When I first heard of Terry Pratchett and Discworld I didn't immediately run out and start buying the books. I was reluctant to even start. At the time I learned about the series there were already 25 or more and, not being a lover of fantasy, I was in no hurry to deviate from my regular reading habits. This changed when I read a compilation that had a novella featuring Granny Weatherwax, the lead character in most of the side stories dealing with a number of rural witches and the adventures they get into. It was well-written, hilarious, and convinced me that Pratchett was worth checking out.
It was Wyrd Sisters, the first of the witch books, that I began my journey with, largely because it was the first one featuring Granny Weatherwax. Soon, however, I was reading them all and, until Terry Pratchett's death in 2015, Discworld books were something I looked forward to every year, along with whatever new stuff Stephen King and Jack McDevitt might have in store. After the first few books a consistent timeline developed, and five main offshoots evolved - the witches, Death, the Ankh-Morpork Guard, Unseen University and Moist von Lipwig - where the stories concentrated on specific characters with the background being the evolution of Discworld from a medieval / early Renaissance fantasy world to a strange amalgamation of 19th century technology applied in 20th (and later 21st) century means.
The stories that turned out to be my favorites featured Death as the main character - or rather his anthropomorphic personification as the Grim Reaper. The thing to understand about Discworld is that it is a world that exists in a different dimension than ours, and is made out of pure fantasy and magic. The world itself is a flat disc that rests on the back of four elephants that slowly march around on the back of a giant turtle named A'tuin, which in turn slowly swims through space. The sun and moon of the Discworld orbit the entire conglomeration on the regular, but it does have seasons due to the motions of the elephants taking portions further or closer from its satellites. It is a world without atheists, as the Gods are quite real and get rather upset if not believed in, and will make their displeasure personally known.
That type of belief leads to some interesting things. An early novel, Small Gods, which takes place centuries before the events in a good part of the series, deals in how true belief (and not just rote ritual) sustains the various deities. In Pyramids, we find out how rigid belief can lead to stagnation, as the need for keeping things unchanged leads to an entire country vanishing into its own alternative universe of contradictory doctrines. In Hogfather Pratchett explores how the power of belief in things that are not real helps humans enforce order on a disorderly universe and find a place within it, as well as keep themselves sane.
Lord Downey (David Warner), the head of the Assassin's Guild in the malodorous metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, is hired by gray-robed creatures called the Auditors to inhume a being known as the Hogfather, the Discworld analog to Father Christmas, on the night before Hogswatch. Their intent is to make the first strike against believing in fantasy creatures as part of their ultimate goal of forcing humanity to obey a set of rigid rules governing the reality of the universe. Downey gives the job to Mr. Teatime (pronounced "Te-a-ti-me") (Marc Warren), an aspiring guild member that is known for his brutal methods, but also is just clever enough to have thought of ways of killing such supposedly immortal creatures.
When Death (Ian Richardson) realizes that belief in the Hogfather is fading he takes up the reigns - literally - and with a sled pulled by four magical boars and his butler Albert (David Jason) filling in as a Hogswatch Elf, attempts to fulfill the Hogfather's duties. Meanwhile, Teatime teams with a group of gangsters, a locksmith and a wizard to break into the castle of the Tooth Fairy and use the teeth collected therein in order to control children's beliefs. His plan runs into numerous problems, one being that the lack of belief in the Hogfather has led to the wizards at the Unseen University noticing new things coming into being. The second is that Death's granddaughter Susan (Michelle Dockery) is on her way to sort things out.
Hogfather was the first live-action adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and director and writer Vadim Jean does what he can to bring it to life. It is a difficult feat, especially since this was produced as a two-part miniseries by Sky One rather than the BBC. It aired once on an almost-forgotten U.S. cable station called Ion, meaning that typically if we want to see it we have to search down a DVD copy. It is worth it; the acting is superb, most of the characters look like they were plucked from the book and, while Ankh-Morpork may look a little more 19th century than one would expect, it's still nice to see it on screen. It is wonderful what they did with this when considering the budget, and so I will forgive the more dodgy effects considering that they were doing the best with what they had and not just squandering a pile of cash like a lot of big movies do these days.
As a fan of the books I really have few complaints. One is the Auditors - whom I find one of the scariest antagonists in any series of books - are portrayed a bit more comically here. I think the way they are described in the book, as being empty grey robes, is more striking than their spectral appearance here. Even though we do see Death of Rats and Chancellor Ridcully (Joss Ackland) trying out B. S. Johnson's shower, the payoffs in the book get left behind in service of the main story. These are minor things. However, there is a bigger elephant in the room, almost as large as the four on A'tuin's back.
For instance - how many readers, with no familiarity to the series of books, got most of what I said in the previous paragraph? Mustrum Ridcully is the Chancellor of Unseen University, B. S. Johnson is the worst inventor to ever exist (he made over-engineered devices that are inventive but sometimes lethal), Death of Rats came about in the book Mort when Death was planning retirement and there were briefly millions of personifications, and the Auditors are cosmic bureaucrats. Just the fact that I had to explain that, and the fact that this doesn't even scratch the surface of the world in which Hogfather takes place, is the major problem.
Hogfather, the novel, is the 20th book in the series. It is the fourth book featuring Death as a main character. There were animated versions of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music (the latter being the Death story that precedes Hogfather, and deals with "music with rocks in" becoming popular in Ankh-Morpork and introduces Susan as a major character), but they were not well-known and nearly impossible to find in the U.S. The movie was made largely for fans of the books, which were hugely popular in the U.K., who would know what was going on. There is an entire decade of worldbuilding prior to this story, all of which the movie assumes the audience knows by heart at this point. Something as small as Death's conversation with Nobby Nobbs (Nicholas Tennant) is hard to understand unless one already knows that Nobbs has to carry around a signed paper from Ankh-Morpork's Patrician stating that he is actually human.
While I highly recommend this film to anyone looking for something that has a lot more depth than many Christmas movies - I especially like Death's explanation to Susan about why humans need belief - I would also have to recommend one read at least the series of books featuring Death, including Hogfather and the ones that come after, to get familiar with the Discworld and those that inhabit it. I am sure that will make this more than a satisfying viewing experience. For others, I'm afraid they won't understand enough of what is going on to sit back and enjoy it properly.
Time: 369 minutes
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Marc Warren, Ian Richardson, David Jason, Joss Ackland
Director: Vadim Jean