(part of my ongoing Complete Discworld Re-Read Project)
Moving Pictures, the “ninth Discworld novel” as my copy advertises, although since then somebody’s clearly been messing with the fabric of time and space because it’s now considered the tenth, is the first Discworld novel to take the approach Pratchett seems to be famous for of taking a real-world phenomenon and putting it into a fantasy setting and making a book out of it. Previous installments had, of course, parodised RL phenomena, and had drawn heavily on genre tropes both within and without the fantasy genre, but Moving Pictures was the first to be all about how funny it would be to see the 20th century transplanted to middle earth.
That’s probably not something to be proud of. Soul Music, Going Postal, Unseen Academicals… it really works all that well. Moving Pictures often gets discarded as just another one of these facile parodies.
But Moving Pictures is a lot more than that. In my opinion, it’s a badly underrated book (including, until a few days ago, by myself).
For a start, Moving Pictures isn’t really about cinema at all. It’s really about the postmodern condition; in particular, at its core, it’s simply an eschatologisation of the immanentising of the Baudrillardian hyperreal.
What do I mean? Well, here’s what the SEP has to say about hyperreality: “Hyperreality is closely related to the concept of the simulacrum: a copy or image without reference to an original. In postmodernism, hyperreality is the result of the technological mediation of experience, where what passes for reality is a network of images and signs without an external referent, such that what is represented is representation itself… Baudrillard argues that all of these realities have become simulations, that is, signs without any referent, because the real and the imaginary have been absorbed into the symbolic. Baudrillard presents hyperreality as the terminal stage of simulation… The real, he says, has become an operational effect of symbolic processes, just as images are technologically generated and coded before we actually perceive them. This means technological mediation has usurped the productive role of the Kantian subject, the locus of an original synthesis of concepts and intuitions, as well as the Marxian worker, the producer of capital though labor, and the Freudian unconscious, the mechanism of repression and desire.” [Aylesworth, Gary, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/postmodernism/>.]
In other words… Moving Pictures is a book about the cinema.
It may at first seem a strange choice of theme for a Discworld book, but on closer examination it feels like a natural, even inevitable, extension of earlier themes. I think that one thing Pratchett shares in his approach with Chesterton is the belief that fairy tales can show us something that is not a mere lie, but that is important and in some way real – perhaps everything that is important and real. This is summed up excellently in Death’s final explanation of the plot of Hogfather (which of course I shan’t repeat here, so as not to spoil…). But where Chesterton identifies this reality of stories with a transcendent divine truth (we have been viewing the world from its back side, and imaginative fiction is one way we get ‘get around in front’ and catch a glimpse of how things look in a real, divine perspective), Pratchett’s worldview lacks this comforting external validation. His stories, while vital, are still only stories. Chesterton’s world is a representation of stories, but Pratchett’s stories are forced to be representations of the world. Because Pratchett is writing fantasy, he gets to cheat, and he can emphasise the importance of the representational world of stories by giving them the power to actually shape the material world – on the Disc, belief shapes reality, which is as close to Chesterton’s religious viewpoint as Pratchett allows himself to get. But beliefs are still representations. And that means that the hyperreal is a natural threat to have to confront.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the following book, Reaper Man, sees the introduction of the Auditors of Reality. In many ways, Moving Pictures and Reaper Man are paired works – Reaper Man will explore the evils of materialism, what happens when the soft-lit, fleshy, narrative world is stripped away to leave the cold, the hard and the mechanical, and here Moving Pictures explores the opposite apocalypse, the point where the representations lose touch with reality and the tail wags the dog. Perhaps we can frame it in good old classical terms: if the world consists of substance and form, Reaper Man has substance without form, life without meaning, and Moving Pictures has form without substance, stories without foundation – and if there’s a form, a reality without substance, then there’s a reality in search of a substance, and something else may provide that matter.
Because, to get back to what’s actually on the page, this is probably the best outing for the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions. Previously throw-away plot devices, here they’re much more central to the book, and Moving Pictures borrows from and references Lovecraft much more than other works (other than the direct parody section from The Colour of Magic, of course). It’s a plot element that works really well, in my opinion, taking a trope used already in several Discworld novels and making it work again, and work better, by doubling down on the, for want of a better word, ‘realism’, and attention to detail.
Together, then, the Things of this novel and the Auditors of the next seem to act as brackets on the potential narrative space of the series, and on Pratchett’s conception of the meaningful life.
Or, alternatively, the whole plot of Moving Pictures may just be the elaboration of a single one-word pun not made until the closing pages of the book. If so, I commend the audacity!
It is an audacious book. Even within the context of the Discworld series, it feels fresh and original.
In terms of its strategy, Moving Pictures works on essentially three levels. On one level, there’s the above rumination on the nature of reality and the meaning of life – this, and the ominous, unpleasant foreshadowing of the Lovecraftian Things provides much of the dramatic impetus for events – this is why we’re meant to care. On the flip side, meanwhile, there’s the superficial tackling of the cinema industry, which is not so much a satire as just a string of pop culture references to keep the readers entertained. And in the middle, there’s the characterisation.
Moving Pictures dials back a little on the insistent, continual comedy of previous installments, and indeed on the complexity of the plot, in order to provide more room for character drama. This is both a success and a failure. On the failure side, there’s the two main protagonists. They aren’t exactly failures as characters – indeed, they’re very sympathetic, vaguely interesting, and I could imagine them going on to be effective repeat characters in future novels. That they may come across as lacking depth is, I think, largely because Pratchett never chose to return to them. Victor Tugelbend, in particular, is, yes, not the most exciting character, but he’s the same not-the-most-exciting-character almost all the previous books have been based on – he’s Rincewind in his early installments (before he became just ‘the guy who runs away’), he’s Esk, he’s Mort, he’s the Fool, he’s Pteppic, he’s Everyman. In himself, he’s perfectly adequate. The failure comes from the way that he fails to live up to the demands of the book. The Pratchettian Everyman is plagued by the problem of passivity – he’s typically a wry observer only forced into reluctant action by unwelcome exigencies. But here, he’s given a lot more scope, a lot more agency, a lot more room to breathe… and he’s not the character for the job. Victor would probably be fine, rushed from emergency to emergency like some other characters, but put into a more heroic role, he’s a little… dull. Plodding. Similarly, the Everyman tends to be a fairly straightforward character; somebody more interesting might grab this novel by the scruff of the neck, but despite being given the opportunity Victor never indulges in too much interesting internal reflection. Though I don’t believe there’s anything per se wrong with Victor as a character, in this novel he feels like something of a missed opportunity.
But it’s also a success. This success begins with the fantastic character of Gaspode, who despite getting relatively little screen time, and despite being a dog, has a fascinating and affecting internal life with real and powerful dilemmas; I wonder how much, thematically, of Men at Arms, and maybe The Fifth Elephant, springs from Gaspode’s arc in this novel. Unfortunately, although he adds greatly to this book, it’s not entirely clear why he’s in it – he seems like a great idea Pratchett had that got put into this novel because it was the one he was writing at the time, rather than somebody thematically, conceptually, or narratively tied to the novel’s essence. Nonetheless, he’s essential to its execution, because he provides much of the soul of the book. Also worth mentioning on the success side of the scale is CMOT Dibbler – seen before (once, in G!G!), seen frequently after, but this is ‘his’ book. He’s not a deep or complicated character in the slightest, but he’s a force of nature (almost literally – after all, he is the self-destructive exploitation of the hyperreal by the bourgeois, and indeed perhaps he is the transmogrification of the medium of exchange into the medium of valuation, the primordial hyperreal). And we must also mention The Wizards. This is the first book in which we meet The Wizards – we’ve met plenty of wizards before, of course, but they’ve been interchangeable and transient, their minuscule life expectancy the core of their characterisation. In this novel, they mutate from the old violent occultists in their mystic sects into a mere university faculty. Central to this is the new character of the Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully, who, again, isn’t yet a fully-rounded character, but is memorable, funny, and distinctive. Around him, the Chair, the Lecturer, the Dean and the Bursar do not yet have exactly their later personalities, but are forming the beginning of an effective ensemble comedy routine; an inchoate Ponder Stibbons is also introduced, although it’s more of an origin story for the later character than a real introduction.
So maybe what Moving Pictures gets by giving itself more room is not great characters for this novel, but the one of the most important Discworld novels ever in terms of the new, long-term characters introduced and developed. And Holy Wood itself shouldn’t be overlooked here – although the transient town never appears again, Moving Pictures gives us one of Pratchett’s best, most intimate evocations of a place and its inhabitants.
In the end, then, how much of a success is Moving Pictures? It’s likely to be a divisive book. I found the themes and atmosphere sufficiently compelling to pull me through the book – but not perhaps enough to make the book a classic. They are on the one hand too remote – the Things, though handled well, are a blunt way to get us to care about what’s otherwise too abstruse a concern – and yet at the same time too easy a target (we don’t need Terry Pratchett to teach us about the cult of celebrity, and the satire is really quite tame). The characters are adequate and memorable but… not loveable (other than Gaspode, and he doesn’t get enough screen time). And the humour is less intense than in some of his books, while I know some readers get irritated by the pop culture references and puns (though I found them less dense and intrusive than I expected).
The result is a book that can be seen in one of two ways: as a thoroughly enjoyable romp; or as an exercise whose (ironic) lack of substance makes the flaws (and Pratchett’s mannerisms) far too visible. It’s fair to say, I think, that this is not one of Pratchett’s classics, certainly in terms of emotive involvement. But I also think it’s unfair to write it off as a failure. Taken in its own right, without reference to Pratchett’s better books, I think this can be read with a very great deal of enjoyment. It’s certainly a very long way from his worst. [Indeed, for some readers – those who will prefer the comedic side of Pratchett, and who will enjoy the cinematic references – this may be good point to join the series].
Adrenaline: 3/5. I wouldn’t call this a flabby book, but it does have a more deliberate pace than some of his books – there’s more boding than action. But it gets the heart pumping when it has to.
Emotion: 3/5. A slightly shallow book, and the protagonists feel a bit distant. This is in keeping with the themes, but still hurts the novel ever so slightly.
Thought: 3/5. Raises some interesting questions, certainly, but doesn’t really explore them in any depth, and the plot is a little too straightforward.
Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s prose, rich in imagery and polished in construction, is as brilliant as ever, though overall the novel perhaps lacks the touch of the sublime that would elevate it to the highest score.
Craft: 4/5. Everything is perfect in the details, but some things didn’t quite end up fully pulled off. The plot twists aren’t twisty enough, which makes the drawn-out multiple climax a little repetitive (there’s a clause I never thought I’d write). The plot exposes the limitations of Pratchett’s characterisation, and doesn’t connect with the audience quite as emotively as I think the author intended. Still, excellent prose, a tricky narrative juggling act (with the plot running along two separate tracks, plus diversions – nothing exceptional for Pratchett, but still impressive that he makes it work as well as it does), and continual brilliance put it well above par.
Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked it. Some may disagree, but I felt the parody kept just the right side of the humour/irritation line, it was a fun adventure, and Pratchett can make even the merely adequate loveable.
Originality: 3/5. It’s almost impossible to call Pratchett unoriginal, thanks to the continual flood of inspired images and excellent humour. On the other hand, a lot of this book was intentionally borrowed from common tropes.
Overall: 5/7. Good. Pratchett by now has clearly stepped up to a higher level than in his early novels, even if here he isn’t making the best use possible of his skills. Despite that, I think it’s a very accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable work.