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The Unmade Terry Pratchett Movies (and Why They Didn’t Happen)

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The Unmade Terry Pratchett Movies (and Why They Didn’t Happen)


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.

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