Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Watch

Whoa, first of all: what's this about the forthcoming Discworld adaptation, The Watch, being "cyberpunk"? In, for example, The Guardian. I'm really not seeing the cyberpunk connection? Possibly the word they're looking for is "punk"? There are many punks to choose from, and we don't need to drag cyber into it. Secondly ...

An Unpopular Opinion. Yes, I think this is one of those.

First of all: among those criticizing the adaptation, there are definitely a few who just want Vetinari to be male and Lady Ramkin to be white. And who don't like the look of Cherry either. That's not you of course. You've got legit reasons for being annoyed by the production. It might at least give us pause for thought, when our outrage provides cover for misogyny, racism, and transphobia.

And secondly: Terry Pratchett's Discworld is a story about stories and how stories change. The Discworld partly sprouted from Pratchett's earlier novel, Strata, which involves a flat Earth floating in space and a mash-up of science fiction and high fantasy tropes. Strata is itself a pastiche of Larry Niven's Ringworld, one of those pastiches that is maybe a teensy bit better than the original. Pratchett's mock heroic The Carpet People, which also took place on a plane, and which Pratchett extensively revised for the second edition, was also a kind of prototype Discworld. 

The Discworld series then grew through a complex and mostly increasingly assured array of parodies, pastiches, reimaginings, imitations, and take-offs, most stunningly of Shakespeare (in books like Wyrd Sisters and Lords and Ladies) but also Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, Gaston Leroux, Ingmar Bergman, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and many others. Sometimes you had to know the original to get the joke, but more often you didn't. Pratchett's antennae could gather up and elegantly regurgitate that garbled background hum of familiar tropes that don't really belong to anyone in particular. He was good at that.

The Discworld was also a bit of a pioneer in transmedia storytelling, with novels, plays, digital and analogue games, the wonderful the Science of Discworld popular science collaborations, a tabletop roleplaying game, a cookbook, an almanac, and all kinds of miscellaneous works and merch and mischief. In the novels, the sustained commitment to making the stories work as stand-alones also produced a distinctive intertextuality: the Discworld became a world with many entranceways, and that meant that Pratchett needed to tell us certain things again and again. He did this by skilfully varying those things, or by turning them into running jokes, in order to entrance newcomers and devoted fans simultaneously. 

History, especially of the European industrial revolution, is also remixed throughout the Discworld series and especially in the Ankh-Morpork strand. The medieval, the early industrial, and the modern are constantly colliding and spurting sparks of fizzing narrativium. Pratchett always told these stories just as he saw fit, twisting, trimming, flipping things on their heads. He was always fabulously, provocatively unfaithful to his source material. He didn't stick to the facts about the founding of the Bank of England (Making Money), for instance, or the French Revolution (Night Watch), because he wanted to make these stories meld and resonate with his world, not the world where they first happened to happen. Besides, as most good Menippean satirists would agree, sometimes you can glimpse the truth more clearly in a carnival funhouse mirror. There is a certain kind of pesky fact that can just get in the way of the truth.

There was perhaps a smidge of unease about so much borrowing, blending, and bending, which Pratchett sublimated into a sustained reflection throughout the Discworld on the nature of storytelling:

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do and is not, for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination [...]

And then, of course, there's the way the Discworld gradually reinvented itself again and again, examining and reimagining its politics and its peoples over and over, over the course of its more than thirty year history. So what's all this to do with the new series The Watch, about which many Pratchett fans are up in arms?

In short, I cannot think of another storyworld where an appeal to the True and Authentic Version is quite so vigorously contradicted by the source material itself. The Discworld is a story about stories having lives of their own

So, I don't mean to defend the creative choices or the commercial wisdom of this production, exactly. Nor do I really mean to celebrate the poetics of postmodernism or metafiction, or anything like that — that's an adjacent conversation. Nor even do I want to predict that the production is going to be any good — honestly, from that short trailer, I have no idea! 

But the Discworld is already much larger than this one adaptation. This is not a matter of Hollywood execs bungling some cult favorite that will henceforth slip into obscurity. So long as civilization survives, and probably even when it doesn't, there will be Discworld adaptations. In the darkness, amid the stars, the turtle swims on. 

And when those future adaptations do appear, they will kindle Pratchett's satirical spirit within new social and cultural contexts. Pratchett's satire will achieve its long term significance in the context of future evolving understandings of many of his perennial themes: gender roles, science and technology, diversity and difference, coloniality, justice and the police. Maybe we should get off to a good start? Make some choices about just how precious we want to be about this already effervescently mercurial and intertextual source material?

So maybe ... we could just be cool about it? Wait and see? Judge it according to what it's trying to do and how well or poorly it does that, not according to how closely it correlates with the images we have already built up in our mind's eye? I am OK with a version of Vimes in eyeliner. I am OK with things being different to what they are in the books. The books are already different to the stories they borrow, to the history that inspires them, and even to themselves. The Discworld was a universe where time was always slipping out of joint, where stories circulated independently of storytellers and took on lives of their own. If this adaptation is bad, then it's bad, but let it be bad for the right reasons. And Bunk as Death? I'm here for that.

That said, Terry Pratchett the human being is not long gone, and there is a whole ethics and emotional intelligence around including his loved ones in shaping his legacy. Most of us are pretty bad at death, and one of the few things we know how to do is cherish the counterfactual: they would have loved thatThat's what they would have wanted. So there is that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment