The Unmade Terry Pratchett Movies (and Why They Didn’t Happen)
Discworld creator Terry Pratchett was one of the great fantasy authors of the last 50 years, and yet Hollywood has never brought his work to the big screen. It isn't from a lack of trying...
This month sees the U.S. release of The Amazing Maurice, a feature length adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s acclaimed 2001 YA novel. Though Pratchett has been adapted a handful of times for television, most recently with Amazon’s Good Omens (excellent) and BBC America’s The Watch (patchy), this will be the first true big-screen take on a Pratchett book*, which is frankly astonishing when you consider that Sir Terry has been a bestseller since the mid-‘80s, with a series of accessible and cinematic comic fantasy hits, most of which would lend themselves to the screen.
Pratchett even writes cinematically—almost all of his adult novels are written without chapters, skipping scene-to-scene just as a movie does. Some of these books were adapted in the ‘90s for the stage, three successful video games, and even a prog rock album. Meanwhile several of his novels have been made successfully for the small screen, in stop-motion, traditional animation and live-action. So putting Pratchett on the big screen, with the accompanying budget, should be a no-brainer.
So why has it taken so long?
It’s not like the interest wasn’t there. Studios have been sniffing around Pratchett’s work since the 1980s, and there have been several near misses over the years. The late author’s extremely protective attitude to his work made him wary of big name producers (“I don’t need the money, I’ve got money,” he would say) while the projects that did get through his finely-honed bullshit filter were doomed to languish in development hell, sometimes for decades. The history of Pratchett on screen is a cautionary tale, pitted with good intentions, Hollywood big shots missing the point, tantalizing leads, and ultimate disappointment. In fact, prior to Amazing Maurice only three of his 60-odd novels—Good Omens, Mort, and Truckers—got anywhere close to making it over the line and into the projection booth. Each attempt, in its own way, fell apart. Here’s how.
The Good Omens Movie
The 1990 book was co-written by Neil Gaiman and was one of, astonishingly, five new Pratchett novels published that year. The man was a machine. And on the page, it follows an angel and demon attempting to thwart an actually-quite-pleasant 11-year-old antichrist. So it had an obviously twisted appeal for Hollywood (“It will make one hell of a movie” said a review in the Washington Post), and there was interest from the off. U.S. publishers Workman had sent it to several notable cult figures hoping for quotes to include in the cover blurb, which is how a copy found its way onto the desk of Terry Gilliam who, having just endured a flop with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, was on the lookout for a new project and assumed the book had been sent for his consideration.
Gilliam began negotiating for the rights immediately, much to the delight of the two authors. The one-time Python performer’s dark style was a solid match for Gaiman’s prose, while Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil were two of Pratchett’s favorite movies of all time. Gilliam, however, had been pipped to the post. The rights were ultimately won by Sovereign Pictures, a smallish company who had recently enjoyed success with the Oscar-bait drama My Left Foot and the Mel Gibson-starring version of Hamlet.
The two authors were commissioned to adapt their novel into a script and would regularly find themselves in LA trying to explain the very British sensibilities of their story—a mash-up of The Omen and Richmal Crompton’s classic Just William children’s books—to producers determined to set it in the United States and cast “a Tom Cruise type” in the lead. Julia Roberts’ name was also bandied about, one suspects with some wildly misplaced optimism. A first draft was rejected for adhering too closely to the book, at which point Pratchett threw up his hands and departed the project, leaving Gaiman to write their contractually obligated second draft alone. Gaiman’s next script was thrown out again, this time for departing from the book too much.
Sovereign Pictures, perhaps fortunately, went out of business soon after and the rights reverted back to the authors, who found their enthusiasm for a Good Omens movie had evaporated. For good measure, the experience also put a dent in their friendship that took years to repair.
The ghost of Good Omens rose again from development purgatory in 1999 when two British filmmakers, Marc and Peter Samuelson, approached Pratchett and Gaiman about the rights, with the clincher of having Terry Gilliam in their back pocket. Gilliam had never forgotten the weird book he’d been sent a decade earlier and was keen to get cracking. Having been stung by their previous experiences, the two authors decided to let Terry Gilliam make a Terry Gilliam film; leaving him to write it himself and swearing not to interfere too much. By 2001, $50 million of funding had been secured from Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures, and Johnny Depp and Robin Williams were lined up to play the demon and angel double act of Crowley and Arizophale. Meanwhile Kirsten Dunst was earmarked to play the young witch Anathema. All it needed was an American distributor to secure transatlantic success and provide the final $10 million for the budget. History had other ideas.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a bonkers Terry Gilliam movie about the end of the world suddenly felt like a less attractive prospect and support and budget began to slip away. By 2006, the rights had reverted back to the authors. The book would eventually get made as a lavish and very faithful TV drama, co-produced by the BBC and Amazon, though sadly Pratchett—who died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2015—wouldn’t live to see it.
Good Omens or not, it was the Discworld novels that made Pratchett’s name, a series of comic fantasy satires which began with 1983’s The Colour of Magic. These tales, like their creator, were becoming increasingly rich with each release. The stories were set on a flat world traveling through the universe on the back of four elephants and a gigantic turtle and were extremely funny, extremely clever, and, crucially, extremely popular. Pratchett and his agent, Colin Smythe, had been treated to several expensive lunches with Hollywood types looking for a piece of the Discworld dollar, but had so far resisted their charms.
The book most often discussed was Mort, the tale of an awkward farm boy who becomes the Grim Reaper’s apprentice; a self-contained, smart and breezy story often seen as the best entry into the series for new readers. Not everyone in Tinseltown quite “got” the book though, with one exec telling Pratchett that they’d like to make the film without the character of Death altogether, feeling audiences wouldn’t respond to a walking skeleton with a scythe, and basically gutting the story of its central character. A few years later Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, featuring a literal Grim Reaper, was a huge success, leading to some very spiky comments by Terry.
Pratchett and Smythe finally found a cinematic home for Mort in 1996 when a deal was announced with New Line Cinema (still five years away from the mega success it would enjoy with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) in partnership with a British company, Scala Productions, and British writer/director Paul Bamborugh, with a budget set at a relatively exciting $25 million. At which point … everything went quiet. Pratchett would be asked about the film in almost every interview he gave, and would usually say he was “keeping his nose out of it,” revealing only that Death would sometimes be a CGI character and sometimes appear human, and joking (probably) about casting Danny DeVito. The years ticked by and Mort continued to fail to appear. Directors and writers came and went, New Line appeared to drop out of the picture altogether. No more was heard until the project was resurrected in 2010 in the unlikeliest of forms.
Pratchett had been approached by Walt Disney Animation Studios about adapting Mort into a full blown, all singing, all dancing animated musical feature. A bonafide Disney classic, to be directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog, and, later, Moana. A pedigree of 100 percent, stone-cold masterpieces. They were keen too. Keen enough to travel to the 2010 Discworld Convention in Birmingham to meet the author and see his world in action.
Things got surprisingly far—some absolutely exquisite concept art was developed by artist Claire Keane (it’s the black and white pictures you can find on her website here), and an art department was set up, which even distributed a Christmas card featuring Death dressed as Father Christmas, as depicted in Pratchett’s novel Hogfather. It seemed too good to be true. And it was. There were two snags. The first was that the rights to Mort, acquired back in 1996, still resided with Paul Bamborough and his new company, Camel Productions, though Disney probably had enough money to sort that out. More worrying for Pratchett was a revelation during a meeting in New York that, should he give Mort to the House of Mouse, they would have automatic rights to make further films using all of the characters and locations within it, including adapting all of the books that they appeared in.
Since the main character of Mort is Death himself, who cameos or stars in almost every Discworld novel, numbering some 39 books by that point, plus short stories and spinoffs, this was something of a problem. It is, apparently, the only time one particular Disney lawyer ever found himself being literally screamed at by a prospective collaborator. The deal fell apart, right there in the meeting. Mort, probably the most adaptable of Pratchett’s books, remains unfilmed.
As the new millennium dawned, DreamWorks, still a relatively new studio at that point and trailing behind rivals Disney and Pixar, began eyeing another juicy Pratchett prospect for animation: the Bromeliad Trilogy. These were three children’s novels, Truckers, Diggers, and Wings, which together told the story of tiny ‘nomes’ living beneath the floorboards of a department store, around which they have built a whole religion. As with all of Pratchett’s work, there’s far more going on than a cute story—the Bromeliad may be about tiny people escaping the demolition of their home by learning to drive a truck, yes, but it’s also about the nature of faith and dogma. It’s about what happens when the world turns out to be far bigger and more complicated and beautiful than you ever thought possible, and how terrifying it is that you could have missed that. It inspired one of the best xkcd strips, if nothing else.
The studio acquired the rights to the trilogy in 2001 for just shy of $1 million, and it was to be directed by Andrew Adamson, the filmmaker of the just-finished but still unreleased Shrek. Pratchett was convinced that these were the people who could finally bring his work to the silver screen.
“You’ve got to be impressed,” he said in a press release at the time, “when someone phones up from Hollywood one night and turns up for lunch in Wiltshire the next day.” Unfortunately neither Terry, nor Dreamworks, saw much come of that $1 million. The astronomic success of Shrek tied Adamson up for several years making sequels while an increasingly jaded Pratchett waited in the wings, looking at his watch and tutting. Eventually directing duties were passed to Danny Boyle, much in demand after 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, who was completely besotted with the books but couldn’t make the project work in the aftermath of that year’s financial crisis (“wonderful novels, such a shame,” Boyle later told Empire magazine).
Frank Cotteral Boyce was attached as a screenwriter, as was Simon Beufort (Slumdog Millionaire) and John Orloff (Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole), with Anand Tucker, who had adapted Steve Martin’s Shopgirl to general acclaim, directing. By now it was 2011, and hope in the Pratchett camp was still relatively high; after all, Dreamworks had spent $18 million developing a Truckers movie without a frame of animation being produced. Surely they wouldn’t throw all of that away? The author himself was skeptical. He was right to be. The studio decided that a Bromeliad movie would be too close to the recent Gnomeo and Juliet (a film that noticeably does not have a subplot about religious fundamentalism), and scrapped the whole thing.
Two years later, a final attempt was made to get Truckers off the ground. DreamWorks had acquired the rights to the classic Troll toys and briefly considered merging the IPs, casting Pratchett’s story with the bulging-eyed, big-haired, pudgy-faced characters bafflingly beloved of children since the 1970s. It was too much for Sir Terry, who pulled the plug on the whole thing. DreamWorks went on to make Trolls movies anyway, earning a small fortune in the process.
The Wee Free Men and The Amazing Maurice
Between Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi made a serious play to bring Discworld to the screen, adapting Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, a beautiful YA book about an eight-year-old would-be witch who travels to fairyland to rescue her brother. Pratchett hated the script, written by Corpse Bride’s Pamela Pettler, so much that he left a message with Raimi’s office simply saying “it’s shit” and neither side contacted the other, ever again.
It was an unfortunate incident, but one that happily set the wheels in motion for this year’s Amazing Maurice and the emergence, finally, of a real Discworld movie. Pratchett and his team were so stung by the experience they resolved to set up their own production company, Narrativia, with Pratchett, his business manager Rob Wilkins, and daughter Rhianna among the directors. And for good measure they started legal proceedings to get back the rights to Mort. You can hardly blame Pratchett and his team for wanting to drive the car themselves, rather than hitch their wagon to others. Able to travel at their own speed, things finally started to move. When Pratchett died in the sping of 2015, he could at least take comfort that he was leaving his creations in the safest of hands.
Rhianna Pratchett’s script for The Wee Free Men (which unlike Raimi and Pettlers is apparently not “shit”), gifted to her dad as a Father’s Day present in 2014, is still in “very much active development,” according to Narrativia’s Rob Wilkins, and was at one point going to be made with the Jim Henson company, although that apparently didn’t work out. In 2019, it was announced that Terry Rossio would be adapting Amazing Maurice for Sky—the first Narrativia movie out of the traps. Since Rossio has worked with Disney on Aladdin and with DreamWorks on Shrek, it provides something of a satisfying full circle moment. Thirty years of development hell, 30 years of dinners, deals, directors, and disappointments, and Terry Pratchett has finally made it to Hollywood.
*Technically a 1992 stop-motion adaptation of Truckers, made for ITV by Cosgrove Hall, was the first cinematic Pratchett, having been stitched together into a single movie and submitted for the Chicago International Film Festival, where it won the Best Animated Movie prize. But that doesn’t really count.