Sunday, January 8, 2023

Pratchett and Hollywood: A Cautionary Tale

So, I've now finished up Rob Wilkins' TERRY PRATCHETT: A LIFE IN FOOTNOTES. It's very well done, but unsparing: it takes us up to Pratchett's final days as bit by bit he slipped away via Alzheimer's, right up to that last day when he died, his wife holding one hand and his daughter the other, with his cat Pongo at this feet. Be warned that if you've been a caregiver for a fatally ill friend or relative this part may hit hard. I'm glad I read the book, not least because I learned a lot about how Pratchett worked. And it confirmed my feeling, as a long-time reader, that his later books (roughly the final quarter of his career) really were different from the Pratchett whose works I had enjoyed and admired, as dementia made it harder for him to write and more dependent upon assistants.

On a less grim note, the book contains revealing accounts of Pratchett's two disastrous encounters with Hollywood. The first was with SKG (DreamWorks), who wanted to make a major-studio film, directed by Sam Raimi, of one of the Tiffany Aching books. Everything went swimmingly until Pratchett read the script, causing him to explode over their having transformed Pratchett's apprentice witch into a 'disney princess' and cancel the project.*

The second time was when Disney wanted to make a film of MORT.** Again everything went swimmingly, until Pratchett learned just how much he wd be signing away: 


It emerged that if Disney deemed the film a success --the definition of which could apparently even encompass the film making a billion-dollar loss***-- they would be able to exercise a right to all the other Discworld books involving Mort's characters, which is to say anything with the character of Death in it, or, if you will, every DIscworld book apart  from The Wee Free Men and Snuff. They  could also exercise the right to any future use of those characters. And they would also own the right to the use of all of Mort's settings, including Unseen University and the entire city of Ankh-Morpork-- again, both in the past and in the future. In other worlds, by making this one film, Disney would come, in effect, to own DIscworld, both as it stood and as it was still to come.  

Someone involved in the negotiations mentions that Terry would be getting a mere two per cent on all merchandising rights, including any spin-off books --of which there would be many-- with no creative control residing with him


Another says I knew it was a deal that could have made Terry a lot of money, but I was also convinced that he would have hated what Disney would have done to his stories and to his characters. I felt in my bones that it was a Faustian bargain, one that Terry would live to regret massively.

Wilkins himself describes the project imploding at a meeting at which you actually saw the deal fall apart in front of your eyes  . . . melted like butter in a pan


 Pratchett ultimately found it easier and much more satisfying to work with British tv,**** who filmed several of his works. But the whole experience is eye-opening in that it gives an idea of just how much could be at stake in the negotiations over Tolkien film rights. 

--John R.

*"The feisty, self-determining, intellectually quick Tiffany Aching, had become, in Terry's words, 'a kind of Disney princess, wishing on a star for her dream to come true.

'Get Sam Raimi on the phone' said Terry"

 **One of my personal favorites among the series; I was pleased to learn that it's Gaiman's favorite.

***this wd, I assume, have been an allusion to 'Hollywood Accounting'

****and also BBC radio

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