Christopher LeeNigel PlanerLiz May BriceBrian Cox
The Colour of Magic
Medium: TV
Year: 2008
Director: Vadim Jean
Writer: Vadim Jean, Terry Pratchett
Production: Sky One TV adaptation by The Mob
Keywords: fantasy, comedy
Country: UK
Actor: David Jason, Sean Astin, Tim Curry, Jeremy Irons, Brian Cox, James Cosmo, Christopher Lee, Janet Suzman, David Bradley, Nigel Planer, Stephen Marcus, Laura Haddock, Liz May Brice, Karen Shenaz David, Geoffrey Hutchings, Marnix Van Den Broeke, Nicholas Tennant, Michael Mears, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Will Keen, Peter Copley, Ian Puleston-Davies, James Greene, Ian Burfield, Arthur White, Miles Richardson, Richard da Costa, Andy Robb, Adam Ewan, Philip Philmar, Terry Pratchett
Format: 2 episodes, 191 minutes
Series: << Discworld >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1079959/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 10 June 2009
It's quite good up to a point, i.e. halfway through episode two. I realise I was saying something similar about the second American Ring film only yesterday, but I'm struggling to find the words to describe the vastness of the gulf between them. The Ring Two has a limp ending, but at least you can see how someone thought it might be a good. It's the right dramatic shape. There's climactic jeopardy in which the lead character puts her life on the line to banish Samara, while furthermore it's also the culmination of the film's fairly extensive ideas and themes.
The Colour of Magic simply leaves you gobsmacked that its creators have managed to find work in television. It had been a decent adaptation until then. Not perfect, but entertaining. However as the death star approaches, the story drowns in a sea of thaumobabble as our heroes head for a non-showdown. Tim Curry defeats himself and everyone else stands around uselessly and watches as the world fails to get destroyed. (Warning: spoiler.) This takes about half an hour and is accompanied by red lighting and lots of overwrought music making you want to turn the volume down. "That's a nice dramatic ending," says the narrator afterwards. No, it bloody isn't. It's the absolute opposite. It's anti-drama, the very definition of sound and fury that's signifying nothing.
While I'm on the warpath, I'm going to go on about the wizards for a bit. They've got Tim Curry as the homicidal Trymon, which is of course good. Understandably they want to give him lots to do. Unfortunately they've done this by bloating up the wizard stuff to the point where I got sick of it, at the expense of much more interesting stuff like the Temple of Bel-Shamharoth and the weirder Pratchettian sidelines about the significance of the number eight and the adventures of Twoflower and Rincewind being the board game of the Gods. This is bad. Obviously I'm always happy to see Tim Curry, but this is one occasion where I'd have been even happier with less of him. You could trim half an hour's Unseen University padding from the adaptation without even breathing hard. Ruthlessness might even bring that up to an hour.
The good thing though is that by doing both The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic (ostensibly episode two), they've guaranteed themselves enough story material but also forced themselves to take liberties with it. There's even less excuse now for the slavishness that hurt Hogfather. Pratchett's first two Discworld novels are plotless. They're a romp through Fantasy Parodyland and don't really resemble the later Discworld novels at all, being richer and stranger in their variety. Later on he'd get to know his fictional world and settle down in it, but back here he's still throwing a hundred ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks.
All things considered, it's a much more faithful adaptation than I'd expected. It feels close to the spirit of the originals, even if they've lost a few of the stranger bits and are drifting in the direction of the Discworld of Terry's later stories. I'd have loved to see Death's adopted daughter Ysabell, or even the Dungeon Dimensions. That would have been good. However the greatest shame is that they've changed it so that the female Dragonriders aren't topless.
Wizards aside, I did like the first 75% of this adaptation. These Sky Discworld adaptations may not understand the dark mysteries of a Part Two, but they're quite good at spending lots of money and making things look pretty. The special effects are more consistent than in Hogfather, with some beautiful vistas and lots of big money shots. Continuity has been maintained with last time, with Unseen University and Death's house apparently having been filmed at their previous locations. They've also done impressively at recreating all the different cultures we see in our whirlwind tour of the Disc, from Arabian Nights stereotypes to the Mongol-like Horse People.
I'm surprisingly luke-warm on the acting. They've pulled in some huge names, with my favourite being Christopher Lee being the new Death instead of Ian Richardson. He'd played him before in two Channel Four animated versions, but more importantly he's also much better. Richardson sometimes sounded like an actor talking slowly. Lee has his rumbling Dracula voice that could spend half an hour on a single syllable and keep you enthralled for every second. He is mighty. All hail. Of the mortals, though, there's no one I'm head over heels in love with. Tim Curry is a laugh, but his scenes needed trimming. I'm a fan of David Bradley's Cohen the Barbarian, but oddly enough I was most impressed with Laura Haddock as Bethan, the druid sacrifice who falls in love with him. She's doing so much with so little. It should have been a thankless role, but she's the one your eyes go to when she's on screen.
Unfortunately the two key roles don't really work. The problem is that the originals were pretty thin characters to begin with and neither David Jason nor Sean Astin manage to do much with them, despite both apparently being long-time Pratchett fans. Jason is okay. He's transformed himself yet again and is always at least convincing in the role. Sean Astin though is actively bad. He plays Twoflower as an ordinary guy with no real personality or presence, whereas we needed something broader. He should have been larger than life, someone who could bring something extra to the mere words on the page. It's a funny idea, after all. A tourist in Lord of the Rings land should have the potential to be hilarious, but Astin never seems anything other than dull and normal. By the time of his underplayed farewell to Rincewind at the very end, I just wanted him gone. Together the two of them have no chemistry, despite the script's attempts to give them occasional heart-to-hearts as Rincewind has to confess something. Sean Astin isn't even Japanese! Admittedly that would have been a reference to a completely different book, Sourcery, but even something as trivial as a bit of ethnicity would have improved the character.
I shouldn't overlook the non-human regulars. The Luggage was well-executed but less awesome than I'd hoped, but I liked seeing the Librarian. He's smaller than I'd expected, though, and for some reason says "ork" instead of "ook".
Three actors return from Hogfather, but in different roles. The obvious one is David Jason as the top-lined star in both films, but he's less noticeable than you'd think behind his Rincewind beard and mannerisms. I'd known that was coming, so I was more surprised by the return roles for Nigel Planer (Arch-Astronomer of Krull) and Stephen Marcus (the bartender at the Broken Drum). Terry Pratchett also returns, both at the very beginning and the very end, but unfortunately I think this time he's trying to act.
There are some truly dreadful action scenes, although it seems that to some extent that's deliberate. They didn't want to Bruckheimer it up, but instead to feel faithful to the spirit of Terry. I can see that to some extent it must have been deliberate that the Davids Jason and Bradley look so obviously incompetent with swords, horses and so on, but for me it passed the point where I could even believe in it. It's the old thing about needing to be able to dance well to play the role of a bad dancer. Here you've got actors in their sixties who aren't even remotely up to the requirements of action scenes.
There are stylish touches, though. Twoflower and Rincewind do Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while later I swear we get the equivalent of those New Zealand Tourist Board panoramas of Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed those, not to mention details like the shot of eyes in the clouds. Oh, and they create a convincing Octarine! I'd expected that to look rubbish. An eighth colour of the spectrum, indeed.
Overall, this adaptation is too schizophrenic to dismiss as merely "okay". I enjoyed the first episode and I'm quite likely to rewatch it on its own one day. It ends on a cliffhanger, but we know how that's going to end. There's a lot here that's very good, but unfortunately the badness is much more aggressive than last time. I'd honestly recommend not watching the ending. Nevertheless it did make me laugh. "Just have to hope she's strong enough." Despite its flaws I have a lot of affection for this adaptation, simply by virtue of its being a lavish and loving adaptation of two Pratchett books I remember fondly. They didn't have a clue what they were doing when they made it, though.