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Believe in the Hogfather: Thoughts on the TV Adaptation of the Terry Pratchett Novel

Updated on August 29, 2014
Terry Pratchett's Hogfather DVD cover
Terry Pratchett's Hogfather DVD cover

Let’s face it, the movie industry could never, in its wildest dreams, have come up with a film as wild as Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather on its own. Film has the power to directly hook up its audience to a story in a way that no medium can touch, but the fact is: many of the plots of these movies are based on nothing more than a tired old formula and an explosion or two. To really find something new and exciting, film-makers must turn to adaption, where there is much more room to be experimental. Both movies and books have their strengths and weaknesses, but when a great book is adapted faithfully into a great movie, the true beneficiaries are the readers and viewers.

To better understand the plot of Hogfather context is absolutely necessary. Hogfather is the twentieth Discworld novel by the United Kingdom’s best-selling author Sir Terry Pratchett. It was written in 1996 as Christmas’s commercialism continued its seemingly endless climb. These novels are of a satirical nature and take place on Discworld (a flat world supported on the backs of four elephants on the back of a turtle, swimming through space): a world that often mirrors our own. Discworld novels feature a variety of characters, but Hogfather is the fourth to feature the soul-reaping specter of Death (though he appears incidentally in many of the other books). Despite the reservations an audience might have about such a seemingly threatening persona as the main character, Terry Pratchett makes it clear in an earlier book Sourcery that Death “isn’t cruel—merely terribly, terribly good at his job” (Pratchett 2).

Death illustrated by Paul Kidby in The Art of Discworld.
Death illustrated by Paul Kidby in The Art of Discworld.

In this story, Death takes on the role of the Discworld’s Santa Claus-analogue: the Hogfather, who brings presents to children on Hogswatch Eve. He does this because of the actions of the Auditors: chilly entities who wish to extinguish life (especially that of humans) in order to make the universe run more efficiently. The Auditors especially despise human beings because humans create fantasies, which these bureaucratic entities don’t have the imagination to understand and view as a problem that merits correction. In the Discworld, human belief is powerful and has the ability to change reality. Therefore, they want to destroy the Hogfather: the ultimate symbol of human belief. They hire the Assassin’s Guild to take out the Hogfather, and the childlike assassin Mister Teatime takes on the project.

Teatime is a quiet psychopath who appears harmless and speaks in a childish way, but is capable of massive amounts of violence. Pratchett described this enigmatic character by saying, “Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant mind, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvelous facets and rainbow, but ultimately, also something that is broken” (Pratchett 29). Teatime’s plan is to utilize an ancient bit of magic: if you can obtain a part of another person (like hair), you can control them. He breaks into the tooth fairy’s tower to collect all the teeth that have ever been placed under pillows into a massive magic circle in order to make the children of the world not believe in the Hogfather anymore. This works, partly, and the Hogfather disappears.

Mr. Jonathan Teatime - who pronounces his last name Teh-ah-TIM-eh, by the way.
Mr. Jonathan Teatime - who pronounces his last name Teh-ah-TIM-eh, by the way.
Susan Sto Helit, granddaughter of Death.
Susan Sto Helit, granddaughter of Death.

With the Hogfather gone, Death assumes his role to help foster the remaining belief in the humans so that the Hogfather is able to come back. As Death explains, and as is uncovered through research in Death’s home, the Hogfather began life as a basic winter deity. In the dark time at the end of the year, he would make the sun come up. According to Death, it is “vitally important” that the Hogfather be believed in before the night is out so that “the sun will come up” (Pratchett 290).

While Death is out doing the Hogfather’s job, his granddaughter Susan (the daughter of a human girl Death adopted and Death’s apprentice) is cajoled into foiling Teatime’s plot with the help of the wizards of the Unseen University, while coping with the strange creatures suddenly appearing as a result of the spare belief created by the lack of the Hogfather.

This is a hugely complicated story and I haven’t even mentioned the God of Hangovers, but that’s a fair summary of the set-up. Now imagine you have only three hours to tell this 354 page story. Some things had to be cut, and to the credit of the film-makers The Mob, they cut out as little as they could. Perhaps one of the few problems with the film was that they kept practically everything. A true fan of the series could follow the plot, already knowing roughly what was going to happen, but someone unfamiliar with the series might be lost as exposition about the Discworld’s nature and the back-story of the character’s flies past them. None of the other Death-centric stories have been made into films, so the film-only audience is unfamiliar with the human woman, Susan Sto Helit’s, apparent relationship to the skeletal Death. The audience may also be confused by the nature of the Auditors, who appears as wraithlike creatures, and not understand their motivation as villains.

It is a real joy for a Discworld fan to see their favorite characters come to life, and the cast did an excellent job at this. However, it’s hard to imagine any voice of Death coming close to the voice a reader can imagine in their head as they read Death’s signature manner of speaking in all capital letters. But seeing a character like Teatime come to life is both terrifying and amazing, best exemplified in the film as he stabs to death a cart-driver (his new "friend") and then exclaims “Wasn’t he dull?” and the drama could not have reached a higher point than when the very practical heroine, Susan, faced off with Teatime after he claimed that he’s “in touch with his inner child." Her response?—“Hello inner child. I’m the inner babysitter.”—punctuated with a punch.

Both the film and the movie did a great job at imparting ideas about humanity and belief. Humans need fantasies, they tell us, not to make life bearable as though it were “some kind of pink pill,” but to “be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape” (Pratchett, 335-336). It also communicated reflections on giving and Christmas, best summed up in the words of Death’s helper Alfred, who said: “charity ain’t giving people what you wants to give, it’s giving people what they need to get” (Pratchett 265).

The book fully immerses you in a wonderful and complex world and is both humorous and philosophically thoughtful. The movie spreads the whole of Discworld before an astonished viewer and was clearly made by fans of the entire series (best observed in the Dean’s “Born to Rune” jacket, referencing another Discworld book Soul Music). The more people touched by this amazing story, the better; and film provides an opportunity for people to experience it who may have never read the book. Both these versions emphasize creativity and fantasy as profound aspects of humanity. In the words of Death, “you need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can [you] become?” (Pratchett 337).


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