Citizen Kane is considered by many connoisseurs to be the greatest film of all time. Channeling the idea of empire through the life of a mysterious magnate, it is a drama telling the bittersweet story of the glory days of wealth, the inevitable fall, and how its biggest dreams are left unfulfilled. Half a century later, with numerous new forms of media having been adopted into mainstream culture, comes Terry Pratchett. Practically creating a new form of media of his own, he decided to overlay Hollywood onto the template of Citizen Kane. The weight of elephants behind him, 1990’s Moving Pictures is the same bittersweet result.
Capturing the magic and innocence of the burgeoning film industry in Ankh-Morpork, at the outset of Moving Pictures the Guild of Alchemists discover the secret to capturing pictures on film. Studios, back lot sets, haberdasheries, production companies and all other business associated with the film industry springing up practically overnight in an empty patch of desert a few miles outside of the great city, it isn’t long before trolls, dwarves, and humans (and dogs) are lining up to catch their bit of fame on the silver screen in Holy Wood. Victor Tugelbend is one of the many caught up in the madness. But with a little luck, he soon has a new last name and is starring opposite the lovely Delayne de Syn (originally Theda Withel, otherwise known as Ginger). Stars literally in her eyes, it’s Ginger’s sleepwalking to a mysterious temple rising from a nearby beach that concerns Victor most. Strange things in the air, Holy Wood and Ankh-Morpork are eventually swept to the verge of destruction by the powers of cinema.
Analogous to Citizen Kane (but certainly only structurally and thematically, their plots on opposing planets), Moving Pictures is subtly one of the better Discworld novels. The story spread across a handful of characters, it remains tightly focused. All of the storylines conflate at the end to a highly satisfying, if highly unpredictable conclusion (even the elephants). And each are used to discuss an important facet of Hollywood’s birth. Where Victor and Ginger represent poorly paid actors and actresses in early silent film and the troubles they had to survive, their ruthless director/producer Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler portrays the greedy side of Holly—I mean Holy Wood. (“There must be thousands of them, and no-one’s selling ‘em anything.” Dibbler says at one point.) The usage of the trolls Galena (who fashionably changes his name to Rock) and Morrey to portray the stereotyping of minorities, and conversely, being among the first to appear in such media, is likewise interesting, as is the literati of Unseen University, and their flip-flop of perspective on the merits of film. And of course, Gaspode the talking dog and his erstwhile companion, Laddie, as they provide a grrr-itty (sorry) look inside the film business, rounds out Pratchett’s agenda. These and other characters combine to present the facets of film as it burst onto the screen and infected society with madness for the silver screen.
Taking full advantage of the subject matter, Pratchett, as can be expected, riffs off a variety of famous (and infamous) ideas in film. The Seven Year Itch, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, Casablanca, King Kong, and a variety of other movies appear in various shapes and forms. The “King Kong” scene is in particular humorous for the manner in which Pratchett subverts the original. Seeming to have no particular film in mind, equally humorous are the ideas for the pulps that Dibbler’s production company churns out at the outset—the take on Cohen the Barbarian a pure delight to picture on the mind’s screen.
The birth of Holy Wood goes hand in hand with Pratchett’s trademark humor—of course. From delicious simile (“The senior wizard in a world of magic had the same prospects of long-term employment as a pogo stick tester in a minefield.”) to the talking dog interplay, Detritus’ love story to Dibbler’s presentiments of honesty—everything clicks. That humor so consistently complements plot, well, that is trademark Pratchett.
In the end, Moving Pictures is another triumph of fantastically humorous proportions. Pratchett tackling Orson Wells’ masterpiece from his own perspective, the film ‘empire’ of Discworld progresses in a way nobody can predict yet retains the underlying flavor of Citizen Kane—not an easy task to pull off when trolls, a desert bandit, talking dog, orangutang of a librarian, sleepwalking damsel (and yes, a thousand elephants) are the the main elements of your story. Kept steadily fresh through humor and deft plotting, this is one of the most pleasant stops on the Discworld tour.