On the Discworld, which stands upon four elephants on a giant turtle swimming through space, nothing works without magic. But the student wizard Rincewind has not learned to do much magical things even after fourty years at the Unseen University and is finally expelled. On the streets of Ankh-Morpork the hapless would-be wizard accidentially meets a traveler called Twoflower, who has just arrived at the harbour on a ship to have a look at the ancient city. Rincewind sees a lucrative source of money in the Discworld's first tourist, who is splashing about with his gold coins and offers his services as a tour guide. With his first wages in hand, Rincewind tries to flee the city, much to the disapproval of the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. The city leader tells him to take care of Twoflower to avoid a diplomatic incident with his home country, and Rincewind, in lack of other viable alternatives, reluctantly agrees...
In 2006, the british pay-tv channel SkyOne had made a very special christmas present to the fans of Terry Pratchett with the adaptation of his Discworld novel Hogfather. The two-part movie was extremely well made and became very successful not only with the viewers and fans, but also with the critics. The many positive reactions to the very first Discworld live action adaptation became the best reason for Terry Pratchett to clear the way for more movies. The producers had the problem to choose a new direction from over 35 Discworld novels, but in the end it was decided to continue where it all had originally started a long time ago.
Terry Pratchett had published his first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, in 1983. He had created a playful fantasy parody, which parodied many aspects of the genre in a deft, but also respectful way. The story also became the base for a whole new universe, but the plot ended literally in a cliffhanger. Three years later, Terry Pratchett continued to tell the story in the direct sequel The Light Fantastic. These two novels became the basis for all later Discworld books, but with their episodic narrative style were far away from the author's later, much better structured stories. Nevertheless Terry Pratchett and the filmmakers from The Mob had decided on an adaptation of these first two novels, mainly because the author had no problem with letting the script writer improve some of his older works, which became absolutely necessary with The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.
Another reason was also crucial for the choice of Pratchett's first two Discworld novels: David Jason, who had already played one of the main characters in Hogfather, was a long-time Discworld fan and had already expressed the wish to play Rincewind, the protagonist of the two books and many more Discworld stories, for a long time. This was, however, not altogether unproblematic, because with 68 years David Jason was actually much to old for a character, which Terry Pratchett had originally described as a long, thin and middle-aged man. In spite of these discrepances, the author and the filmmakers had decided to grant David Jason his wish and modify the stories a bit instead.
The adaptation was once again laid into the capable hands of author and director Vadim Jean, who had already written the script for Hogfather before and now worked even closer with Terry Pratchett. Although the two books were with about 285 pages each not particularly long, a lot of juggling with the plot was needed to fit The Colour of Magic and The Light fantastic in two 90-minute episodes. There was one big advantage, the very episodic nature of the stories, which often delved into sometimes irrelevant, but funny subplots. As a result, it was not very problematic to change parts of the plot or remove them altogether.
In spite of some abridgements and tightening of the original story it was actually possible to carry over the majority of the plot. The plot was remodeled to remove the unnecessary flashback perspective from which the first half of The Colour of Magic is told to start the story at the actual beginning with Rincewinds's expulsion from the University. Parts of the plot from the second novel were also moved to an earlier point of the story to give the characters of the wizards, especially Trymon as the main antagonist, a bigger appearance to better illustrate the power struggles at the Unseen University.
The restructured script also put more emphasis on the astronomers of Krull and their intent to find out the sex of the world turtle, but many other subplots like the Wyrmberg and Cohen the Barbarian were not neglected. But some parts, like the intrigues of the Discworld gods, Hrun the Barbarian and the Temple of Bel-Shamaroth were written out because not everything could be fit into only three hours. On the other hand, much of the witty dialogue had been preserved and Terry Pratchett had even written some new material exclusively for the movie. Nothing had been removed arbitrarily, only after long deliberations, which made it possible for the author to completely re-interpret his 20 year old novels.
The casting of Rincewind with David Jason had been decided long before the production had actually begun and, at first glance, did not seem like a very good decision. Although the comedian, who had become famous in the 1980s in successfull sitcoms like Only Fools and Horses and was also very popular in more serious roles like his police inspector in A Touch of Frost, was certainly an institution in the british television, he was not the only one connected with the character. In the first two Discworld computer adventure games, Ex-Monty-Python Eric Idle had lent him his voice and in the audiobooks he was spoken by Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs. It was also Eric Idle who had voiced a definitively Rincewind-esque wizard in Shrek the Third and maybe he would have been a good choice in spite of his age. Nigel Planer, who had also played a not too dissimilar wizard called Mr. Sideney in the Hogfather adaptation, would have also been a wonderful Rincewind.
Unfortunately this ideal casting was not possible and Terry Pratchett and the filmmakers had to compromise. However, David Jason had very much risen to the challenge and played the hapless wizard Rincewind not only as simple comedy with a matching costume, but with a really well understanding of the character. The age problem had been solved by the script and did not actually pose much of a problem apart from some action scenes looking a bit ridiculous for someone in David Jason's age. In return, the actor provided exactly the right mischiveous charme and a careful amount of pessimistic melancholy, which were Rincewind's most recognizable trademarks in the novels. He may not have been exactly the Rincewind imagined by Pratchett's readers, but David Jason has made the best out of his role.
Less controverse, but more a positive surprise was the casting of Twoflower, the Discworld's first tourist. Rumours had it that the producers wanted to find a renowned Hollywood actor for the part, but the actual choice of Sean Astin was a very good. As one of the leads in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, the American actor had already been very successful for some years and had all the requirements of enough star power and a fantasy background. But Sean Astin was in fact as big a Discworld fan as David Jason and had also been interested in the role himself. Twoflower was originally a simple parody of the archetypal tourist and had been described in the books as a little, bald, foreign and exotic looking man. Many fans had expected Twoflower to be cast with an Asian actor, but the character works also as a typical American tourist. In the end Sean Astin had played his character exactly as the books described him - overly friendly, extremely curious and a little bit simple without letting Twoflower become a joke character.
Very top-class, but at the same time also absolutely accurate was the choice for the power-hungry and quite deadly wizard Trymon, who originally had been only in The Light Fantastic, but now became part of the whole story as a formidable antagonist. For him the filmmakers were able to cast the british actor, musician and allround-talent Tim Curry, who had begun his career in the 1970s with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and had since become a very versatile stage and movie actor who was perfect for a Discworld adaptation. Trymon, who in the novel was only somewhat one-dimensional villain, comes perfertly to life in the hands of Tim Curry, who alternates between slimy friendlyness, murderously scheming and bright madness. His portrayal makes Trymon one of the most fascinating and entertaining characters of the movie.
Trymon's opponent is the Archchancellor of the Unseen University, who in this story is a completely different character than in Hogfather and therefore is not portrayed by Joss Ackland, but by another actor. James Cosmo plays the role of Galder Weatherwax not much different, but he gives his character the impression of being a much more dangerous adversary, who is not to be trifled with. The casting of the other senior wizards is not particularly distinctive, mainly because the shortened plot leaves them only with very minor roles - only Peter Copley, who died at the amazing age of 93 years not long after the production of the movie, is very memorable in his last role as Greyhold Spold.
More remarkable is the appearrance of the little-known actor Nicholas Tennant, who had already played the small role of Corporal Nobbs in Hogfather, as the librarian of the Unseen University - in human form, because in the second part of the story his character is magically changed into an urangutan. At this point he is portrayed unter a very successful mask by Richard da Costa, but even before the transformation Nicholas Tennans is able to give the viewers many clues about the fate of his character later in the story.
The casting of Cohen the Barbarian was a real coup for the filmmakers: they were able to engage David Bradley, a very busy british actor, who had especially become famous as the grumpy janitor in the Harry Potter movies and practically defected to the competition for The Colour of Magic. Cohen the Barbarian was Terry Pratchett's answer to what happens when a great fantasy hero gets older - certainly they don't just retire. David Bradley had visibly fun in playing the geriatric, teethless swordsman with much gusto and did not leave much doubt that Cohen is really the greatest hero of the Discworld.
Terry Pratchetts two novels were not only full of heroes, but also of heriones, although their appearances were somewhat reduced for the television script. Karen David as the Dragon Lady Liessa and Liz May Bryce as Herrena, who is hired by Trymon to capture Rincewind, are less parodies and more direct references to typical fantasy clichιs and are even in the film adaptation a serious contrast to the other more humorous characters. Much less serious is Bethan, the druid girl, who is saved from sacrifice by Cohen, who is played wonderfully by Laura Haddock against every female clichι with a lot of sense for satire and parody. Because of the limited time of the adaptation, the female characters remain secondary, but The Colour of Magic is actually not a typical all-male fantasy adventure.
If The Colour of Magic was an American production, one part would certainly have been cut out: Death, the antropomorphic personification, who serves mainly as a running gag in the books and was implemented in exactly the same way in the film adaptation. For Hogfather, a brilliant representation of the character with the help of a great costume and the dutch acrobat Marnix van der Broeke had been created, which was again used in The Colour of Magic. Unfortunately Ian Richardson, who had magnificently provided the voice of the Grim Reaper, died unexpectedly in 2007, but a perfect successor was found, who was actually the predecessor: the legendary Christopher Lee had already voiced the character in the Cosgrove-Hall animated versions of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music in the late 1990s - with his sonorous voice he was exactly the right choice for the small, but crucial role.
The casting of one special character, who appeared only in one scene, was also anxiously expected by the fans and had only been revealed shortly before the premiere. In the books, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork was not Lord Vetinari, who only appeared in the fifth Discworld novel Sourcery, but the filmmakers had decided to go for the more popular version of the character. Originally Terry Pratchett wanted to cast Lord Vetinari with Alan Rickman, but when he was unavailable, Jeremy Irons became the best choice. Sadly, the actor was only a guest star and his scene was almost too short, although Terry Pratchett had written an expanded monologue especially for him.
The not quite uncomplicated plot of The Colour of Magic made it necessary to accompany the movie by a narrator, who actually does not emerge too often and is basically only used to link the different plots. For this mainly slightly tightened excerpts from the books were used, making a special relationship with the novels possible. The disembodied voice was not Christopher Lee, but with Brian Cox another renowned british film, television and stage actor with a very distinctive voice, who actually sounds a little too serious for Terry Pratchett's satiric prose. The filmmakers have unfortunately missed out on the chance to find a really choice for the voiceover actor - getting Stephen Briggs or Tony Robinson, the current voices of the unabridged and abridged audiobooks would have been a much more ideal choice.
The Colour of Magic was, like its predecessor Hogfather, a collaboration between SkyOne and RHI Entertainment, who were actually mostly responsible for the financing and gave the production almost completely to the british filmmaker group The Mob. With a noticeably bigger budget the scope of the production was much larger and not only limited to studio shooting. Parts of the historic harbour of Gloucester were used for the docks of Ankh-Morpork, while the wonderful welsh landscapes in Aglesey and Snowdonia in Wales were utilized for many location shoots. Most of the scenes in Unseen University were again created in the London Guild Hall to provide some visual continuity to Hogfather, but otherwise a lot of work was done in the Pinewood Studios, where the enormeous water tank was used for the sea scenes and the few, but complicated action sequences were staged.
The remarkably restrained, but technically brilliant and very inventive camera work of Gavin Finney was a seamless continuation of his filming for Hogfather and made sure that the unique visual style was more in the line of a big-screen production than a television show. Production designer Rick Eyres, who had before worked with filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, created a very detailed scenery of the Discworld completely true to the original with many brilliantly designed sets, but also with a lot of special effects. These were created by the small, only in 2006 established London company Fluid Pictures, who combined the real footage with complex computer generated backgrounds and brought everything to life which could not be created in front of the camera.
This included of course an animated Discworld complete with turtle, elephants and the rimfall, which was actually a clever combination of real scenery, background plates from the Niagara Falls and computer graphics. Other digital creations were the upside down Wyrmberg with its fierce dragons, but also simple things like Twoflowers luggage, which moves about on hundreds of little feet. This was actually again Richard de Costa, who had also performed the ape librarian, moving in simple prop luggage under which the feet were later digitally added. All special-effects share one common trait: they do not look like sterile digital creations, but leave a completely natural impression, having been seamlessy integrated into the real footage. The effects may not be as bombastic and all-encompassing as larger cinema productions, but only the technical developments of the last decade made a movie like The Colour of Magic possible in the first place.
Like its predecessor Hogfather, The Colour of Magic was also provided with a classical film score, again written by the british composer David A. Huges and his collaborator Paul E. Francis. Their compositions refrained from using the folk music roots of the earlier animated adaptations and instead used a sweeping, traditional orchestral score with memorable themes, which were surprisingly versatile for a television production. The bombastic and even playful arrangements were far away from artificial synthesizer sounds, but their only fault was the overuse of the main theme, which does not sound original any more after some repeated occurences.
One and a half years after Hogfather, the live-action adaptions of Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories continued with an ambitious project that was even more successful than its predecessor. After an extensive advertising campaign, which not only included trailers, but also a dedicated website and a cooperation with Amazon and other online retailers, Sky treated The Colour of Magic with a big cinema premiere in London before the movie was screened in two parts on Easter Sunday and Monday 2008 on SkyOne. With rating reaching up to 1.5 million viewers, an all-time-record for Sky, The Colour of Magic had become a surprisingly huge success. Not all critics were convinced and reviews were not uniformly positive, but in spite of the casting controversies especially the fans were very enthusiastic about The Colour of Magic.
The success was, however, mainly limited to England, because the very special british humor made it difficult for the American co-producer RHI Entertainment to find a broadcast channel. After more than one year, The Colour of Magic was finally screened on the relatively unknown channel ION, who had postponed the broadcast several times and shortened the American version by more than thirty minutes and a planned cinema release of a two-hour version never materialized. In Germany an uncut, with the title Color of Magic - Die Reise des Zauberers (The Journey of the Wizard) was screened on RTL in the primtime slot on 8:15pm, but was branded as cheap children's entertainment because of the terrible German dubbing, which suffered from even worse translation problems than the books.
In spite of all concerns, The Colour of Magic had not become a cheap television miniseries, but an impressive productions with big-screen ambitions, which brought Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe to life in a respectful way very true to the original. Without a close cooperation with the author this would have been impossible and it is little short of a miracle that, a quarter of a decade, Terry Pratchett had finally found a perfect collaborator in the filmmakers of The Mob to bring his books to life.
After the Easter premiere in 2008, The Colour of Magic had been released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the autumn of that year, but 20th Century Fox had made no friends with a strange release policy. On the 2-disc DVD set, an essential part of the extras, the 45-minute making-of documentary, was deliberately left off, although it was originally even more expensive than the Blu-Ray. For this reason I had not bought the disc on its initial release and actually waited for two years until it became more affordable.
The DVD reviewed in this article is the british 2-disc special edition, which in spite of the missing documentary is actually quite well done. There are also American and German releases, but these do not contain any extras at all.