Happy . . . Sunday!
As some of you might have clocked by now, I’m obsessed by the process of adaptation: what it has to do to succeed, what liberties you shouldn’t take and which ones you must, how to deal with fantitlement and ossified ideas about how Something Should Be Done.
So here’s a special post today to celebrate the US release of BBC America’s The Watch, inspired by the novels of Terry Pratchett.
If you love the Discworld books, may I offer you some free advice? Stay well away from The Watch, a new series “inspired by the characters created by Sir Terry Pratchett.” It may well be enjoyable to viewers with no preconceptions, but if you know what “knurd” means, or who the true king of Ankh-Morpork is—in other words, if you’re a great big Discworld geek like me—don’t watch it.
It’s not for you.
This might be a rare adaptation that’s more comprehensible if you aren’t familiar with the source material. Otherwise, you will spend your time squinting at the screen like someone looking at Frankenstein’s monster and trying to recognise whose leg that used to be*.
Pratchett died six years ago at the age of 66, and his control of this television project died with him. The impending release of the BBC/AMC series has been marked by his friends and family acerbically reminding the rest of the world that it is not an “adaptation” of his books. The main charge is that the TV show has taken Pratchett’s unique, surreal vision and produced a generic steampunk cop-drama featuring a plucky gang of misfits. In October, Pratchett’s only child Rhianna said: “I think it's fairly obvious that @TheWatch shares no DNA with my father’s Watch. This is neither criticism nor support. It is what it is.” On November 6, Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s co-author on the novel Good Omens, tweeted that he was “so happy” about a film version of Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. “Now keeping my fingers crossed that Maurice remains a talking cat and that the Educated Rodents aren't a band of steampunk computer hackers on a mission.”
It will be fascinating to see whether The Watch can survive, or even overcome, the antipathy towards it from the guardians of Pratchett’s legacy. Fandoms are powerful, and highly sensitive to disrespect. Some JK Rowling fans who disagree with her views on gender have removed all references to her from their websites—and she wrote the damn books on which their entire community is built. Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner on Doctor Who was marked by fan hatred, even though he was just about the biggest Whovian geek around. The idea of releasing something with the name of a beloved author on it, when his closest friends clearly believe it is disrespectful to his memory, seems almost suicidal. The hope must be that enough casual viewers will give it a try to drown out the conniptions of the Pratchett fandom.
How did this series get to air? The television streaming wars have made competition for source material intense, so it was inevitable that producers would be drawn to the Discworld series of 41 books, which has been translated into Hebrew, Japanese, Finnish and dozens of other languages, and sold more than 75 million copies. Between 2006 and 2010, Sky adapted three of them, but there is so much more gold left to mine. There have been discussions about a spin-off Watch series since the 1990s.
The eight Watch novels run from 1989’s Guards! Guards! through to 2013’s Snuff. In the first of these, we meet Captain Samuel Vimes, a hangdog alcoholic in charge of the police in Ankh-Morpork, a city where crime is legal, and controlled by powerful guilds. Over the course of the narrative, he sobers up—his officers reckon he needed to drink because he is “knurd,” or naturally “two drinks under par”—and marries a hearty aristocrat called Lady Sybil. He is also constantly promoted by the city’s ruler, Lord Vetinari, who knows Vimes hates authority and sees it as the best way to annoy him. Vimes, like many middle-aged straight men, loudly loathes uncomfortable formal clothes, and has to be forced by his wife into the shiny breastplate and tights of his ceremonial outfits.
To his bones, Vimes is a policeman. In Jingo, he walks between two opposing armies and tries to arrest them for breach of the peace. He is the perfect man to wield power because he is so suspicious of how power can be abused, often by those who are convinced of their own righteousness. Underneath Pratchett’s endlessly funny writing, Vimes is an iron core of principle. Even Antifa would like him.
One of the books’ most moving passages describes Vimes’s affinity to Cockbill Street, where he grew up, a land of scrubbed doorsteps and hungry children. The occupants are poor but honest, even when they are kept down by gouging landlords and a rigged system, an observation which reflects Pratchett’s own views on capitalism. “While it was regarded as pretty good evidence of criminality to be living in a slum,” he writes in Feet of Clay, “for some reason owning a whole street of them merely got you invited to the very best social occasions.” This is what Pratchett fans love about his work: under the Tolkienesque trappings are some of the most acute satires on religion, power and human frailty that I have ever read.
In particular, I love Samuel Vimes. He is flawed, human and occasionally cowardly; he takes an equally dim view of his fellow humans and the city’s ethnic minorities (dwarves, trolls, vampires, werewolves and other undead). He draws all of them into the City Watch, where gargoyles—great for surveillance, can be paid in pigeons—work alongside Captain Carrot, who everyone knows is secretly the true king of Ankh-Morpork, and whose sledgehammer honesty makes him seem simple when he isn’t.
In Pratchett’s Watch, there is a place for Angua, a werewolf who has rejected her sadistic aristocratic family, but worries that she will hurt someone when the moon is up. There is Cherry Littlebottom, a dwarf who “comes out” as biologically female. (Pratchett, amused by the fact that all dwarfs in Tolkien and classic fantasy stories have beards, created a species with two sexes but one gender—at least until Cheery becomes Cherry and starts wearing lipstick and high-heeled iron boots). And there is Sergeant Colon, the kind of middle-manager who shouts to conceal his feelings of inadequacy, and Corporal Nobbs, the kind of mercenary footsoldier who goes round a battlefield nicking all the corpses’ gold teeth.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Watch is an analogy for a multiethnic state, which is endlessly fraught because humans are weak and tribal, but is still an ideal to which we can aspire. If you disdain these books because there are dragons in them, the joke’s on you.
Aware that fans can be pearl-clutching nightmares about their beloved books, I tried to approach The Watch with an open mind. Transposing novels to television involves big, structural changes, the ruthless removal of minor characters and subplots, and the inevitable loss of an authorial voice. Don’t turn into Comic-Book Guy, I told myself. “Fantitlement” is a terrible thing.
That lasted about eight minutes into the first episode. As Rhianna Pratchett put it, these are not her father’s characters. Colon and Nobbs are gone entirely; Angua is a hardbitten veteran with no obvious personality; and rather than being a female dwarf with a beard and lipstick, Cherry is male, non-binary and of average height. Vimes, that hater of fuss and fanciness, is wearing eyeliner.
These are superficial changes (although Cherry being another “tall” dwarf kinda ruins the running gag/profound meditation on identity where Carrot feels incredibly dwarfish but looks to everyone else like a huge strapping human bloke). Fine. But what in the name of Offler the Crocodile God is Vimes doing in the first episode acquiescing to a couple of henchmen being casually burned alive by Lady Sybil? The Vimes of the books tries to arrest every evildoer, no matter how dangerous. He reasons that once you start deciding who deserves to live, it is hard to stop. He doesn’t sign off on immolating henchmen.
In fact, let’s backtrack a bit: what the hell has happened to Lady Sybil? In the books, she is a well-upholstered middle-aged aristocrat, briskly kind in a very English labradors-and-galoshes way. Think opera singer in tweeds, with “a bosom that rose and fell like an empire”. To millions of Pratchett’s female readers, Lady Sybil proved that being polite and big-boned can also be a superpower. The Watch has turned her into a kickass armed vigilante in a belted trench coat—yes, that hoariest of tropes, a “strong female character”. Worse, she’s thin.
Changes like these are what takes this past being an adaptation and onto something else entirely. There are also several decisions which are not so much bad as baffling. Why are you using the chest-mounted “drunk” effect camera last seen in That Mitchell and Webb Look? Why is Lord Vetinari wearing David Byrne’s big suit and what looks like a loaf on his head? Who thought that the running gag where the chief wizard makes a trombone noise whenever he tries to swear was funny? (This decision is particularly egregious, because Pratchett is known for his humour. It’s like thinking you can improve Moby-Dick by replacing the whale with a seagull.)
The inescapable conclusion is that the makers of the television series treated the unique peculiarities of Discworld as something to be smoothed out, rather than savoured. The story is a mash-up of Guards! Guards! and a later book, Nightwatch, which is confusing if you know the novels, but makes sense in adaptation terms, because television eats plot. That kind of change is understandable. What has gone missing is the Discworld’s heart. The books “had strong moral teaching, without stuffing it down your throat,” Colin Smythe, Pratchett’s first publisher and agent, told me.
The Watch has taken the superficial fantasy parts of Pratchett—the trolls and dragons—and made its own stab at being funny. Yet it is missing the book’s moral core. Or, rather, the writers have replaced that with a very 2020 version of progressive politics. We see Carrot get scolded in the first episode for expressing surprise at a character’s pronouns, for example, which is a teachable moment but not a very Pratchettian one. There is no sense here of the Vimes whose motto is: “Just because someone’s a member of an ethnic minority doesn't mean they’re not a nasty small-minded little jerk.” (Pratchett did not believe in “the superior virtue of the oppressed.”) In place of a broad, forgiving humanism, the show is infused with modern left-wing politics, which takes itself very seriously. Terry Pratchett did not.
Through the show’s PR, I asked Simon Allen, the lead writer and executive producer, whether his team were fans of the books before embarking on the series, and why they wanted to work with the Discworld characters. “As somebody who left an abusive home at 11 years old and struggled for safety and validity, I always found refuge in the extraordinarily brave and marginalized characters of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books,” Allen replied via email. “The feelings of hope and the determination to overcome helplessness that Sam, Sybil, Cheery, Angua and Carrot inspired in me are very much present in The Watch and I feel so lucky that they’ve been brought to life with such joy and abandon by this cast. The Watch is a subversive, fantastical series about the ultimate found family with hope and optimism at its heart.”
It has become fashionable among Pratchett fans to insist that the books are “unadaptable,” but that isn’t quite true. Good Omens is popular, although that is at least half Neil Gaiman’s project and is he alive to steer it. The Sky adaptations had wonderful moments—Clare Foy as Adorabelle Dearheart, also known as “Spike”, was a revelation—but struggled to flesh out the world of Ankh-Morpork on their limited budget.
For me, the most successful dramatic version of the Discworld comes from Stephen Briggs’s amateur plays. Briggs wrote these, he told me, mostly through a process of subtraction: stripping the characters and action back, and preserving as much of Pratchett’s dialogue as he could. In a few of the plays, he made Pratchett’s famous footnotes a character in their own right, coming out to deliver exposition (and jokes) directly to the audience. Briggs pointed to the recent BBC adaptation of Les Miserables to show the big problem of translating a novel to the screen, which means losing the narration. The adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel was “great,” Briggs said, but “it couldn’t find a way to say what Javert was thinking, because they didn’t have songs.” The presence of The Footnote solved that problem.
The homespun nature of Briggs’s am-dram adaptations also suits Pratchett very well. Several of the books are concerned with storytelling, and its ability to override our rational brains and make us suspend disbelief. An obviously unconvincing orangutan costume made by “Somerset hippies”, as Briggs’s local theater company used in its productions, is somehow truer to Pratchett than a glossy CGI version.
During his lifetime, Pratchett was vigilant about adaptations. He often came to see Briggs’s plays, and let him know if anything hadn’t come up to scratch. When Biggs was adapting Maskerade, Pratchett insisted that he include two scenes which the playwright wanted to cut, reasoning that they slowed the play down.** “It was pretty free and easy in the early days,” Briggs told me, but later Pratchett realised that a bad theatrical version might discourage the audience from picking up his books: “If you adapt them badly, people will come along and think: well that was a pile of old shite, if that was Terry Pratchett, he can stick it up his arse.”
Pratchett enjoyed these amateur productions because they were done out of love, and their faithfulness to the original texts made them fan favourites. When I called Colin Smythe, who controls the licenses of four of the plays, he reeled off place names: Frankfurt, Uttoxer, Virginia, Florstadt, Hove, Helsinki, Freiburg, Singapore, Western Australia, Lancing, Rutland, Edinburgh Fringe, Victoria, Ottawa, New Zealand, Gateshead. All of these have hosted a Pratchett play. The works have now been performed on every continent, thanks to an Australian team on an Antarctic research base. There are approximately 70 productions a year in normal times, Smythe told me, with Wyrd Sisters proving the most popular. (There were 15 in 2019.) I asked Smythe if there was a tendency to regard a television adaptation as bestowing a seal of approval on an author, something which the multi-million-selling Pratchett didn’t really need. “The Watch may be someone’s seal of approval, but it’s an unnecessary one,” he said, before sending me a list of new productions lined up for this year.
When he and Pratchett first discussed a new television adaptation, Smythe said, “the idea was that Terry would have oversight, but that was 2010. The contract didn’t say anything about who it would be once he’d gone.” Back then, the idea was that the scriptwriters would use the characters as they were at the time of Snuff, then the most recent novel, and write their own plots. Smythe had not seen a preview of the new series when we spoke.
Briggs would not be watching either. He referenced recent adaptations which have taken liberties with their source material to good effect: Nick Murphy’s version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol; Sarah Phelps’s Agatha Christie updates, and the show Dickensian. “There needs to be a fondness for the base material, and a respect,” he said. By contrast, The Watch seemed to be a “cyberpunk rollercoaster with lots of jazzy adjectives and neon lights.”
Briggs ended our call by reading me a quotation from an essay he had written on adaptation. “You’ve chosen to adapt the author's work because, presumably, you admire their writing,” it read. “If you think you can improve on their humour/drama/characterisation you should really be writing your own plots, and not torturing theirs.”
It’s important not to treat texts as holy writ. Pratchett himself stole from folk tales and film plots and Shakespeare and Monty Python and countless other works, stirring them up in his imagination like gumbo and producing something fresh. Some of the best adaptations bear little immediate resemblance to their source material. The film Clueless is a perfect 1990s remix of Jane Austen’s Emma, right down to the arch social commentary; Arthur Miller’s All My Sons has the same plot engine as Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (a buried secret explodes a family). And good lord, you should see the liberties the Germans take with Shakespeare. But the first two examples change the names of their characters, while Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years.
The reason that The Watch is so painful to Pratchett’s friends—and why I suspect it will upset his existing fanbase—is that it reminds them of the unarguable fact of his death, at a relatively early age, from a disease which first robbed him of the power to communicate. The last few Discworld novels were written from dictation by Pratchett’s amanuensis Rob Wilkins, once the author lost the ability to type. Pratchett’s fundraising for early-onset dementia, and his championing of assisted suicide, was a typically brave gesture. But his loss still hurts, despite—perhaps because of—the fact he was so prolific. There were undoubtedly many more Discworld stories locked inside his head when he died, as well as 10 in fragmentary form on his hard drive, which he insisted that Wilkins drive over with a steamroller.
Yet instead of those books, we get this: Vimes in eyeliner, sexpot Sybil, and other indignities. What has been lost is not just Pratchett’s voice, but his way—Vimes’s way—of looking at the world. In the overwrought maelstrom of outrage culture, I long for his wry, forgiving humanism, and his sly amusement at human foibles.
For anyone who just wants a binge-able steampunk fantasy series, The Watch is a knockabout police procedural. But for Pratchett’s fans, it is a brutal reminder of what we’ve lost.
* This was a secret test of your Pratchett fandom: did you mentally substitute “Igor” here?
** The chocolate pudding scene and the coda with Granny Weatherwax and Agnes Nitt, whom Pratchett intended to return to, but never did.