The Bookishness of Terry Pratchett: Problems of Adaptation
An ongoing dream of mine is to adapt a Terry Pratchett book into an opera. Because I love opera (with caveats) and I love Terry Pratchett (mostly without) and I’d like to believe that the two might be able to be friends.
Having read various bits of discourse around the Discworld as one of the last bastions of ‘major IP that has not been sold to a big streamer’ (TL;DR: one online blog said that it should be, because people like it; another said - like those responsible for managing the estate of Pratchett - that it is better to not exploit an IP if by doing so you do not respect the original pieces of creation), I wanted to dig into why I haven’t, yet, seriously been able to make it work in my head.
The Joke Version
I did, a while ago, do a joke operatic adaptation of Monstrous Regiment for Twitter. It’s a stand-alone book, and playfully uses enough of the tropes of the military novel that it could be a fairly good Verdi-style opera (19th century, lots of people onstage, quite possibly what you think of when you think of Italian opera; no horned helmets).
But that’s a terribly old-fashioned kind of opera. It would be like adapting The Colour of Magic into a film with the level of tacky sincerity of Conan the Barbarian, completely missing the innovation and pleasure of the text.
Also, almost nobody has the kind of money that might make that possible.
I considered Masquerade for about five seconds before realising that a) I almost inevitably hate operas about opera and b) it would be better to make it as an immersive theatre experience within an opera house, during which someone sang some real opera.
Again, very expensive. Opera is generally an expensive taste. “You put money in, and you get art out” is a very true expression of the essential problem of the form.
So instead, I wanted to dig into why it is generally difficult to adapt Terry Pratchett.
The Authorial Voice
Something I’ve noticed in almost every Pratchett adaptation I’ve seen (films, video games, TV) has been the need for a narrator.
This is very simple: like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the authorial voice is a near-constant presence, essential to the wit and pleasure of the experience.
I suspect it’s partly why many people speak about Pratchett as though he were a friend. We built a relationship with this friendly, pleasantly witty voice because it was telling us stories. It comments on the action, the world, creates elements to twist at us later, and above all, one that seems to have a good heart.
The adaptations I’ve liked have been the ones that understand that last part.
But when adapting something you love, I suspect people tend to try and translate everything that seems important to why you love it. There are operas, for example, that are almost word-for-word settings of beloved plays and novels, despite the gulf between the needs of writing for the page/stage and for singing.
In Pratchett adaptations, keeping the authorial voice often means having a narrator to provide the commentary, descriptions, and other gems. This means meeting the problem of how to deal with having a narrator and not seeming forced. In a book it’s normal, almost essential. In a film it often feels like a lazy choice unless handled well, and likewise in most opera and musical theatre (the Narrator in Into The Woods being a rare exception).
My dream Pratchett adaptation either makes the narrator’s voice feel essential, or manages to circumnavigate the need for it.
For example, if we were to ask how we translate the vivid, silly visual descriptions, we might replace a narrator with equally absurdly designed animation, or non-naturalistic set and costume design. The sense of humour remains the same, but it is expressed in a different way.
The above contains hints as to 66.6ish percent of my other points, so here’s the other one.
Inside Someone’s Head
Like many novelists, Pratchett is interested both in the external and internal worlds of his characters.
While the earlier Discworld books follow fantasy’s trend of mostly being interested in the external world (and mocking the Sword & Sorcery genre), by the mid-Discworld period the focus increasingly shifts to the protagonists’ conceptions of the world around them. Whether it’s the viral thoughts of Sam Vimes’ Boots Theory, or what Tiffany Aching does not say about Granny Aching nodding at the best shepherd, we spend a lot of time inside the thoughts of Pratchett’s characters. He is interested in how people think.
Which is somewhat difficult to convey in other formats. Opera has the aria or (for less specific thoughts) the accompaniment, theatre the monologue, film the voiceover or flashback/side/forwards, but none carry quite the same fluidity of Pratchett slipping inside someone’s head, out into the world, back to the situation, then again inside the head and out in the world twenty years in the past.
The nub of both his comedy and philosophy is often found in this gulf between what someone thinks and what someone says. It can also be found in how rare it is for us to find ourselves inside the heads of his most powerful characters - Vetinari, Granny Weatherwax, Death - who are more often seen through the eyes of someone lower in the hierarchy - Vimes, Magrat/Agnes/Tiffany, Mort/Susan. However, those brief moments are possible in a novel, and less so in other formats.
The Medium Of The Book
All of which is to say that Pratchett is a very bookish author.
He’s writing books to be books and not potential meat for another medium. Yes, there are several which are open to being adapted, and many more which are themselves reflections on other mediums, but the essential place they exist is on the page.
You can see it in the comedic footnotes that litter his various texts, or the pacing that partly reflects a reader being aware of how many pages are left, and the use of fonts, paragraph structures, and other tools of the page to express his conceptions.
Which leads to the central point:
Adaptation Means Finding The Hole
My general belief about adapting work into other mediums is this: the aim is to find a hole in the original that the new medium can fill.
Shakespeare plays are often great onstage, but very difficult to adapt into operas or films. However, many great operas and films are based on books that themselves might not be so loved.
You can make a perfectly acceptable film that’s very loyal to the source text, but in general I really like a decent level of editorial interpretation. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet, for example, is a great film, while other onscreen adaptations of the same text are often just ‘nice’.
The challenge is:
1. I love Terry Pratchett (if you don’t, why adapt it?)
2. I want to convey the text’s essence in another medium (thus have to deal with its essential book-y ness).
3. I want to add something by using the new medium that augments the original.
Which Text Wants This?
Which gets us back to the original point: what text within Terry Pratchett’s canon ‘needs’ adaptation?
Correct answer: none. No text needs adaptation.
However, thinking specifically about my operatic medium, I suspect that the correct destination is not the music-drenched world of Masquerade, nor the grand operatic sprawl of Monstrous Regiment (unless someone has funding), but the heroic landscape of The Last Hero.
There is music already, as a strain from the bard, but also a more straightforward story than others in the canon. There are things I’d probably want to change, trimming down Conan’s horde and elements of the voyage around the Disc (indeed, I might strive to cut it out entirely). But the yearning heroicism, the nostalgia and hope for the future, and sense of loss all could form a rather glorious opera. And as its words already weave around its illustrations, it feels a little more open to dancing with other forms than some Discworld novels.
In interactive theatre, that’s another question entirely. Comedy in that form is already rather difficult, but as I’ve said, more conventional immersive theatre could probably do a wonderful version of the climactic chapters of Masquerade, and I’m sure that LARPers have done various Discworld LARPs across the years.
But that’s all for another time. For now, if anyone is reading this, thank you, I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and GNU Terry Pratchett.