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Fantasy author Terry Pratchett, who died March 12 after a long and public battle with Alzheimer’s (something he regarded as “embuggerance”), has been remembered as one of the U.K.’s most prolific and widely loved authors.
But despite more than 70 books to his name and sales estimated at well over 80 million, not a single novel of his made it to the big screen, even though his creation, Discworld — a vast, farcical land littered with protagonists —would appear, at first glance, like ideal cinema universe fodder.
There were a number of TV adaptations, but Pratchett’s growing indifference to Hollywood was hardly a well-kept secret. Several rights were acquired, only to never get beyond the planning stages, or, in the case of 2003’s The Wee Free Men — reportedly lined up as Sam Raimi‘s next project following Spider-Man 3 in 2006 — returned to a delighted Pratchett after he read the script.
“It contained everything that The Wee Free Men actually campaigns against,” he said in 2009. “Everything about [the book] was the opposite of Disney. But the studio had kind of Disneyfied it, to make it understandable to American filmmakers.”
Pratchett later said that the planned cinema version “would have been rubbish.”
Reportedly the author’s first — and possibly future-defining — brush with Hollywood studios came following talk of his fourth Discworld book, 1987’s Mort (which centered on his character Death) being picked up for adaptation. Allegedly, after research from focus groups, he was asked to “lose the Death angle.”
“I’m allergic to Hollywood,” he explained to The Telegraph in 2010.
With such a huge fan following (The International Discworld Convention has been running every two years since 1996), there were numerous calls for movies, and the handful of made-for-TV adaptations by Sky (shown in the U.S. on Ion Television), were well-received.
But aside from Pratchett’s own unwillingness to see his fantasy land distorted by Hollywood studio execs, it may well have been the sheer imaginative scale of the universe that proved too much of a hurdle for Discworld to become cinema’s next Middle-earth.
hatever was subtle in the first movie gradually got lost in the second and third,” the actor said about the “LOTR” trilogy. “]
The world itself is an immense flat biosphere set atop four planet-sized elephants, themselves standing on an enormous, space-swimming turtle (the Great A’Tuin). It is here where 40 of Pratchett’s novels — dating back to 1983’s Color of Magic — take place, and it’s home to a vast assortment of outlandish characters, many of them parodies of figures from real life or other fantasy novels. Regulars included Rincewind, the unqualified and terrified wizard, and Sam Vimes, the deeply cynical Inspector Morse-meets-Humphrey Bogart-esque head of the police force of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest and mostly ramshackle city.
Even his Death character was a rich source of comedy, a cat-loving, scythe-carrying skeleton who would show up on his horse Binky whenever an unfortunate soul needed guiding into the afterlife. Other Discworld denizens included witches, assassins, trolls, werewolves, vampires, thieves and even an orangutan librarian.
Such scope, plus a spider’s web of intertwined stories that carry from one book to the next and require an almost encyclopedic knowledge of his work in order to appreciate the jokes, possibly pushed Discworld into the realm of the “unfilmable.”
That said, one series that’s regularly ranked higher up the unfilmable rankings, The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman — who collaborated with Pratchett on the 1990 book Good Omens (another failed cinema project, this time with Terry Gilliam) — is now looking closer to film reality after several failed attempts, with Warner Bros. on board. The Dark Knight trilogy’s David S. Goyer has penned the screenplay, working closely with Gaiman, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is set to direct.
If The Sandman can be done, could a Discworld movie work as well?
One bridge could be Rhianna Pratchett, the author’s daughter and appointed “custodian” of the series before he died. Herself a scriptwriter, having written for a number of major video games including the latest Tomb Raider reboot and Mirror’s Edge, she revealed in 2013 that she was picking up the failed cinematic pieces of The Wee Free Men and making her own adaptation for a full-length feature film. As yet, however, nothing further has been announced.
In the end, Terry Pratchett’s most successful encounter with Hollywood arguably happened within Moving Pictures, his 10th Discworld novel. With Ankh-Morpork alchemists inventing cinema (and some rather explosive popcorn), hopefuls flock to a land called “Holy Wood,” where stars such as Victor “Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can handle a sword a little” Tugelbend find fame, culminating in a disastrous premiere of Civil War drama Blown Away (a parody of Gone With the Wind).
Phenomenal books sales, coupled with video games, radio adaptations and graphic novels, ensured Pratchett was able to keep close control of his creations and prevent the external forces — or U.S. focus groups — from any dabbling.
As he said in 2010: “It’s not that I need the money.”
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