Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one novel at a time.
Today’s entry: the tenth book, Moving Pictures.
First appearances: Detritus the troll (speaking part), Gaspode the Wonder Dog, Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully (here sometimes referred to as “the Brown”), the various nameless senior wizards at the University, Detritus’ girlfriend/wife Ruby, Windle Poons
Introduced to Discworld: the movies, and the dangers inherent therein
The plot: When the last gatekeeper on a lonely hill in the middle of nowhere dies, an idea gets loose. In nearby Ankh-Morpork, that means the Alchemists Guild figured out how to make pictures appear to move and show them on a screen. Fearing the repercussions if the wizards of Unseen University think it might be magic, after showing off a moving picture to some locals, they head off to the nearby forgotten desert hill of Holy Wood.
It doesn’t really rain there if the rain can avoid it.
Soon, scores of citizens head to Holy Wood with dreams of being in the moving pictures, among them failed student wizard Victor Tugelbend, wannabe starlet Theda “Ginger” Withel, supersalesman Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Detritus the troll, and Gaspode, a mangy dog who wakes up discovering he can talk and think, two prospects he isn’t overly pleased by.
But like many new discoveries on the Disc, moving pictures take on a life and magic of their own, and it turns out this isn’t even the first time this threat has appeared. It’s up to Victor, Ginger, Gaspode, Detritus, and the Librarian to somehow save the world when it turns out the whole thing is like bait for the Things in the Dungeon Dimensions.
Commentary: Pratchett often uses his stories to show that stuff can take on a life of its own. Moving Pictures is no exception as a group of very disparate characters get caught up in “Holy Wood Dreams” and find themselves compelled to move to Holy Wood and work in the Moving Pictures industry, though not everyone goes for the same reasons, and few of them seem to understand why they went in the first place. Victor, a successful failed student wizard, senses something isn’t quite right. Victor had managed to stay enrolled in Unseen University for a very long time when he realized his income might get cut once he graduated, so it took him quite a bit of effort to manage to score low enough on his tests to stay a student but high enough to avoid expulsion. That’s Victor all over: do a lot so he could continue to do as little as possible. Of course he becomes the Discworld equivalent to Clark Gable. Ginger just wants to be the most famous person on the Disc. Dibbler manages to take over the studio from the alchemists who founded it. Dibbler’s natural showmanship easily beats out their preferences for educational films. Detritus manages to stay hired muscle. And Gaspode, who can talk but no one listens to, has the makings of a great agent for the people who do listen to him, which is basically Victor and gorgeous but dumb showdog Laddie.
As with all things, the obsession with moving pictures takes its toll on the people at large. These things have a life of their own, or at least their own intelligence. And unlike the magic of the theater as seen in Wyrd Sisters, the intelligences behind moving pictures are a lot more malevolent.
Of course, the trick is once you understand the rules, you can play things to work out well. That’s what happens here. Victor knows the Thing he must defeat at the end is a creature of moving pictures, so he has to play by moving pictures rules, which means he’ll arrive just in the nick of time to save the day and obstacles will be in his path but not unbeatable. He’ll know how to do things he doesn’t know in real life, and he’ll save the day. He has to. He’s the hero.
The book offers a fun commentary not only on the movies themselves, but the industry behind them. Seeing Dibbler adopt comedic producer talk, even going so far as to of course hire his own nephew as an executive, cuts at how the real world motion picture industry works, but also expands a character given a small role in Guards! Guards! with a role he may not equal again in later books. Ditto Detritus. Detritus was just the splatter at a Ankh-Morpork bar (because trolls aren’t good at just bouncing), but here he gets to actually speak and try to woo the beautiful (by troll standards) Ruby. Since he joins the Watch in a couple books, Pratchett must have taken a liking to him more than Victor or Ginger, who I don’t believe appear again.
This book is actually quite good for introducing supporting characters that play reoccurring roles down the road. Gaspode will be back, as will the various nameless wizards that make up the University’s senior staff. One of the few named wizards there, Windle Poons, will be much more prominently featured in the next book.
On a final note, knowing the movies will help the reader catch a number of lines tossed off through the book. Pratchett references everything from silent romances to Disney cartoons to Predator of all things. My favorite came from Death, dropping a variation on the Bride of Frankenstein line, “We belong dead.”
Also, a giant woman carries the Librarian up the tallest tower in the city, and an Oscar statue comes into play at a crucial moment.
Next book: Death gets fired, and things go bad for the recently departed. Come back soon for Reaper Man, and the return of Windle Poons.