Review: Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures, the tenth in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, is a “Discworld discovers” story. (See also: The Truth, in which Discworld discovers newspapers; Soul Music, in which Discworld discovers rock music, or Music With Rocks In; Going Postal, in which Discworld discovers post offices.) In this case, Discworld discovers Hollywood.

Our Hero is Victor – “Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can handle a sword a little.” – a student who has dedicated his not inconsiderable intellect to remaining a student. In fact, he has elevated laziness to an art form: he spends not insignificant effort in keeping himself fit, for example, because it’s too much effort dragging an unfit body around. He finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Holy Wood, a sandy bay in the middle of nowhere where the Disc’s newest industry is starting up. Here, together with Ginger, a fledgling actress, and Gaspode the Wonder Dog, the Disc’s only talking dog, he finds himself equally unexpectedly becoming a star.

Oh, and investigating the strange Lovecraftian horrors Holy Wood is awakening from behind the walls of a false and hollow reality…

The plot’s never the most important thing about Pratchett’s books, though. (I’d be hard-pressed to describe the actual plot of Moving Pictures, and I only read it about a month ago.) It’s not even his characters, although many of them have become fan favourites, as close and familiar as friends.

No: Pratchett’s line is in interrogating the narrative structures that underlie our culture and our expectations of reality. In that respect, he is actually surprisingly formally innovative – surprisingly, that is, for such an unabashedly popular writer, though his fans have been pushing people to his work for years.

Moving Pictures is an excellent case in point, though it’s not really a fan favourite – perhaps because it’s missing the savage flashes of explicit social criticism some of his works exhibit. (From Guards! Guards!: “we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But…we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.”) It’s a veritable tissue of structural irony, packed with a plethora of narrative levels. At its heart, it’s a tale that twists Hollywood sidelong by transplanting it into a fantasy world; asks us to look afresh at the silent-movie tropes that are by now embedded into our own cultural consciousness. On the Discworld, the magic of Holy Wood eventually makes those narratives real, makes them all the characters can see; which blinds them, almost disastrously, to the incursion of those monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions.

These narratives, says Pratchett, prevent us from seeing what’s really real. And they’re inherently unfair: Ginger, for example, can only get parts playing passive damsels in distress, there to be kidnapped and rescued, because that’s the only narrative Holy Wood has for women; and so that becomes what women are in the real world. And Gaspode is continually being passed over for a much more photogenic dog, Laddie, who is also terminally stupid: because Laddie looks the part, he must actually be the hero, the clever one, the one who leads the humans to safety.

And this is complicated by the fact that Moving Pictures is set in a world – the Discworld – which canonically runs on story. On the Disc, million-to-one chances always work. It’s a place that’s aware of itself as fictional, an immersive fantasy world continually destabilising itself as such. And Moving Pictures especially is intensely intertextual, packed with references to famous films and moments in Hollywood history (there is, for example, a re-enactment of that shot of Marilyn Monroe standing over the grating). There’s even an in-universe explanation for this: the idea that is Holy Wood takes the same form across many worlds. These moments are, again, acknowledgements of the fictionality of the novel and the world and the situation – and yet, even that acknowledgement is destabilised by the fact that there is an in-universe explanation. It’s a hugely playful novel, one which also takes its characters seriously enough to have real warmth.

The point of this post, I think, is that the Discworld novels are a lot cleverer than I think I’ve given them credit for in the past. In fact, I think Pratchett might well be the Dickens of the twenty-first century: a popular writer who deals in kindly caricature and savage humour, who’s doing some real work beneath the densely detailed surface of his fiction. Dickens wove Themes throughout his long books; Pratchett did postmodernism, ironising the stories we choose to tell, and the stories we unconsciously live by. If you’ve not read anything by either of them, you’re missing out.

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