who maintains Pratchett’s offbeat sense of humour and much of his deft storytelling. Hogfather is packed with weird and wonderful characters, and the many separate plot threads are told in an interesting way even if the director takes his sweet time in weaving them together. You have the inept wizards of the Unseen University, who remain peripheral to the action until late in the game, but whose antics as they cope with the side-effects of Teatime’s actions are still fun to watch. You have Teatime’s team of criminals, who are as much in the dark about Teatime’s plan as he raids the Tooth Fairy’s castle. And, of course, you have Death, a fish out of water out his role as the Hogfather, playing along but not getting the need for the HoHoHos or understanding the commercialized aspect of Hogswatch (watch for Tony Robinson’s wonderful appearance as a department store manager who is ruined by Death’s insistence — taking on the mantle of a Department Store Hogfather — that gifts are given out for free).
Death itself also has considerable gravitas, despite obviously being a man in a suit with blue LEDs shining in the skull’s eyeballs. Marnix Van Den Broeke plays the physical body of Death and lends him a presence that’s at once graceful and looming, but it’s Ian Richardson playing the Voice of Death that’s the star, here. He is precisely the right person for the role, and he makes the most of a script that highlights Death’s great wisdom and naivite. The best moments come when, while performing the Hogfather’s duties, he rebels against the economic inequalities of society. Life isn’t fair, but Death is.
Marc Warren plays Mr. Teatime and makes him a perfect Pratchett villain (and it’s important to note that Pratchett doesn’t have that many villains). Outwardly, he is entirely comical, with his strange and mispronounced name, his cleanshaven appearance and his glass eyes and funny, squeaky voice. Beneath all that, however, he is serious business, and not just because of his apparent ability to move at the speed of light. Mr. Teatime is obviously brilliant, and obviously crazy, and it’s no wonder that everybody is afraid of him.
But Hogfather’s greatest success comes in the form of Michelle Dockery, who plays Death’s adopted granddaughter, Susan. This is Dockery’s first major film and television role, having gained most of her previous experience through the stage, and as Death’s granddaughter, she has a gravitas that makes her instantly compelling. Susan is a hyper-practical individual who, if told by her child charges that there was a monster under their bed, would hand the child a poker and help them beat the crap out of it. Although she has inherited a number of Death’s abilities, including the ability to walk through walls, she wants nothing to do with his duties. Indeed, Death has to subtly manipulate her into going after the Hogfather while he performs the Hogfather’s duties. Despite this, she throws herself completely into the job, unfettered by fear or any sort of angst. She is a superhero, and utterly believable, thanks to Dockery’s no nonsense performance.
The adaptation is not perfect. Indeed, there is a sense that chunks of the book have been left out in order to keep the movie within three hours of running length. This is especially apparent in the minutes leading up to the 90 minute cliffhanger when a number of events happen in rapid succession, and it’s not clear how they’re all connected (just why is Susan knocked unconscious by a magical spell from the book she’s holding). The movie also has not one, but three effective endings as each individual plot element is resolved. Individually, they’re each satisfying, but one wishes more work had been done to integrate them.
But these are the only false moments in an adaptation that just feels right. It’s typical Pratchett: it’s silly and deep at the same time, a humourous wrapping around a serious core. It’s no surprise that Pratchett himself put in a cameo appearance.
Hogfather’s Christmas-like setting made it an obvious candidate for an adaptation to appear around Christmastime, but the production shows that, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the books of Terry Pratchett can now be adapted. Let’s hope that this story is the shape of things to come.