The Discworld Reread: Book X
This is the first case of a book that I’ve enjoyed less in the reread than I did originally. I’ve always thought that Moving Pictures was one of my favourites: when I first read it, I was tickled by Pratchett’s humorous reworking of Golden-Age Hollywood. Yet now, coming close on the heels of the earlier books in the series, I find that it doesn’t actually live up to the best of Discworld. And now my challenge is to figure out why that is…
It starts with the death of an old man on a lonely beach. He is the last of his line, the last one who remembers the rituals that have to be enacted to keep the potent force buried beneath the sands from breaking through into reality. For this sandy, forgotten place on a slight hill by the dunes was once known as the Holy Wood. It demands attention. And, with the old man’s absence, something begins to wake… something wonderful… something mischievous… something which is ready for its close-up.
In the Alchemists’ quarter, a strange new technology is unveiled while, across the city, the ancient magic of Holy Wood seeps into the sleep of the more susceptible citizens. Victor, a student wizard, finds himself dreaming of swashbuckling and saving maidens and the light glinting off his smile. Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler, incorrigible entrepreneur and purveyor of dubious snacks, dreams of studios and lights, cameras and action. And Gaspode, a world-weary mongrel, suddenly finds that he is able to talk. Each of them is drawn to this lonely sandy place out by the sea, where they tackle the great questions of cinema: why is every story improved by being set ‘in a worlde gone madde’? How can one get hold of a thousand elephants? And what exactly is the point of banged grains?
I increasingly feel that Discworld is at its best when taking regular characters or settings and putting them through the mangler. Now, to some extent we do have that here: Dibbler, Detritus and the wizards of Unseen University are recurring characters (and this is the book in which we welcome the University’s new Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully, who becomes a bit of a favourite of mine throughout the series). But the focus of the book is on a group of new characters, predominantly on Victor and Ginger, the stars of the new ‘clicks’ business. We’ve never seen them before and we’ll never seen them again. It feels as if Discworld is being twisted to fit an idea, rather than an idea being twisted to fit Discworld, and I think that’s why it doesn’t work so well. You may well point out that Pyramids was also set in an unfamiliar part of the world, with characters who are one-offs for that particular book, and yet I enjoyed that more. I can’t explain why, but it just felt more successful – perhaps because it featured a sequence of ideas seen through Discworld’s idiosyncratic lens rather than, like the present book, riffing on a single idea for the whole story.
Furthermore, I can’t shake off the feeling that Moving Pictures takes itself a bit too seriously. That’s not to say there aren’t very funny moments, but there are also parts where the story seems to be trying too hard, either to be grand and epic, or to nudge in yet another joke based on classic Hollywood cinema. As it’s one of the books I’ve come back to more frequently over the years, I wonder whether its spirit has just been dulled for me by its familiarity, and whether that’s why it felt a bit less sparkling than some of the less familiar books in the series.
However, if you haven’t read it before, it is well worth the time: I don’t want to put anyone off. If you’re a cinema buff, you’ll have great fun searching for the in-jokes and, to be fair, Pratchett on a less dazzling day is still more delightful than a lot of other authors. As I now proceed to the rest of the series, I’m slightly anxious: how many old favourites are going to lose their sheen on renewed acquaintance?
Last in the series – Eric
Not much to offer from Paul Kidby on this book, although I did find this image, which admittedly counts as a massive spoiler. Nevertheless, a gold star is in the offing for anyone who can identify the film being relentlessly spoofed here.