Adapting a book to the screen, be it television or film, is always a risky business. It becomes especially tricky when dealing with a work that has a huge popular following. Fans of the book will be on the lookout for anything they see as a deviation from a beloved text and take any transgressions personally. In some ways the writer of a work is probably a lot less demanding than his or her fans.
To a certain extent a writer surrenders their work once they agree to its publication and don't have the same sense of proprietorship towards it as those who become its devotees. Having to deal with that type of scrutiny on top of the inherent difficulties of bringing a book to the screen it's something of a wonder some movies are ever made.
However, recent years have seen the turning of so many popular books into film it makes you wonder whether directors and producers are gluttons for punishment or are they willing to risk that much on the chance of cashing in on a book's popularity? And it is a risk, for every successful Harry Potter franchise there's disasters like The Golden Compass and Ergaon. The latter saw the first book in each series turned into a film and then nothing - not even word of a sequel. Still if it works, the payoff is obviously worth it, and the movies themselves can end up being wonderful compliments to the books. So when I heard that the two part television adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postalwas being released on DVD by Acorn Media, I couldn't resist checking it out.
Now I'm not an initiate of Pratchett's Discworld, the who know's how many books the author has written set in a fantastical world populated by creatures from all corners of the magical universe. But I have read a couple of his books and liked his humour and sense of the absurd. You only have to read one or two in the series to appreciate the amazing amount of detail that's gone into creating the reality the books are set in. If you can picture a Victorian era with a strange mixture of magic and technology populated by vampires, werewolves, mortals, dwarfs and all the others you'd associate with tales of imagination and fantasy, then you can begin to imagine the difficulties a filmmaker faces bringing it to life.
Of course setting the stage is only half the battle. Bringing the characters who populate the world to life and telling their stories is the real challenge. On the surface Pratchett's books are humorous escapades populated by flamboyant characters. However there is far more to them than meets the eye and to properly capture the nuances and subtleties on screen would take a great deal of care and effort. I was thrilled to see that the people behind this production of Going Postal had done just that and didn't settle for simply playing it for laughs.
The story is relatively straight forward. Convicted con-man Moist Von Lipwig (Richard Coyle) is given a last minute reprieve from hanging by Lord Vetinari (Charles Dance) on the condition that he takes on the task of rebuilding the moribund post office. The new system of communications, a combination of telegraph and semaphore called Clacks, is not performing as well as it should and is making a hash of the Lord's attempts to play a long distance game of something like chess.
Given the option of death or Postmaster, Moist takes Postmaster, unaware the reason the post office isn't doing so well is the previous five people who have held the position have met untimely ends. It turns out the man who runs the Clacks operation, Reacher Gilt (David Suchet) doesn't like competition and has employed the services of a Banshee assassin to shorten the odds in his favour. Initially the job's only redeeming feature for Moist is the head of the local golem union, Adora Belle Dearheart (Claire Foy, who is responsible for the well being of the parole officer assigned to ensure Moist doesn't do a runner.
At first Moist tries his best to see how he can turn this posting to his advantage somehow. Is there some angle he can work to allow him to turn this into just another score? In order to do that he will have to make sure the post office becomes a success, which of course puts his life at risk. While threat of death from Reacher Gilt might seem enough of a problem to deal with, there's also the disturbing fact the post office itself is haunted. Not by ghosts of people, but by the words of thousands and thousands of undelivered letters. They seep into his sub conscience and when he's asleep he has dreams which show him the consequences of his crimes.
Night after night he has nightmares of the people's lives who were ruined by his scams and sees what happened to them. One of those people was Adora's father who had invented the Clacks but had them sold out from under him when banks were forced to call in all their loans because of forged bonds created by Moist.
Even before he witnesses Adora's family's misfortunes he was starting to feel remorse for what he had done. Of course when she finds out he was responsible he's even more distraught. However, instead of running away he is determined to prove to her he has changed by making the post office viable and bringing down Reacher Gilt who had squeezed her father out of the Clacks.
While the people behind the production have done a wonderful job of creating the world in which the story takes place and created a script, with the aid of Terry Pratchett, that allows the story to unfold without feeling rushed or forced, its the acting that really carries the show. You'll never find more unlikely romantic leads as the characters of Moist and Adora, but Richard Coyle and Claire Foy do brilliant jobs of bringing them to life.
Foy's characterization is especially well done as she captures both the tough shell Adora has put up to protect herself from being hurt after her family is ruined and the vulnerability beneath it. Needless to say she is livid when she finds out Moist was indirectly responsible, but even then she manages to convey she wants to believe he's sincere in his efforts to save the post office.
Richard Coyle matches her performance as his transformation from the callous con man who initially tries to see how he can turn the post office gig to his advantage to the person who genuinely wants to make it work is very believable. While he might have been initially motivated by a desire to impress Adora and win her heart, we watch as he becomes genuinely attached to the job and the people he works with.
Of course there's the added bonus that by making the post office viable again Reacher Gilt will suffer. David Suchet does a beautiful job of making Reacher Gilt the type of character you love to hate. He manages to take his characterization right to the edge of overacting, but never crosses the line. As a result he is delightfully creepy - his smile alone is a thing of absolute beauty/evil guaranteed to make your skin crawl.
The wonderful thing about Going Postal is you don't have to be an aficionado of Terry Pratchett's work to enjoy this adaptation. While the story takes place in the universe of Discworld the author has created, you don't need to have read anything else by him to understand what's going on. Part of that is due to the fact that Pratchett wrote these stories with that in mind, but it's also because the people behind the filming have made sure not to assume their audience know anything about the world it takes place in. As a result even if you've not read any of Pratchett's books you should have no problem understanding what's going on and enjoying this DVD. The acting is superb, its beautifully filmed and its a great story - you really can't ask for anything more from television.
(Article first published as DVD Review; Terry Pratchett's Going Postal on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted April 2012)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.