Hogfather in Australia

The two-part movie Hogfather, based on the novel by Terry Pratchett, was originally screened on British television in December 2006. I wrote a blog post at the time (now deleted) reviewing the preview material that was officially made available on the Internet. Well, the movie has now been screened on Australian television too, and so I’ve finally seen it. Here are my thoughts.

[Update August 2008: I’ve had the DVD for some time, but until now haven’t got around to watching it again all the way through. However, the movie was recently mentioned on afp, which motivated me to get out the DVD and stop procrastinating. I have now updated this review with the benefit of repeat viewings.]

The first episode:

I like the intro sequence (particularly the Tower of Art and the model of A’Tuin) with the reservation that the mountains around Ankh-Morpork are far too barren. There are trees elsewhere in the movie, but they seem to have been forgotten about them here.

In general I think the movie captures the right Discworld atmosphere. The lighting, the incidental music, the architecture and furnishings (in the assassins’ guild, Death’s domain, and elsewhere) and all those little things were done well. Incidentally, A’Tuin is pronounced the same way I’ve always pronounced it, and so is Ankh-Morpork. Some of the cosmetic touches are very nice, such as the flash of skull when Susan says “Go away and stop bothering me“, Death’s skeletal garden gnome, and so on. I really liked the Death of Rats, particularly with respect to its motion, and effects-wise the Auditors are very good apart from the comically nasal voices. One of the most effective special effects is the stopping of time, and just before it Susan’s self-styling hair is also rather good.

There are, however, several cosmetic disappointments, presumably due to the limited budget. Ridcully’s new bathroom is brown and drab in the movie but colourful and vibrant in the book, and the monster under the bed is vastly inferior to the one described in the book as something large and hairy with eight legs. (I think it was a really bad idea to give it a human face.) The sleigh-pulling pigs look too much like soft toys rather than the wild beasts they are supposed to be, and the costume department should have done more for Mojo the Dwarf, who is insufficiently Dwarf-like. Of these disappointments, most are relatively minor; the monster is the only one that really grates.

The casting was generally excellent. I would like to single out Ian Richardson (Death and narration), Michelle Dockery (Susan), and David Warner (Lord Downey) as the best three. It is also difficult to find any shortcomings in Joss Ackland’s portrayal of Ridcully, except perhaps for the hairs in his beard [joke on the word ‘shortcomings’]. Marc Warren (Teatime), Peter Guinness (Medium Dave), and the rest of the gang are just right, as are Jon Ridgeon and the guests in the house where Susan works. A lot of fans have criticised Teatime’s American accent, but it works for me. David Jason as Albert and Tony Robinson as Mr. Crumley were good choices as celebrity actors, although in my opinion Tony Robinson is not very good at playing a character in distress. His forte lies in Baldrick-type characters who stoically accept any burden, and he does not portray panic, grief and desperation realistically.

The narration is commendable, but some of the other movie-specific dialogue deserves criticism. Mr. Brown’s entrance is perhaps the most cringe-worthy moment of all, because it’s utterly ridiculous that someone would enter a room at the precise moment that their name is mentioned and immediately say something beginning with “And…“. Another truly awful moment is the point where an Auditor says, “And the hogfather is just the beginning“, which sounds like a B-grade movie cliche or something. Actually, a lot of the Auditors’ dialogue that isn’t from the book is out of character – the very fact that they engage in question-and-answer dialogues with each other gives them a degree of individuality (because they then have distinct conversational roles of questioner and answerer) whereas one of the fundamental ideas in the books is that they do not.

In addition to these major criticisms, I also have some minor criticisms of the dialogue. For example, Susan tells the children that the Hogfather won’t come if they don’t believe in him, which seems very unlike the Susan we know. Most of the dialogue from the book is presented well by the actors, but there are exceptions. For example, the line “I saw your piggy do a wee” was spoilt because it was delivered in entirely the wrong tone of voice: it should have been said excitedly. In the same scene, the mother should not be able to move her eyes while she is frozen, and later on when she says, “You mean, this is all free?“, she ought to be looking at Death, not at Crumley.

At least one written (rather than spoken) joke was removed for some reason. In the book, the letter to the Hogfather contains the phrase, “you are your father really“. In the movie, it was changed to “you are my father really” – in other words the joke was removed. What the writers thought this alteration would achieve is a mystery.

The biggest difference between the book and the movie is that various things which are left as mysteries for most of the former are revealed rather early on in the latter. This has been widely criticised by fans, but I think it may well have been the right decision to give the movie enough appeal to an audience for whom everything Discworld is new. On the other hand, does such an audience understand, among other things, why people don’t notice Death’s skull when he is dressed as the Hogfather, or why belief in the Hogfather is fading when the spell has not yet been cast on the pile of teeth? Examples of things that are revealed much earlier in the movie than they are in the book (and in different ways) are the kidnapping of Violet, the connection between the Hogfather and the sunrise, the thing about the child’s painting, and most significantly the fact that the gang are at the tooth fairy’s castle in order to stop children from believing in the Hogfather.

I am told that when the first episode was screened on British television last year, it was followed by a preview for the second episode that spoilt the rest of the story. However, the Australian screening came with our own Australian preview for which that was certainly not the case.

The second episode:

This episode is suitably atmospheric, as was the first, and the incidental music is a very good match for the emotional content of the movie.

There are, once again, some very nice cosmetic touches. The design of Hex is superb – far better than I ever imagined it – but I didn’t understand why Hex was described as “the biggest thinker in the world” instead of (as in the book) “a machine for thinking“. I remember being very impressed with the Eater of Socks when I saw the promo material a year before seeing the movie, but unfortunately the Eater appears very briefly and in such poor lighting that the excellent design is effectively wasted. Later on, the scene where Susan and Bilious are inside the child’s painting is visually well done, especially the bit where Susan picks up some of the water in the river. However, shouldn’t the house have a bright red roof and blue windows?

Many scenes from the book were left out, and in most cases I don’t mind even when those scenes would have made excellent television, because I realise that there are practical constraints on how much can be included. But there are some scenes and dialogues that I really wish were shown, typically those that illuminate and add depth to characters such as Death, the Auditors, Bilious and so forth. For example, I wish they’d left in the scene in which the conduit relationship between Bilious and the God of Wine is established, partly because it’s an excellent idea and partly because without it the former’s desire for a drink has no context. Also, the arguments between Death and Albert over the match girl and so on are rather ineffective, as Albert’s point of view doesn’t really come across. Certainly not why he thinks it an issue to walk out over.

There were some other lines for which the context necessary to explain them was absent. For example, Ridcully’s line, “I suppose the Bursar might have done–” is included, but the Bursar’s insanity is not portrayed. As for the line “Did you suck your thumbs when you were young?“, the book explains the connection in Discworld folk mythology between the Scissor Man and the sucking of thumbs, but how is the average viewer supposed to know that? One line that is rendered inappropriate is Teatime referring to the children in Susan’s care as “curly-haired tots“, when in fact he is the only person in the room with curly hair.

Some of the best scenes appeared towards the end of the story. Maggie McCarthy as Ma Lillywhite was suitably terrifying, and I loved Michelle Dockery’s handling of Susan’s verbal confrontations with Teatime. For example she delivered the line “Hi, Inner Child, I’m the Inner Baby Sitter” with absolute perfection. Susan’s compassion for the apparently dead Hogfather was also well portrayed, showing Michelle Dockery’s skill at portraying a range of emotions. (These are only examples; there are many other emotions that she handles superbly by any standard, and especially that of an actor at the beginning of her career.) The bit with the snowman was perfectly timed, the scene of the sun rising in front of the silhouetted Hogfather was appropriate in all respects, and the Hogfather’s nod was just right.

Speaking of actors at the beginning of their career, I must compliment the younger of the child actors in the scene where Teatime tries to convince them that Death is scary. His handling of the dialogue and the associated facial expressions is very believable.

Ian Richardson as Death does a good job with the scene in which the moral of the story is explained (“humans need fantasy”, etc), and with his verbal confrontation with the Auditors, although these would have been even better with more of the dialogue from the book. Death’s Hogswatch card was good, but I don’t think the aspects of his personality that it is supposed to illuminate come through strongly enough in the movie.

Where the plot deviates from the book, it sometimes fails to hang together. For example, there is no indication of how getting hold of the tooth fairy is supposed to increase Teatime’s hold over humanity. As for the bogeyman tooth fairy, she is the biggest disappointment of the episode. She is simply too human, too similar to the old woman whose image she takes when Susan first confronts her.

Overall I would award the movie four stars. Three and a half if non-integers are allowed. I take it that three stars means satisfactorily entertaining, four means commendable, and five stars means outstanding.

6 Responses to “Hogfather in Australia”

  1. mark Says:

    That’s fairly comprehensive. Good to know it’s much better than I’d feared. Any idea if it’s coming out on DVD?

  2. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    It is out on DVD, but the site I’m keeping an eye on lists it as “out of stock”.

    So, what were you doing in December that you missed it on TV?

  3. The Ridger Says:

    FWIW it’s on DVD again, by itself and packaged with the other two.

    Teatime had an American accent??? As with Peter Pan earlier I have to say I didn’t even notice. (Maybe it wasn’t so much American as just not British?)

    Lovely review.

  4. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    Maybe from the perspective of an American it was a bad American accent, but it was good enough to fool us BrE/AuE folk (it was rhotic and obviously not Irish, with unrounded o’s and all).

    Many British fans complained that Teatime shouldn’t be American, but I say, this isn’t Earth. Given the diversity of accents that exist within Britain, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be places in or near Ankh-Morpork where the people sound sort of American.

  5. mark Says:

    (Disconnected thoughts now I’ve seen it.)
    I think my biggest problem with it was with the connecting pieces – it felt like a series of disconnected scenes. So many bits wouldn’t make sense to a non-fan; and (because we missed the beautiful Pterry writing) the little vignettes weren’t funny enough even for those who DID understand them.

    The Tooth Fairy scene wasn’t nearly as powerful as in my head in the book. A big part of it, as you say, was the bogey man: it was hard to work out what was so horrifying about it, or why its adopted role would give anyone pause.

    Death the snowman was good. His delivery of the “under your skin” speech was magnificent. A great entry in the “Death as champion of humanity” files, although again I’m not sure if a non-fan would have understood.

    I liked Banjo and Medium Dave. Ma Lillywhite was fantastic, and the three of them really sold the idea of being under her thumb even after death. Banjo was even better than my imagination – I got a great feeling of just how ridiculous, and yet appropriate, Banjo’s new role was.

    I objected to Teatime’s Americanish accent, although not because I expected him to be a Londoner. I think the problem was that it felt like he had to be American to be considered properly terrifyingly psychotic.

    Nigel Planer was great as Mr Sideney. He didn’t even seem too old. I missed Catseye. Chickenwire’s death in the closet turned one of the creepiest macabre nightmare things into a clumsy cartoon.

    I would have liked to see Death’s mouth move. I can see them not bothering as he talked – but it was jarring to see him play with the biscuit. It was clear he wasn’t eating it, not because he’s a skeleton, but because his mask wouldn’t move.

  6. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    I remember Death’s jaw being discussed at the time, with Pterry pointing out that a jaw going up and down all the time just looks inappropriately comical. But I do see your point about the biscuit — it looks as if he’s trying to figure out what to do with it. Still, I don’t think making the jaw move is necessarily the solution. Perhaps the point you raise could be solved by having the biscuit actually be consumed, piece by piece, off-camera. Now you see it; now you see it with a bite taken out of it.

    What would you have done differently regarding the wardrobe? For me, the only thing that grates is that stripey black-and-white interior, but it’s been a while since I read the book.

    The “under your skin” speech was good. They didn’t include one of the most powerful speeches in the book — you know, about the Auditors’ hatred for a mere tube worm and then “Imagine what THEY think of humanity” — but I can see why they left that out.

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