Sunday, 4 September 2016

Review - 'The Color of Magic'





It has always seemed a bit strange to me that it is actually the second live-action adaptation of one of Terry Pratchett's popular Discworld novels that would be the one to actually go back to the beginning. For whatever reason, though, that is exactly what seems to have happened, here - with the two-part mini-series, The Color of Magic, providing a somewhat condensed version of the first two books in the series (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic).

While these first two are typically considered to be amoung the weaker of the series now (being written at a time when Terry Pratchett was still developing his ideas), they still proved to be popular enough to launch a long-running, and incredibly successful, series of comedy/fantasy novels - so, following the release of Hogfather a few years earlier, it seemed inevitable that they would be adapted eventually. I'm still just a bit surprised that they weren't done the other way around.

The Disc, drifting as it does through space on the backs of four massive elephants who, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, is a world of magic and wonder - and, occasionally, outright absurdity. It is a very different place to Earth (or, Roundworld) - and, it runs according to very different rules.

After many years of not being able to master even the most basic spells the chronically inept wizard, Rincewind (David Jason) is finally expelled from Unseen University - the Disc's premier school of magical study, located in the city Ankh-Morpork. Despite his seeming lack of magical ability, though, Rincewind does know at least one spell. Years earlier, an encounter with the mysterious Octavo (the Disc's most powerful book of spells) resulted in one of the eight spells it contains taking up residence in his head - and, it is for this reason that Rincewind has never been able to master any others.

Just as Rincewind finds himself out on the street, with limited means to support himself, a young man named Twoflower (Sean Astin) has arrived in Ankh-Morpork, from his distant home-land, in order to 'look at it' - an idea which seems incredibly strange to the city's native inhabitants.

Meeting by chance, the two agree to travel together - with Rincewind seeing an easy way to make some money as a guide for the wealthy, though seemingly naive, traveller. When Twoflower introduces the concept of 'fire insurance' to the people of Ankh-Morpork, though, the result is a fire that threatens to consume the city - and, the two men are forced to flee.

Together, Rincewind and Twoflower set off on a journey that takes them all of the Disc - encountering dragons brought to life entirely through the power of imagination, an elderly barbarian hero, and having occasional encounters with Death himself - who grows increasingly bemused by Rincewind's uncanny ability to slip away at the last moment.Finally, the pair find themselves caught up in the research of a group of astrozoologists, who plan on launching a shuttle off of the edge of the Disc, in order to finally answer the question of the gender of the great turtle on whose back the Disc rests.

Through it all, the pair are also accompanied by Twoflower's luggage - a sentient chest with a distinct violent streak, that makes its way around on hundreds of tiny little legs.

Of course, it isn't all about the various misadventures of Rincewind and Twoflower. Back in Ankh-Morpork, we also have the wizard Trymon (Tim Curry), who has recently set about murdering his way into a higher position within the Unseen University. And, with the appearance of a strange red star that seems to be somehow linked to the Octavo, the fate of Rincewind (or, at least, the spell he carries in his head) is suddenly extremely important.

One potential issue that is likely to stand out immediately to anyone who has read the novels concerns the various changes that the two central characters seem to have gone through in the process of adaptation. Twoflower, for example, was a character based on the central joke of being the Disc's first tourist - and, his defining characteristics where the somewhat naive curiousity, and the overwhelming enthusiasm, that this would seem to entail. This is all very much present in the way that Twoflower is portrayed by Sean Astin, of course - but, there is still the potential issue of the 'race change' that seems to have taken place. While the nature of Twoflower's homeland wasn't explored in any great detail in his first appearance, later appearances seemed to suggest a distinctly Asian flavour - leading to the impression that Twoflower was intended to be a good-natured parody of Asian tourists, in particular. With Sean Astin cast in the role, though, we seem to have a shift of this central joke seems to have been shifted onto American tourists - and, to be honest, it still seems to work just as well. American tourists are, after all, often a source of comedy to the rest of the world, too.

While some purists might be bothered by the change, in the end it really didn't matter much to me. All that really mattered that Sean Astin happens to be a talented, and genuinely likable, actor - and, one who managed to capture that required level of endearing enthusiasm.

At the same time, Rincewind also seems to have undergone some changes of his own. Here played by veteran British actor, David Jason (who, for trivia fans, also appeared in Hogfather - and, who seems to be a long-time fan of Terry Pratchett's work), the first thing that might come to mind about this portrayal of the comically inept wizard is the fact that he seems to be much older than he was presented to be in the source material. In Rincewind's case, though, this change also seems to have required a fairly fundamental change to the character, himself - as, being much older, David Jason doesn't seem quite up to the task of portraying the sense of manic energy that Rincewind always seemed to possess in the books (even if it was an energy that he only ever used to run away from various threats).

The version of Rincewind that we meet, here, seems to be much more world-weary - though, he is still very much a coward. Once again, though, this change didn't actually bother me as much as I thought it would - and, they certainly wont be an issue to anyone who hasn't actually read the original books. In both cases, we have talented actors who seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves - and, that matters much more than any concern for accuracy.

This sense of fun also extends to the supporting cast (particularly Tim Curry, who seems quite happy to chew up the scenery as the villainous Trymon - but, also with Christopher Lee, taking over as the voice of Death following Ian Richardson's death) - and, it seems to be the most pronounced difference between this adaptation, and the previous one. While Hogfather was often fascinating, but also dour and regrettably humourless, The Color of Magic actually works as a genuine comedy, despite also feeling slighter to the previous adaptation in various ways. There's no surprisingly deep reflections on the nature of belief to be found here, after all. Instead, we simply have a fun, and very strange, adventure story.

Despite being an adaptation of what many might consider to be the weakest books of the series, by going back to the beginning as it does, The Color of Magic has also managed to avoid some of the more subtle issues to plague Hogfather - in that, the gradual accumulation of multiple books worth of continuity simply isn't a factor, yet. This is, after all, where the Discworld series originally began - and, in many ways, this adaptation does feel like a genuine introduction, in a way that Hogfather simple didn't. For any potential viewer who might be new to the Disc, and who has any interest in these live-action adaptations, this would probably be a much better starting point.

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