Sunday, 4 September 2016

Review - 'Hogfather'

For anyone unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett's long-running Discworld series, Death (as in, the classic image of a robed skeleton wielding a scythe) must seem to be a strange addition to the cast - especially when cast in the role of central protagonist, as he is here. For long-time fans of the Discworld series, though, Death has always been something of a favourite. He is a character who has been allowed to evolve throughout the many books which have featured him - eventually becoming a surprisingly sympathetic figure, and one whose earnest desire to understand the humans he has become so fond of have provided some of the series' most memorable moments.

Hogfather, in which a bizarre sequence of events sees Death forced to take over for the Disc's version of 'Santa Claus' for a night definitely counts as one of those moments - providing a very clear example of exactly how an anthropomorphic personification of death could become so popular. It is, however, a very strange choice to serve as the first in a series of live action adaptations of Terry Pratchett's wonderfully strange stories.

Not only is Hogfather the 20th book in that remarkably long-running series, but it is also the fourth to feature Death as the primary protagonist - and, this means that there is a fair bit of built up continuity, and assumed knowledge, that will present something of a challenge in any attempt to present this as a self-contained story to new viewers.

The first hurdle will, of course, be with the nature of the Disc, itself. For the uninitiated, the idea of a flat world, resting on the back of four giant elephants who, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space would have to be baffling (certainly enough to warrant a clearer introduction than it receives here, at least). Then, there is Death, himself - a character who has already benefited from multiple books worth of gradual development by the time we meet him. How, exactly, did Death end up with an adopted grand-daughter named Susan, for example? Well, that's a genuinely great story, too - but, for whatever reason, it is not the one that is being adapted. So, any viewer experiencing Discworld for the first time, with this adaptation, will just have to make do. It's an issue that the adaptation is never quite able to overcome, unfortunately.

As for the story itself, though - well, it all begins when a group of mysterious entities known as the Auditors make contact with the head of the Ankh-Morpork Guild of Assassins, set on hiring someone to kill the Hogfather (the Disc's version of Santa Claus). Despite any misgivings they might have, the assignment is eventually given to Mr. Teatime - an eccentric young assassin who, as it turns out, has already given the matter a great deal of thought.

As Teatime puts his plan (which also, obviously, involves the Disc's version of the Tooth Fairy) into motion, the Hogfather vanishes - and, since the loss of belief in the Hogfather would have drastic consequences for the Disc as a whole, Death feels compelled to step in and take over on Hogswatch Night. While Death does what he can to keep belief in the Hogfather alive (by, essentially, dressing up and setting out to take over 'present delivery' duties), he also recruits his very reluctant adopted grand-daughter, Susan, to find out what is actually happening. And, as Susan begins her own investigation, she soon realises that she might actually be the only person capable of stopping Mr. Teatime (and, the Auditors).

Also, while all of this is happening, there is also the small matter of the increasing number of new 'imaginary' figures being brought into existence by the power of unfocused 'belief'. Honestly, it all gets a bit odd.

Overall, Hogfather is often makes for a genuinely interesting story - even if there is a sense that it is not quite able to cover everything that it needs to cover, even as a two-part mini-series. There are, for example some genuinely fascinating ideas about the nature of belief, and its value to human life, woven in to what might appear to be a somewhat goofy tale. It is also, more often than not, genuinely entertaining - featuring some great performances from its cast. Marc Warren, for example, does a wonderful job of taking a character as willfully strange as Mr. Teatime, and giving a performance that is able to transform him into something genuinely creepy and unsettling (for an adaptation meant to be appropriate for all ages, at least). Ian Richardson does a fantastic job with his voice-work for Death - although, I do have to admit that the costume design felt a little off, to me. Michelle Dockery also does a very impressive job taking a character as stern and potentially abrasive as Susan, and making her genuinely likable. David Jason, cast in the role of Death's loyal assistant Albert, unfortunately does seem to serve more as a source of occasional exposition than a true character - but, he still plays the role well. The supporting cast are also do a good job, over all - with everyone involved seeming entirely committed to helping bring this strange little tale to life.

There are also moments when the adaptation manages to be surprisingly sombre, and even a little sad, despite all the strangeness (with the moment in which Death, as the Hogfather, comes across a scene playing out Hans Christian Anderson's 'Little Match Girl' standing out, for me).

Unfortunately, the one thing that this adaptation never quite manages to be is funny - which is a shame, because it is clearly intended to be. The muted, and perhaps overly sombre, appearance of everything we see, here (from the set designs and costumes, and to the lighting of each scene), somehow seems to strip away any of the natural humour that the could be found in the original source material - leaving us with a tale which seems to take itself very seriously. Moments that were clearly intended to be funny really only managed to raise a smile from me, rather than the outright laughter that they seemed to be aiming for - and, many other attempts at humour simply failed to land, entirely, due to the cast's very restrained performances, and the adaptation's overall dark and dour look.

It's not something that undermines the positive qualities that can be found elsewhere, of course - but, given that the series of novels that this live-action adaptation draws from often are genuinely hilarious, the fact that none of this humour could translate did feel increasingly odd. Still, though, Hogfather is a perfectly respectable adaptation of Terry Pratchett's original book, even if it did seem to lose a little something along the way.

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