Bad Adaptations: The Watch

The Watch tv series

What were they thinking? The trailer for the BBC America’s adaptation of The Watch – based on sir Terry Pratchett’s City Watch Discworld books – has just landed (see below). While this is just a trailer and not the whole show, we get a sense of the plot, cast, and aesthetics of the production. Based on this, several things raise major red flags.

As a Fan

Let me start by saying that I’m a massive Terry Pratchett fan. I grew up with the novels and I’m rediscovering them as an adult. They are rich, funny, and masterfully observed. They are both silly and serious at the same time (this is an important aspect of his work). Both, his Discworld and non-Discworld novels are important observations of the human condition and – no matter their age – are highly relevant to today.

I’m a sucker for anything Pratchett and I honestly don’t need much convincing to watch, read, or play something based on his work. As such, I was very excited when they announced this project! But, now I’ve seen the trailer and…

It doesn’t feel right…

Let me explain.

The Cast

It is seldom that an adaptation casts actors that ‘perfectly’ fit a role. It’s something we expect while hoping that they get it ‘close’. Based on what we’ve seen here, ‘close’ is something we won’t get.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stop right there! I’m not talking about race. In fact, I think all adaptations can benefit from casting actors of African or Asian descent in roles typically reserved for white Europeans. Diversity is a good thing! It is something that Pratchett uses as a plot element in many of his novels. Furthermore, the novels hardly ever describe the skin colour of the people of the city of Ankh-Morpork, so this is entirely up for interpretation.

Nanny Ogg, by Paul Kidby

My issue is that Lady Sybil Deidre Olgivanna Ramkin, Duchess of Ankh, is described as a Wagnerian Valkyrie – a large woman with a large personality. The issue seriously isn’t her race. Why didn’t they cast someone with a similar body shape? She is intended to be Vimes’ love interest, but I guess heroes can only fall for supermodels… What?

Evidence of Hollywoodification (pardon the term) of Sir Terry’s work is a very worrying sign. We dread the day when we see the words “staring Megan Fox as Nanny Ogg” – at least we will know where it started.

Furthermore, casting Lord Havelock Vetinari as a woman is also worrying. Again, don’t get me wrong. Vetinari is a figure of fear, tyranny, and hate. My issue is with them casting a woman as a figure of hate in 2020. I’m not saying that women can’t be leaders or anything like that (in fact, I believe that they make great leaders). But that’s kind of the point. Ventenari is a monster. He views the citizens of his city as evil-minded low lives (read Guards Guards!). Casting him as a white male in these times seems more appropriate.

Readers of the Witches books will tell you how Sir Terry writes women: highly competent, practical, but hardly power-hungry. I might be over-simplifying things here, but something doesn’t sit right here.

What do you think?

The Plot

It seems that they are combining the plot of Guards Guards! and Men at Arms here. These are great novels and they deserve to be lovingly adapted. But, I worry that squishing them together would do both stories a disservice.

The theme in Guards Guards! was power vs responsibility and, in Men at Arms, exclusion vs inclusion. These topics are ripe for exploring themes of race and gender, but they are already in there. Why muddy the waters with this strange aesthetic and odd tone? This makes me suspect that the creators don’t grasp the purpose of Sir Terry’s comedy – it’s there to make you laugh, sure, but it’s supposed to make you think. He resented the fact that people thought funny and serious were opposites.

Men at Arms is fertile ground for exploring race and gender. The comedy there is sharp and evocative. I fear turning it all into a Hollywood action police procedural is going to flatten all of that.

The Flavour

As mentioned above, I worry that they are messing up the tone. While we only have a trailer to go on, it does give us a taste of what the production is focused on. The books evoke tones raging from British crime dramas to noir detective stories (you can almost hear the jazz sometimes). Nothing told me grimy 90s – but, again, that might just be me.

Most of Discworld has a medieval or pre-industrial feel to it. This made anachronisms such as firearms or even affirmative action stand out – both for comedic and philosophical effect. In the setting portrayed in this adaptation, these things won’t seem that strange.

Again, this worries me.

The Fans

Who are they making this for? It’s a serious question.

If they are making this for an audience unfamiliar with Sir Terry’s work, then the grimy aesthetic still seems like an odd choice. With the success of fantasy shows like Game of Thrones and the upcoming Amazon adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, you’d think that fantasy would be a prime choice. If they wanted something grittier, why didn’t they go for the stylish grime of Peaky Blinders? Perhaps they were aiming for the latter, but man…I don’t think it’s working.

If they are making it for Discworld fans…well…I think they’ve made another misstep there too. Judging by fan reception so far, I don’t think we’re buying it. We love Sir Terry and his work has a place in our hearts – why deviate so much?

It’s only alienating us. Even Sir Terry’s friend and co-author said as much.

Who will be left to watch it? How can any network believe that it will be successful?

Good Adaptations

There will always be changes when things are adapted to another medium. Always. It is the nature of the thing. You’ll never attain perfection, but that certainly doesn’t mean you should give up the pursuit entirely.

Nothing will ever be ‘as good as the book’ (that’s what’s awesome about books, really), but you should always try to preserve the soul of it. This is something I felt that HBO’s Watchmen did successfully: they changed things, but the soul of it was intact. In fact, the events of the graphic novel formed the ‘past’ of that adaptation.

Terry Pratchett’s works have already been made into fantastic adaptations that delighted fans and newcomers alike.

Going Postal was particularly great. Why can’t we have more of that?

Recently we saw the adaptation of Good Omens which was lovingly brought to life by Neil Gaiman. This – in my opinion – one of the best adaptations we’ve seen in recent years. Of course there are differences between the tv show and the book, but it’s so minor it’s hardly worth mentioning. You get the true sense of the book and you get a sense of the reverence Gaiman has for his late friends writing.

The Last Word

Look, I might be entirely wrong. It might be a fantastic adaptation – in fact, I hope this is the case. But, the trailer put me off of something that I was an easy sell on.

Are you a Terry Pratchett fan? What do you think? How did the trailer make you feel?

Top Image: Guards Guards! cover by Josh Kirby

Your thoughts...