It was some time after its creation when most people forgot that the very oldest stories of the beginning are, sooner or later, about blood. At least, that's one theory. The philosopher Didactylos has suggested an alternative hypothesis: "Things just happen. What the hell."
By the time we first see the Discworld brought to life - the flat realm, drifting through space, resting atop four elephants standing on the shell of the giant turtle, the Great A'Tuin - we instantly wonder why it's taken so long for a live-action adaptation of Terry Pratchett's famous book series to arrive. A few made-for-TV animated shorts and a handful of BBC radio adaptations have been produced, but it wasn't until a two-part adaptation of the twentieth book in the series, "Hogfather," was broadcast on Britain's Sky One channel in December 2006 (ten years after the novel's original publication) that fans got to see their favorite fantasy realm spring to life.
The heavy creative input of Pratchett himself (who earns a wonderfully curious "mucked about by" credit) ensures that this project remains faithful to the author's series and its dry, crafty style. Meanwhile, director Vadim Jean, who also adapted the teleplay, obviously did something right: he was promptly hired on to helm the miniseries adaptation of the first Discworld novel, "The Colour of Magic," which premieres later this month on Sky One.
"Hogfather" is a peculiar choice for the first live-action adaptation, as it's not the first tale in any of the Discworld story arcs and acts more as a standalone adventure than as a welcoming introduction to Pratchett's fantasy realm. This is, essentially, a Christmas special set firmly within an already established universe, an odd place to start a new TV franchise, indeed.
But it also works precisely because of its in-the-thick-of-it attitude. Jean's script provides only the slightest of exposition - just enough to inform the viewers that this story takes place in a world where fairy tale, fantasy, magic, and semi-modern life collide - then dives head-first into the main plot. By refusing to spend too much time explaining every detail about how Discworld works, Jean forces the audience to blindly accept all the story's rules, not worry about the rest, and simply enjoy the tale as it unfolds.
The Hogfather is Discworld's stand-in for Santa Claus, and the winter festival Hogswatch is its Christmas. The Auditors, wraith-like spirits who act as "celestial bureaucrats," have come to the Assassin's Guild with the request that they off the jolly fat man. The chilling sociopath called Mr. Teatime (Marc Warren) takes the seemingly impossible job, and undertakes a bit of a roundabout solution to the task: he and his goons break into the Tooth Fairy's castle and set out to use the teeth of all the children of the world to magically control their minds. Meanwhile, Death himself (voiced by the late Ian Richardson, who also narrates) decides to take over the Hogfather's delivery duties, in order to keep kids believing. Meanwhile still, Death's granddaughter, Susan (Michelle Dockery), investigates the Hogfather's disappearance.
It's all wonderfully complex yet elegantly simple, and the miniseries was definitely the right choice for such an adaptation; there's just too much that would've gone woefully lost in a shorter movie. "Hogfather" shines in the extraneous details, like the scene where Death fails to comprehend the line between promising children toys and giving them everything they want, or the creation of the Oh God of Hangovers (his name says it all), or the comic interplay between Teatime and his henchmen. There's an awful lot that could have been cut here for time, and thankfully none of it was.
Some parents may balk at bits of material here and there - the hangover god is not the only reference to drinking; Death's sidekick uses some salty language; Teatime may be surrounded by comic relief but is himself most deadly serious and thoroughly frightening - and yet this is perfect children's storytelling, the sort that treats young viewers with respect and intelligence, assumes they can keep up with the plot as well as their parents, and figures that whatever jokes go over their heads now will catch up to them when they rewatch the thing in a decade or two. As far as "somebody saves Christmas" plots go, "Hogfather" avoids all the clichés, banishes any appearance of sentimental goo, and celebrates the odd comic blending of holiday special with Grimm fairy tale wildness.
At the center of it all are a batch of exceptional performances, most notable Warren's spooky Teatime and Richardson's hilariously droll Death. The Death scenes are the highlight, really, a fun twist on the "Nightmare Before Christmas" formula, and kids and parents alike will thrill to the sly humor of seeing the grim reaper done up in a Santa suit as he contemplates rules of the holiday and the meaning of belief itself.
But the real star here is the production design, which builds a wholly believable world out of Pratchett's words. Every locale - especially the Tooth Fairy's castle and the Hogfather's "castle of bones" - is a treat for the imagination, every set filled from top to bottom with the feel of a lived-in universe. Jean takes his time leading us through these wondrous places, relishing the chance to play host in such a fully realized world.
And with the exception of a few ill-conceived modern-Earth references (a visual "Intel Inside" parody made me cringe), the whole project is timeless, a holiday special that requires no holiday to heighten its enjoyment factor. Pratchett's Discworld is a marvelous creation, and "Hogfather" marks an ideal introduction.
"Hogfather" was originally released in Region 1 exclusively in Borders stores last fall; it finally gets a full release now, oddly out of season. Both 95-minute episodes and all extras are collected on a single disc (as opposed to the Region 2 release, which spread the goodies over two discs).
Video & Audio
There's a rich amount of detail to be found in this anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. The miniseries was made with Sky One's HD channel in mind, and for the most part, it shows here. The night scenes lean a bit toward the dark side, while the brighter scenes in the Tooth Fairy's white-as-snow castle are spectacular. (One wonders if the transfer would've looked even better without both episodes crammed on one disc.)
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive, making good use of the surround feature. No subtitles are offered.
Unlike the extras-rich Region 2 release, all Region 1 folks will get here is an extended trailer for the miniseries (4:05) that gives away a bit too much and a lengthy interview with Pritchett (20:48), in which the author discusses in great detail the story's vital themes of imagination and belief as well as the joys of working with filmmakers who "get" his style. Both are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
"Hogfather" is an extraordinary comedy/fantasy/adventure, and a delightful introduction to the work of Pratchett. This is the ideal holiday entertainment, but even here, removed from the Christmas season, it's a joyous experience. Highly Recommended.