In 1983, British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett released The Colour of Magic, the first adventure to be based on the wonderfully creative Discworld. By the time Pratchett passed away from Alzheimer's in March 2015, Discworld spanned a tremendous 40 novels, exploring countless different corners of Pratchett's fantasy world. A final book, The Shepherd's Crown, was published posthumously, but his daughter Rhianna has chosen not to write further Discworld adventures in spite of her father's blessing. Since Pratchett's passing, fans have contented themselves with revisiting this beautiful, immersive world. That was until it was announced that Discworld was coming to Hollywood!
The Jim Henson Company - most famous for Farscape, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal - is bringing one Discworld novel, Wee Free Men, to the big screen. Rhianna Pratchett, an award-winning scriptwriter in her own right, is adapting the novel for the feature film. But why have the team chosen Wee Free Men?
1. A 'Young Adult' Vibe with a Tremendous Star
Published in 2003, Wee Free Men was the first Discworld novel ostensibly aimed at young adults. In reality, Pratchett's writing style is as distinctive as ever, and the novel has the same rich vein of humor running through it that characterized all of Pratchett's works. The main difference was simply that Pratchett agreed to add chapter-breaks!
The star of Wee Free Men is the brilliant character of Tiffany Aching, a 9-year-old girl who is drawn into a fantasy realm of danger. Brought up as a shepherd in the hills of a region known as the Chalk, Tiffany Aching is the unwitting inheritor of her grandmother's witchcraft. She soon winds up forced to take a stand, becoming a trainee witch and battling against the elves of Fairyland!
Tiffany is a formidable character, much-loved and with tremendous depth. She went on to star in four further Discworld novels, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, and The Shepherd's Crown. This last Discworld novel, published after Terry Pratchett's death, explored her emotional reaction to the death of Granny Weatherwax, one of Pratchett's greatest creations. The strength of emotion left most Discworld fans in tears as Tiffany's grief echoed their own.
2. A Perfect Introduction to Discworld
'Begin at the beginning' is usually the maxim studios take when adapting a series of novels, but Discworld is different. Each Discworld novel stands on its own two feet, although the majority sit within 'sub-series' - for example, there's a range featuring the guards of the city of Ankh-Morpork, or a popular series starring Death. The ranges are loosely connected enough that you can essentially jump in wherever you want.
It's actually probably wiser not to kick things off with The Colour of Magic. The reality is that, as with all writers, Pratchett's skill developed over the course of decades of writing; those first Discworld novels simply aren't of the same quality as Pratchett's later work. By the time he got to Wee Free Men, Pratchett is at his best; his characterization is tremendous, his humor is brilliant and moving, and his parodies are beyond compare.
One major advantage here is that the protagonist is nine years old, and just beginning to understand how the world works. Over the course of the Tiffany Aching books, we see her introduction to the world of witchcraft, her first encounter with the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, and her introduction to Death (who all witches and wizards can see). Using Tiffany Aching, Wee Free Men introduces new readers to all the core concepts and ideas of Discworld. That makes it tremendously easy to adapt into a movie, which will introduce us to the film versions of those same ideas.
3. A Creative Fantasy Story
The Wee Free Men are actually the Pictsies, a cross between the Scottish Picts and the legendary pixies. They were once residents of Fairyland, but left after they were betrayed by the Queen of the Elves. Now, living near Tiffany's home, they become aware that the Queen is preparing to invade the Chalk!
Wee Free Men has all the staples of fairytale mythology - from witchcraft to elves - but all are subverted, in that classic Pratchett style. Tiffany winds up on an epic quest into Fairyland, but Pratchett's Fairyland is a barren and dangerous place, one that would translate easily into a haunting location on the big screen. It's the beginning of a classic Hero's Journey, one that was only truly completed in The Shepherd's Crown, and it has all the mythic quality you'd expect of a classic. During this journey, she'll become acquainted with characters Discworld fans already know and love, including this fine fellow...
This isn't actually the first time there's been an attempt to make a film out of Wee Free Men. Sam Raimi was signed up to a version, but when Pratchett saw the script, he wasn't impressed:
"I saw a script that I frankly thought was awful. It seemed to be Wee Free Men in name only. It had all the hallmarks of something that had been good, and then the studio had got involved. It probably won't get made."
By 2009, Pratchett was relieved to announce that he'd got the rights back. Now, though, it looks as though a much better version is about to go ahead - under the careful eye of his daughter.
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My dear hope is that Wee Free Men will perform admirably at the box office. Should it do so, the potential is there to launch a whole new cinematic franchise, one filled with wonder and humor, one with almost infinite potential to bring joy and delight to movie-goers worldwide. The Wee Free Men are on the march - and, in their words, "Crivens!"
Are you excited about Wee Free Men? Let me know in the comments! Meanwhile, check out this hilarious video of Pratchett's Rincewind, the cowardly magician...