Blightyvision: Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather

Directed and adapted by Vadim Jean
Mucked about by Terry Pratchett
Starring David Jason, Marc Warren, Michelle Dockery, and Ian Richardson

So I thought, as the holidays have kicked off in a variety of venues, it’s about time to do something to get myself and our readers a bit more in the spirit of the season.  I figure something with Death, monsters, an assassin out to murder Santa, and cruelty to children should just about do the trick.

All right, I should probably qualify this by saying that it’s not actually Santa whose life is on the line, but the Hogfather, the Discworld’s equivalent and the title character of Sky One’s rather successful 2006 Christmas special.  Based on the Terry Pratchett novel of the same name, Hogfather is, on the surface, a very typical Christmas-gone-wrong story: our jolly toy-delivering man in a suit has gone missing, and it’s up to our hero to take his place so all the good little girls and boys aren’t disappointed come Hogswatch morning.

The twist?  Well, there are several twists.  For a start, he’s missing because there’s a hitman after him — in particular the rather creepy Mr. Teatime (pronounced “Teh-ah-tim-eh” and played by Marc Warren, or Elton of the Doctor Who episode “Love and Monsters”).  And the hero out to save him is none other than Death himself, as voiced IN ALL CAPS by Ian Richardson.

With his affinity for humans trumping his duty as the Grim Reaper, Death takes it upon himself to save Hogswatch for the children of the Discworld.  Unfortunately, he isn’t quite in sync with the more jaded, commercialized feel of the season, causing “trouble” along the way as he gets a bit too in the spirit.  Meanwhile, addressing the problem at hand — that is, getting to the bottom of the Hogfather’s disappearance — is Susan (Michelle Dockery, recently of the Red Riding features and “Waking the Dead”), a stern but caring governess who also just happens to be Death’s granddaughter.    Though, as we learn fairly early on, the “inhuming” of the Hogfather is only part of Teatime’s mission.

As I’ve noted in previous Discworld special reviews, there are some major difficulties when it comes to adapting Pratchett’s work for television.  One is the obvious and necessary move away from descriptive prose, which means abandoning much of the wordplay that makes the stories so fun.  Fortunately, even though many segments had to be cut even for a story spanning two feature-length episodes, the dialogue (as well as the visual interpretation of much of the original imagery) makes up for the loss.  Fans of the original novel will likely have several pleasant moments of “This is just how I imagined it.”

(Of course it should be noted that, as with all the Discworld adaptations so far, fans will likely also find moments when they can’t see why certain bits were cut.  Regrettable, but also handled as well as can be expected.  With Pratchett “mucking about” before shooting starts, we get some semblance of order and coherence even with the cuts.)

Another issue in adaptation is Pratchett’s seat-of-your-pants narrative style, switching between scenes and subplots so quickly that the majority of his books aren’t even divided into chapters.  The moves between stories — from Death to Susan to Teatime to yet another subplot involving the wizards at Unseen University — are handled well, though, especially as the storylines begin to merge together at the end.  The show moves rapidly, but not so much as to lose people along the way.

The majority of Pratchett’s Discworld novels can be followed fairly easily without prior knowledge of the characters (with the possible exception of the Watch series, which develops its own continuity over time).  Hogfather was one of the better choices for this, though, even taking into account the fact that we’re meant immediately to accept Death as a hero rather than an antagonist or even just a vague presence.  Even with the imposing figure he cuts, he becomes a sympathetic character fairly quickly.  And Ian Richardson (in his only outing in the role before being cut short by, er, his own death), combined with some clever audio filters, conveys Death’s ALL CAPS NO QUOTATIONS speaking style from the books excellently.

As with all of Pratchett’s works, the story goes from humorous to deeply thoughtful and psychological as it progresses, with the ending of this one in particular being unexpectedly thought-provoking without being dismal.  As with all Discworld adaptations, if you’re looking for something silly and frivolous, this is not the place to go.  But fans will be accepting of and entertained by it, and those not familiar with the Discworld series can follow along perfectly well nonetheless.

“Hogfather” is available on R1 DVD, albeit stripped of all its nifty R2 extras.  As you watch, see if you can spot Baldrick, Neil from “The Young Ones,” and Count Duckula.  Yeah, you heard me.

  • This was very well done. Much better than the stinker that was “Colour of Magic”.

    Viewing this on Xmas eve is our new tradition. Our old one was watching MST3K’s “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”, but my wife is not near the fan I am so it actually made her dread Xmas.

    I spotted Neil right away (he does the reading for the audiobook of Thud! btw) and Baldrick was tougher.

    • I have this one on DVD and I believe I’ll be making this a holiday tradition, too!