Father Christmas has been kidnapped? – A story of adaptation
Yes, Father Christmas was kidnapped on Christmas Eve, by a villain called Teatime. Some of you will instantly recognize this as a reference to the ’Hogfather’ the 20th novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, which has sold over 80 million books in 37 languages, and concerns the problem facing Death when he realises ‘The Hogfather” (Father Christmas – to you and me) has been kidnapped.
This blog is an exploration of some issues raised in the process of adapting this comic novel for the screen, something I had the pleasure of undertaking, for television. In particular, I want to explore the question of why does adapting comic incidents prove so difficult, when reading it is such fun?
“Oh, there has to be something in the stocking that makes a noise, said Death. Otherwise, what is 4:30 a.m. for?”
I will seek to provide a clear set of reasons as to why this type of work is often lost in translation. I will also seek to show how to review an original work’s characters, their stories, and the incidents, with a view to creating a dramatic spine and a dramatic universe, which works for screen audiences.
Why is it so hard?
The starting point of understanding why so much comedic writing fails to translate to the screen, big or small, is revealed in this quote describing Teatime in the novel: –
“We took pity on him because he’d lost both parents at an early age. I think that, on reflection, we should have wondered a bit more about that.”
The line from Lord Downey is funny on its own. It was used as a piece of dialogue within the adaptation but it worked prior to this. It does not need visuals, or a dramatic context to work. In the written form this reflective comment on a character is a classic example of a comic moment.
The simple point is that making us smile or laugh is about a moment not about telling a story, or developing dramatic narrative. Prachett’s Discworld is full of comic incidents, characters who make mistakes, use words in strange and comic ways, and funny juxtapositions.
We have all enjoyed such moments from the first time e picked up a comic as a child, and/or the first time we read a really funny novel. However, when we seek to adapt these to a screen narrative there is clearly often a failure in dramatic development and realization. Even if, as with the freedom provided by contemporary animation, we are not trapped by realistic/naturalistic portrayals of characters or their world. However, as an audience as opposed to a reader we still need to find the links between this world of incidents, and the dramatic demands of plot driven feature film and screen series.
So where do we start and what are the major issue we will always face?
Well, in all of the comic and novels we already have funny characters, comic incidents galore, a story – often a simple quest or challenge, and a world in which all the action takes place.
Let us start with the characters.
Most characters are characterised in a comedic way from Death’s wry take on life, or is it death, to his daughter Susan’s cynicism – “ ‘She’d believe in anything if there was a dolly in it for her.” Keeping this characterisation is essential for the tone, and comedic feel of the work to be translated to the screen. However, while we may happily enjoy just reading about a character’s activities, or watching them jump from one frame to another of a comic, this is not enough when we sit and watch them on screen.
Characters on screen are more concrete, by this I mean we see them. There is little room for imagination in how they look, or speak, equally we see them move rather than in just static poses. This requires us to make them more engaging, both to overcome any resistance of died hard fans, but also the scepticism the majority of the audience, who will have not come across them before.
This normally entails the first introductory dramatic action of a character aiming to either make them fascinating – we want to know what they will do next, or someone we empathise with – they are in danger, or act in a way that the audience would react if presented with this situation.
“Some things are fairly obvious when it’s a seven-foot skeleton with a scythe telling you them” – Terry Prachett in ‘Hogfather’
These moments are often missing in the original material, especially for supporting and minor characters.
Searching for a Dramatic Plot
The string of comic moments which litter the original often leads to an incident based narrative. This can work as a sketched-based narrative e.g. ‘Road Runner’ but the majority of TV series and feature films require significant dramatic build rather then just a string of often only loosely connected incidents. This need to provide a narrative drive, through a plot full of funny moments, is often the biggest challenge in any adaptation.
Initially, the existing story is seen as enough to hang these disparate moments on. Especially, if it is a quest for something or someone, or a challenge the central character is faced with, and must take on. However, as many have discovered before me, this is never enough if you are aiming to engage an audience for more than five minutes leave alone an hour and a half or several hours over a long running series.
There is not the time here to explore the need for each major character to have their own story, or stories, which woven together form the plot. However, identifying these stories is a key part of the adaptation process. In ‘Hogfather’ the activities of the main villain, Teatime, were often only hinted at, or assumed, as the novel followed Death and his companions more closely. To create the two, two-hour, TV episodes it became essential to dwell more on Teatime, and thus provide the second main story of the plot.
A Second Story?
The importance of identifying and developing the second main story cannot be overstated. From “Tangled’ to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ it is the presence of this second story which ensures the narrative does not flag in the middle, and ensures enough dramatic interest for the comic moments to thrive.
In television series, this second storyline forms the major source of change within each episode. It often belongs to the antagonist/s, and ensures there is enough comedic contrast with the protagonist’s actions to ensure that dramatic tension is also maintained for the audience.
The Dramatic (or should that be Comic) Universe
“She’d become a governess. It was one of the few jobs a known lady could do.
And she’d taken to it well. She’d sworn that if she did indeed ever find
herself dancing on rooftops with chimney sweeps she’d beat herself to death with her own umbrella.” – a description of Susan
Finally, we come to the world of the action, the dramatic universe. In adapting comics this is considerably easier, as the visual style is already established, than from a novel. However, the fact that such strong visuals exit may also present problems in that everything is expected to conform to the comic’s visual framework, and any new characters or story elements may not fit easily.
This points to the biggest problem with all dramatic universes being brought to the screen. All dramatic universes have key elements and most crucially dramatic rules, or frameworks of reference, which if broken, break the audience’s belief in the world.
These elements include the degree of fantasy, the visualisation of the world, the physical limitations of characters and action, the scale of action and locations, and most crucially the tone.
In Search of Tone
It may seem obvious that the tone for adapting a comedic work to the screen has to be comedic. Obviously, this is true. The question is what type of comedic tone, and what balance of certain types of comedy are present within the original, which need to be preserved in the adaptation?
Here is a short list, which, I hope, will help you in your journeys of adaptation.
A character can be tonally characterised both through dress and action as well as dialogue. The voice of an animated character is one of the most important creative decisions in the development process.
A story line has a tone generated by how it ends, and thus how it develops through the narrative.
Each scene has a tone governed largely by the last moment/s of the scene, and this obviously has to be comic with a few exceptions. Theses exceptions only apply where there is a desire to add extra dramatic depth to the central characters.
Locations have a tone governed largely by colour but also the overall visual style.
The dramatic universe as a whole has a tone, often revealed through the music and soundtrack but delivered through each scene and sequence to ensure an overall dramatic unity within the piece.
Finally, or should that be until next time!
This brief run through of tone brings me to the end of this framework of elements, and questions, for bringing comedic works to the screen.
Many original works obviously do not contain all these elements, and it is the screen adaptor’s choices which will determine not only whether people feel the work is true to the original, but also coherent within itself.
Adaptation may be the dominant form of contemporary feature film success, and comedies may dominate television series, but as these few examples have illustrated, this does not make them easy.
I hope these few notes will help you steer a path through the tangled web we weave, called dramatic narrative, to some great adaptations in the future.
You can watch ‘Hogfather’ at
Please add your own journeys of adaptation.
P.S. If you did not get the umbrella reference check out ‘Mary Poppins’ – it will be on over Christmas somewhere.