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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Books on DVD: The Color of Magic

Translating a book into a movie is akin to walking a tightrope. On the one hand, you're taking an intellectual property that has an established following, so you have to please them. But if you want to be successful, you also have to please the people who've never heard of the book.

There are a couple of tacks to take in pursuit of this. If you're Disney, you buy the IP, keep the title and the character names and write a movie without reading the book. Have you ever read Bedknob and Broomstick? 101 Dalmations? The Rescuers? The movies have virtually nothing to do with the books, but it doesn't really matter because the target market will see the movie before it reads the book, and in that case it's the book that gets criticized for being "wrong."

If you're target market is older, but less geekly, you can buy a potboiler thriller from three summers back by Michael Crichton or John Grisham that a ton of people read, but very few people remember, and make a movie that has the same characters, strikes the same basic themes but is basically a totally different movie. The quitiessential example of this is The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy. The book is about how the world gets to the brink of nuclear war because of palestinian terrorists trying to destroy Israel. The movie is about... neo-nazis.

The really hard movies to make are geek favorites. In those cases, the core audience hasn't just read the book, but in many cases has committed passages to memory and has probably cosplayed (WARNING: Google "cosplay" only with safesearch enabled) as a character from it.

There are three successful ways of making geek favorites. The J.K. Rowling method is to hold the movies to exacting standards of fidelity, resulting in a movie that is extremely true to the book and probably a little unweildy. Non-geeks will lambast you for being slavish.

The Goldman (Author of The Princess Bride, you philistines) method is to make a movie that strikes all the same themes, but stands alone as a property all its own. The movie becomes a complement to the book, something that fans will get more out of than the average theatre-goer, but still remains a good movie in its own right.

The Tolkien-Jackson Method is to be as true to the books as possible, but not truer. Sure, you will be savaged by hardcore fans for omitting Tom Bombadil from your movie and screwing up the characterizations of Faramir and Denethor, but you will win an oscar, make gobs of money, and ruin Elijah Wood's career the way George Lucas did for Mark Hamil, so on balance it comes out positive.

If you've been in a BJs wholesale club, or if you have the same kind of history I have at, you might have noticed that there is a DVD out called "The Color of Magic," and sure enough it's a film translation of Terry Pratchet's first discworld novel.

Well, technically it's a translation of his first two discworld novels, as it includes not just The Color of Magic but also The Light Fantastic.

For those of you unfamiliar, shame on you! The Discworld series is a series of novels that take place on a world where magic, not science, is king. To give you an example of just how supreme magic is, the world is an enormous flat disc that sits on the back of four enormous elephants that walk around in circles on the back of a turtle that enormous would only begin to describe.

Like I said, magic.

The easiest way to describe it is Terry Pratchet doing for the fantasy genre what Douglas Adams did for the science fiction genre. If you haven't read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy either, I don't really understand what you're doing on this site. But suffice it to say, it's comedy. And british comedy at that.

The story of The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic revolve around two primary characters: Rincewind, a failed wizard who can't remember any spell but one and doesn't even know what that spell does; and Twoflower, a tourist from a faraway land that thinks all that magic business is very romantic and quaint.

Twoflower gets himself and Rincewind into all sorts of trouble, and they get wrapped up in a plot that ends up saving the discworld from destruction. I won't go into too much detail about the story at this point, but be forewarned that there be spoilers ahead, as I am writing this from the perspective of someone who has read the books.

The movie is cast exceptionally well. Sean Astin (Sam Gamgee from LOTR) is Twoflower the tourist. Tim Curry (who needs no introduction) plays Trymon, a very ambitious wizard who literally kills his way up the wizardly corporate ladder. David Jason, the voice of Dangermouse and Count Duckula, plays Rincewind. Jeremy Irons (Die Hard 3's Simon Gruber) plays the Patrician to perfection. Finally, Christopher Lee himself lends his voice as Death.

As a movie, it only sort of works. A lot of the humor in Pratchett's novels come from the narrator's descriptions of how things work on the disc. This movie keeps narration to a minimum, and while that's very wise from a moviemaking perspective, it kind of robs the movie of some of its magic. We never get the descriptions of how light moves through a world with a strong magical field (answer: very slowly), for example.

The chief problem is that the movie assumes you've read the books. If you haven't read the books, you'll only sort of know what's going on. Why does Twoflower, an insurance salesman, pronounce "insurance" so affectedly? Why is there a trunk that can walk and eat people following Twoflower about? Why does Death personally show up to claim dying wizards, and why does he keep hanging around Rincewind? They never really explain any of it, and if you haven't read the books you just have to take it on faith that what you're seeing is funny, which rarely works.

There are some differences and omissions that were probably necessary but made me unhappy. One of the funniest sequences in the books is when Rincewind meets the clan of rock trolls and fulfills an ancient prophecy that reads "Rincewind will come looking for mushrooms. Do not bite him." They did include Old Grandpa; a troll the size of a mountain; but his introduction is ineffective without the inclusion of other rock trolls (which can be very small), and the sequence where he wakes up is technically impressive enough that it only highlights the fact that they intentionally wrote the other trolls; which they were clearly capable of rendering; out of the story.

The fact that they omitted some visual gags but still kept in the "in-sewer-ants" and "din-chewers" jokes is head scratching, because using phoenetic equivalent spellings for "insurance" and "dentures" only works if you're reading it. Twoflower is supposed to be explaining these terms to people who've never heard them before and have no concept of what they are. Instead, he sounds like he spontaneously shed 100 IQ points mid-sentence.

Personally, I would have much rather they'd included the Hydrophobes than heard a bunch of people say "in sewer ants."

But let's focus on the good aspects, because it's not a bad movie, just a flawed film adaptation. Cohen the Barbarian does make an appearance and the scenes that involve him are fairly true to the book. Being able to actually see the 90 year old barbarian cutting a swath through younger warriors without serious trouble is a treat, and hearing him complain that he hates "shoop" because he hasn't got any teeth left made me smile. Further, like the rest of the cast they found a superlative actor to play him.

Twoflower's sapient pearwood trunk is created through the magic of computer animation, and it looks almost exactly how I pictured it. I wish they had focused on it as much in the movie as Pratchett did in the books, because the descriptions in the books were very funny.

The Color of Magic is $10 at BJs, and if you're a fan of the books I don't really see how you can pass it up. It strikes the major themes as well as can be expected, and it does a good job visualizing a world where light moves very slowly. It's just a pity that they didn't choose what was included and what wasn't with more care.

But then what do I know? Terry Pratchet himself signed off on the script, or so says the credits. I'm just some guy with a blog that nobody reads.