If there’s one thing I love about Christmas stories, it’s that virtually all of them are determinedly “about” something. Unfortunately, the majority of them are also about the same thing – the importance of kindness and the value of family – which can get a little tedious after awhile.
Don’t get me wrong: I support that message lock, stock and barrel. But every so often, another type of festive tale will come along that skews a little different, breathing new life into the genre.
So it is with Hogfather, the 20th novel in the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and in this month’s Anatomy Lesson, we’re going to take a look back at its TV adaptation, which first aired back in 2006.
Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (as it is officially titled) details what happens when the Santa Claus of Discworld – the Hogfather – mysteriously disappears, leaving Death (yes, Death!) to take the reins, while his human granddaughter, Susan, tries to set things right.
As the above sentence should make abundantly clear, it is totally awesome. But quite apart from the obvious fun of its premise, Hogfather ultimately works because in addition to covering the usual Christmas themes, it also covers a range of others as well, most notably the importance of belief to humanity.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
When the scene we’ll be scrutinising begins, Susan has uncovered the plot by the villainous Auditors of Reality to destroy the Hogfather, and subsequently rescued the magical creature from their clutches.
With Hogswatch – which is to say, “Christmas” – saved, Susan and her grandfather stop to discuss what the success of her mission actually meant.
See, Death initially told his granddaughter that saving the Hogfather served a greater purpose than merely ensuring Hogwatch still goes ahead.
According to the reaper man, due to the Hogfather’s roots as a life-death-rebirth type deity, his demise would have prevented the Sun itself from rising in the morning.
Having ensured that this will definitely not come to pass, Susan finds herself curious and enquires whether what she was told is actually true. Death’s response reveals that it paradoxically is and is not:
“The Sun would not have risen…A mere ball of gas would have illuminated the world.”
In essence, then, what was really at stake was human belief.
Whilst the Discworld’s sun will surely rise whether or not the Hogfather exists, the fact is that without believing in this magical creature and all that he entails, humanity would not be able to experience a sunrise without all the magical beauty that makes it special.
Death then proclaims that belief in fantasies like the Hogfather is intrinsic to being human; by swallowing these “little lies” as children, we’re preparing ourselves to accept the big concepts that also have no tangible basis in our world, such as justice, mercy and duty. It’s only by our belief in these abstracts, says Death, that they are made real.
It’s trippy stuff, so it’s fortunate that Ian Richardson is such a good fit for the role of Death. His voice has a regal, imposing quality to it, and yet he never sounds either cold or unkind, as befits a benign lord of the afterlife.
For her part, Michelle Dockery (of Downton Abbey fame) also does a fine job as Susan, subtly communicating the uneasy relationship she has with her grandfather, and conveying her affection for (and insight into) humanity with an aloofness that betrays her own otherworldly qualities.
On the technical side of things, the production values in this scene are, as with the rest of Hogfather, pretty solid.
This telemovie occupies that awkward space that big budget cable productions always seem to exist in – being considerably better shot than the majority of network programmes, but not quite up to the level of something you’d see at the cinema.
Case in point is the way that Death is realised. He looks reasonable enough (he’s only supposed to be a skeleton in a robe, after all), but the fact that his mouth doesn’t move when he speaks really undermines how he comes across.
Perhaps the effects gurus at Moving Picture Company did try to create a mask with a moving jaw and it looked cheesy (I could certainly see that happening).
Maybe they were being faithful to the Pratchett’s books, which describe Death as speaking (essentially) via telepathy.
Nevertheless, I’m left with the sense that, were this a film, Death would be able to do something as simple as articulate his words.
It doesn’t matter though, as it’s the script that really makes this scene shine. The Discworld novels were filled with delightful prose, so it’s no surprise that writer-director Vadim Jean’s adapted screenplay sparkles with cleverness and poetry.
In particular, Death’s philosophical waxing resounds with a strong undercurrent of humanism, echoing Pratchett’s own ideas that humankind should actually be rather proud of itself, given our humble beginnings.
By describing humanity as “the place where the Falling Angel meets the Rising Ape”, Prachett and Jean acknowledge something of an oft-overlooked truth: that we humans exist at the optimal point between the primal and the divine.
Yes, we’re stupid and foolish and mean and petty, but we’re also capable of dreaming up concepts like justice and mercy, and of demanding a universe not harsh and indifferent, but warm and full of meaning.
As I mentioned earlier, not one of these concepts is strictly real, of course. To quote Death:
“…take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.”
And yet it’s still vitally important that we believe in these ideas (and ideals) in order to function, both as individuals and as a society.
Viewed in this way, not only does this scene embrace everything good about humanity, but tethers that good to the concept of Santa Claus, in the process validating Old Saint Nick’s importance at time when he is often dismissed as a lie told to control children.
I’ve mentioned before that I struggle with the idea of blind belief, yet watching Hogfather reminds me that we ALL need to believe in something.
As kids, it’s Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. When we’re adults it’s religion, science, or maybe even other people.
Regardless, these are things that help us to make sense of world that so often makes none, and no matter how much we all disagree on what to believe IN, the fact that we all DO believe in something unites us as a species in a special and beautiful way.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
That Hogfather can work such a vivid examination of belief and the human condition into the framework of a Christmas yarn just goes to show what a stand-out it is amongst other seasonal fare.
There’s more of course – including a great bit about the difference between Death and monsters – so it’s well worth watching this holiday season.
Oh, and before I go – Merry Hogswatch to you all!