Terry Pratchett’s The Watch


It’s said that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. This is even more true of book adaptations. In many ways book adaptations are not for fans of the books. It’s an unwritten guarantee that any book adaptation will not please all fans of the book, no matter how faithful to the source they are. Fans want faithful adaptations, be that War of the Worlds, Sherlock Holmes, or His Dark Materials. It’s also safe to say that if you want your adaptation to be as close to the book as possible you don’t hand over any control to America. When looking at adapting the book Mort for the big screen the American producers famously asked if they could replace Death, as they found him too morbid for American audiences.

Fans can be a lot more forgiving if the books have already been faithfully adapted. Sherlock and Elementary work precisely because there is a pre-existing body of faithful adaptations. For many Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes. There can also be more leeway when the showrunner is also an author of the work being adapted, such as Good Omens, where Neil Gaiman brought his and Sir Terry’s much-loved book about the apocalypse to life. Good Omens is widely accepted to be the best of Sir Terry’s book adaptations, mainly because of Neil Gaiman’s connection to the source material as well as decades of screenwriting experience. Casting David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphael respectively didn’t do the show any harm either.

To an extent we’ve been spoilt by several adaptations of the Discworld. Hogfather, Colour of Magic, Going Postal. All have been as faithful as you can get when transferring a world from page to screen, with minor changes here and there. Some jokes don’t work as well on TV as they do on the page. But in all previous adaptations Sir Terry has maintained a close hand on the reins, ensuring the story never drifts so far from the original that it becomes a unique creation in its own right. So what happens when creative control is handed over completely to the studio? That brings us to The Watch.

It’s important to note that when The Watch was first envisioned with Sir Terry still retaining control it was not to be an adaptation of one of the books. The Watch was seen as a follow up to the books, everything we know from the books had already happened. We were not getting Guards! Guards! or Night Watch. What was retained however was the core ensemble from the books. We would have Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, and the rest of the Watch. But the books were history, literally, we were getting new stories, with familiar characters.

What we got was not Sir Terry’s vision of The Watch. Some elements from the scripts that were written while Sir Terry was still alive made it into the final series, but for many it has been changed beyond what makes Discworld what it is. That’s not to say the show is entirely without merit it has got many things right.

When the casting was first announced it created quite a stir, with the Pratchett Estate distancing itself from the show almost immediately. This is actually a shame as many of the casting choices are quite frankly inspired. Richard Dormer is excellent as Captain Sam Vimes, and Adam Hugill and Marama Corlett strike the exact right tone as Constable Carrot and Corporal Angua respectively. Wendell Pierce as the voice of Death works remarkably well but could have done with some enhancement to bring the gravitas of Death’s vocal tones to death [3]. He’s at his best in the opening episode, but seems too human in later episodes. A special mention must go to Jo Eaton-Kent who was arguably one of the more problematic casting choices earlier on, given their height and lack of facial hair while being cast as the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom. A few plot twists and the character is brought back to dwarven status later in the series, so it would be wrong to dismiss a great actor before even watching, although it would have been good to see the interaction between Cheery and the rest of the Watch as their explored their femininity. In the original stories Cheery still retains her beard, but decorates it with ribbons.

That’s not to say that casting is entirely great. Gender swapping characters is always a risk, but not one that is always the wrong thing to do. Discworld is still a product of its time and strong female characters are few and far between outside of his Witches books. Still, some characters are simply too iconic to swap arbitrarily. Others are iconic for other reasons. Swapping Lord Veterinari and Dr Cruces for female protagonists works well enough, although Dr Cruces comes across poorly when compared to the original works. Turning the sausage salesman Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler into the female snitch Throat however leaves one puzzled. CMOT Dibbler is one of the longest running companion characters in the Discworld books and as such is as loved by the fans of the books as Rincewind himself is. Which then leaves us with arguably the most controversial casting choice in the series. Lady Sybil Ramkin. In an industry that is notorious for casting pretty females in roles meant for older people it should come as no surprise that The Watch’s Lady Sybil is no longer the portly middle-aged swamp dragon breeder from the books. Instead she has been turned into a young axe throwing dilletante, instead of the dragon wielding middle aged and slightly plump spinster first seen in Guards! Guards!. That’s not to say that Lady Sybil wouldn’t be averse to throwing axes, just that she’d throw them a bit more forcefully. Breeding swamp dragons is an excellent way to build muscle tone, regardless of body type.

This should be the point at which I sing the praises of the scriptwriters for bringing the Discworld to life, and the script is straight out of Discworld. The problem though is for the script to work you must have never read the books. Loosely the script is based on the first Watch book, Guards! Guards!. The city is under attack by a dragon that has been brought to life with the aid of a stolen magic book. And that’s where all similarity to the book ends. In the book the Watch consists of just Sam Vimes, Fred Colon, and Nobby Nobbs. We’re then introduced to Constable Carrot, who, as in the The Watch, tries to arrest the head of the Thieves Guild. The rest of The Watch’s ensemble cast don’t exist yet. Corporal Angua doesn’t appear until Men At Arms, along with Detritus the troll. Cheery doesn’t appear until Feet Of Clay. It seems almost criminal that the pairing of Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs are omitted given that they play such a strong role in some of the more comedic elements in the books, playing a sort of Laurel and Hardy role. There are other elements as well, Wonse is removed from the Patrician’s employment and is now relegated to the role of janitor in Unseen University, and Carcer becomes an old childhood friend of Vimes, rather than the mass murderer of Night Watch.

The rest of the story brings together elements from many of the books, the storm that sends Carcer and Vimes 30 years back in time in Night Watch now sends Carcer 30 years into the future. The Auditors from Thief of Time are the surprise villains of the piece. The Watch form a band as in Soul Music [4]. Vimes goes to the cinema from Moving Pictures [5]. The Dark in the Dark from Thud! comes to their rescue. We even get Hrud’s magic sword, Kring [6], from The Colour of Magic. It’s as if someone simply listed all their favourite bits from the books and placed them in a blender, expecting a fully formed story to magically appear. Many of the plot points seem out of place because they are out of place, if you’ve read the books. Every character has been re-written, every origin story changed. Simon Allen hasn’t been content to just take random parts from the books either, even taking entire plot elements from books that were never finished or from short stories [7].

It’s as if someone rewrote Superman and decided he should be Vulcan instead. Everything that could have made the show great is missing. What made the originals so good was the characterisations, and the morality of the tale. Sir Terry turned fantasy into social discourse, using his characters to discuss gender, poverty, war, even police oppression, but all with a comic flair. Simon Allen has instead created a farce. It’s Police Academy meets Carnival Row, where every joke has to be slapped on thicker than the cement on a builder’s trowel.

If you haven’t read the books then it’s an enjoyable dip into the magic that is the Discworld. Enjoyable but ultimately missable. If you have read the books, try and forget everything you’ve ever read. This is not the Discworld of Sir Terry Pratchett’s books, but one that has been formed in a very different secondhand dimension and down someone else’s trouser leg of time.

[1] Let’s be brutally honest here, the very existence of this show has already spoiled it for some people [2].
[2] If you’re that upset go and read the books again.
[3] As opposed to bringing them to life as it were.
[4] One of the few ideas that survives from the early scripts when Sir Terry was still alive.
[5] Here the TV show has one of its rare moments of inspiration, using the imps that create movies to work as CCTV cameras.
[6] Now known as Gawain. Not the only Arthurian reference in the show, as The Lady in the Lake makes an appearance.
[7] The episode Twilight Canyons is taken from an unfinished book idea that was being written at the time of Sir Terry’s death about a group of mystery solving old age pensioners living in a retirement home. As with most of the ideas in The Watch only a cursory resemblance to the original story remains. Sergeant Deteritus’ origin story now alludes to the short story Troll Bridge.