The Watch Controversy Explained: How Different is the Show From Discworld?

BBC America's The Watch has drawn some concern from fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld for its seemingly loose adaptation tactics. We explore just how loose here.

The Watch Discworld Controversy
Photo: BBC America

This article has been kept as spoiler-free as possible, but since it discusses differences between the Discworld books and The Watch TV show, there will be discussion of changes to characters and setting, and some vague allusions to plot.

Let’s say one thing first and foremost: if you’ve never read any of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, and you like quirky, funny SFF television, you’ll probably enjoy BBC America’s new show The Watch. It’s genuinely funny, well-acted, and well-made, even if it does have an obviously-television-sized CGI budget.

Here’s the problem though: if you are a fan of Pratchett’s Discworld books, on which the show is (very loosely) based, you’ll spend most of your first watch-through scratching your head in confusion.

The level of controversy around this new adaptation is unusual. Any book to screen adaptation always involves a certain amount of changes to the source material, because that’s simply in the nature of shifting something to a different medium. There will always be some fans who disapprove of any changes whatsoever, but the majority will generally grumble about a few irritations but enjoy the show anyway, and accept it as a new version of the story.

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The controversy around The Watch, however, goes far further than a few fans grumbling because Glorfindel has been replaced with Arwen and Tom Bombadil has been cut. The series hasn’t even been released yet, but reactions of shock and surprise have followed the trailers, as a result of the sheer scale of the changes made to Pratchett’s world. Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna diplomatically summed up the situation on Twitter as, “it’s fairly obvious that The Watch shares no DNA with my father’s Watch. This is neither criticism nor support. It is what it is.”

Now that the first few episodes have been released to the press, there’s a bit more opportunity to survey just how substantial the changes are. Are they really that extensive? Well, yes and no. But mostly yes.

First of all, the series is not adapting the plot of any specific Watch novel, but taking elements from at least two of them (Guards! Guards! and Night Watch) and creating a new plot arc. This is a fairly sensible idea, in itself – there’s a case to be made for a series that tells a broad range of stories, with plots based on the novels. This also allows the setting to reflect some of the later additions to the city of Ankh-Morpork.

However, the plots of the two novels being used are not only fused together, they are substantially changed (Vimes and bad guy Carcer Dun now grew up together in an orphanage, for example, and sadly it is no longer the secretive Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night trying to summon a dragon). Some of the new elements added, including substantial references to Arthurian legend not present in the books, are also rather odd, leaving the viewer who knows the Discworld wondering just what’s going on here.

Character-wise, there’s at least one character that could almost have leaped from the pages of the book. New recruit Carrot Ironfoundersson is by far the closest to his book counterpart in the series, although possibly the explanation that his name refers to his tapering body rather than his red hair should have been left out, since actor Adam Hugill is tall but not especially muscular. Whether his backstory will also be the same, only time will tell.

Other characters clearly have bits of their original DNA in them. Vimes is reasonably close to his book counterpart, though the decision to have all the actors use their own natural accents does mean that people who grew up together have somehow managed to develop entirely different regional accents. The Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness is one of Pratchett’s best bits of socially conscious satire and is reproduced more or less in full, which is nice.

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Lady Sybil Ramkin is an interesting case. Her general characterization has echoes of her book counterpart, but instead of being a somewhat reclusive upper class animal enthusiast, she’s now a weapon-wielding vigilante who has been given a tragic backstory and is considerably more of an action heroine than in the novels. Actress Lara Rossi also has a slim figure and is fairly young, as opposed to her book counterpart’s bigger curves and middle age, and she has lost some of her more deep-seated inhibitions (though her hair is still a wig, we’re glad to say). Still, her general attitude is not a million miles away from the Sybil books fans know, her sheer upper class confidence shining through in a familiar way.

Some of the changes made to the book characters’ physical descriptions help to diversify the cast. Pratchett’s Discworld is a bit dominated by white male characters, so it’s not surprising that a couple of characters have been gender-flipped, in addition to the show casting racially diverse actors. The gender-flipping of Lord Vetinari might reasonably result in some fan disappointment as he is described so vividly in the books and readers might have a very clear mental image of him. But overall, changes to race or gender are usually not insurmountable for fans, and there are good reasons for those changes.

So far, then, all of this sounds like the sort of changes that might be expected from a novel to screen adaptation. There are adaptations that might stick more closely to their originals, but this would be nothing out of the ordinary.

But there’s more.

The character changes go on and on – Angua is officially still the same species, but her often-described long flowing hair is absent and she is physically tiny. The nature of her species has also changed substantially, following a more common and angst-filled recent template seen in many other shows, rather than Pratchett’s more complex depiction (Angua’s feelings about her family and nature being a major theme of The Fifth Elephant).

Angua is at least still the same basic species though, unlike her colleague Cheery Littlebottom. In the books, Cheery is a dwarf, but in the show, they are a human. The motivation for this change may have been well intentioned. Discworld dwarfs all identify as male, whether they are biologically male or female, and those who are biologically female have secondary masculine characteristics like facial hair and so on. Cheery goes against dwarf convention by openly identifying as female, wearing skirts and high heels and make-up and using feminine pronouns, eventually changing her name to Cheri. So she is, essentially, transgender, except in a fantasy way that doesn’t exactly map on to any real life situations. This is very characteristic of the 1990s tendency to address LGBTQ+ issues through fantasy and science fiction ideas rather than directly (see also some of Star Trek’s Trill episodes).

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It’s possible that the decision to make Cheery a human, played by non-binary actor Jo Eaton-Kent, rather than a fantasy metaphor, came from a desire not to offend anyone by hiding behind fantasy tropes, combined with a desire to cast a non-binary actor in the role (the number of non-binary available actors with dwarfism being, presumably, quite low). 

However, this does have the side effect of substantially changing Cheery’s character. Cheery/Cheri clearly identifies as female – Cheery in the show appears to be a transgender woman, as the first episode has them clearly state a preference for feminine pronouns, but the show’s publicity states that Cheery is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. They are no longer agitating for change among their own particular community (of dwarfs), nor do they have any regular dwarf characteristics (love of bread, etc.). Cheery in the books continues to sport a full beard because she is a dwarf and its culturally significant to her, while Cheery in the series is horrified by the thought of a beard, so their non-binary gender identity has also subtly shifted.

All in all, the change probably comes from a good place, but it is somewhat distracting for book fans, who may see little connection between the two versions of the character. The series also doesn’t include a single dwarf character, which is very odd – in addition to Cheery, there are several dwarf Watchmen in the books, most prominently Lance-Constable Cuddy, who could have been included in the series (Warwick Davis would have made a great Cuddy).

Also missing in action are two of the main characters from the Watch, Sergeant Colon and Corporal ‘Nobby’ Nobbs. Perhaps this exclusion sums up the way the series simply doesn’t seem to represent or “get” Pratchett’s Watch in any meaningful way. Unlike the new television characters, Colon and Nobby are not action heroes. They are heroes of another kind, and they carry out acts of bravery in different ways, whether by shooting at a dragon, going undercover dressed as washerwomen, or just providing Vimes with the right information at the right time. While they represent some of the worst the Watch has to offer – racism, or rather speciesism, and corruption – they are also a handy reminder of the Night Watch’s humble origins, and a rich source of comic relief (fulfilling pretty much the same role as Hitchcock and Scully in Brooklyn Nine Nine). The Watch without them is incomplete.

Even more distracting than the character changes are the widespread changes to the setting. The Assassins’ Guild’s form, style and function are quite different to the books’ version. Ankh-Morpork also appears to be situated in the middle of a desert, which is distinctly not the case in the novels. Pratchett’s city is a blend of London, New York City, and Rome, and is surrounded by the fertile Sto Plains, and in Jingo, our heroes travel to a desert country, where the culture is markedly different from their own. We can only assume that this was a budgetary decision. The series was filmed in South Africa, so the desert sequences are a combination of location filming and CGI, and presumably much cheaper than trying to recreate a European plain.

Most distractingly of all, however, the series seems to have moved into a sort of blend of science fiction and urban fantasy. Each episode opens with the text ‘Somewhere in a distant secondhand dimension’, suggesting science fiction, while set and costume design have an urban, contemporary look, with electronic devices and lighting readily available, characters wearing bomber jackets, and elements of modern culture, including punk rock and old people’s homes.

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This is a problem because the Discworld started out as spoofs of sword ‘n’ sorcery paperback fantasy books. The stories were deliberately set in a very familiar High Fantasy-style pseudo-medieval world, and a world which remained stubbornly pseudo-medieval for a long time despite occasional invasions of rock music, moving pictures, and shopping malls. 

There were always odd bits of magically-driven technology in the Discworld, like cameras (with images painted very quickly by imps) and dis-organizers (also driven by imps). Towards the later parts of the series the world did start to evolve into something a little bit more early modern, with the permanent introduction of clacks machines (for sending telegrams), printing presses and even, in the penultimate book, steam trains. The first Watch book Guards! Guards! even includes, as the series does, a brightly lit neon sign – but it is clearly stated to be a magical item. So there is some precedent for the style of the TV series, but the extent of the punk rock aesthetic it adopts is surprising.

Discworld is not the only property to be radically reimagined for television. Other adaptations have taken a fair few liberties too, and some have even undergone the same sort of radical re-tooling as the Discworld has here. For example, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have been reimagined in similarly extreme ways, including updating the setting, and gender-flipping Holmes’ sidekick Watson.

But the Sherlock Holmes stories have been adapted many, many times in different ways over the years. Adaptations that follow the books more closely are easily available, so there’s more appetite for something new and different. The original stories also, importantly, weren’t period pieces when they were written – they were contemporary detective stories. There’s a certain logic, then, to updating the setting and creating a new, contemporary, crime story rather than a period drama.

But the Discworld is a created secondary world, and a fairly recent one (the books were published 1983-2015). There have been a handful of screen versions, both live action and animated, but none of the Watch books. There seems no pressing reason to reimagine it in this way.

The truth is, to get fans excited about a book to screen adaptation, you have to show them something that feels like it’s leapt off the page. The Lord of the Rings film adaptations and the early seasons of Game of Thrones, for example, both made changes to the source material, but when you looked at a few minutes’ footage, you could tell which character was which and they felt recognizable. This doesn’t mean they have to be exactly like their book counterpart – Frodo was 50 years old in the book, whereas Elijah Wood wasn’t even 20 when he started filming. But when fans watched the first trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring, all those years ago, they could pinpoint exactly which character was which from a few seconds’ footage, and were (mostly) overjoyed to see the characters they loved come to life.

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Ultimately, the issue with the series is this: if you changed the names, it would not be recognizable as an adaptation of Pratchett’s Discworld stories. For anyone who hasn’t read the books, this is no problem – but it’s a strange decision, for fans of the books will have little incentive to watch something that takes the names of beloved characters, but doesn’t include anything recognizably adapting the stories they love. In the end, if the resemblance between books and series becomes so slim you can barely see the relationship between them, you’re no longer watching an adaptation, but a new series that’s pinched some beloved characters’ names.

The Watch premieres Saturday, Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. ET on BBC America.