After a trio of excellent books, from Wyrd Sisters to Guards! Guards!, Moving Pictures was something of a disappointment. Though it’s a fundamental book in the series, introducing Mustrum Ridcully and practically the whole Faculty of Unseen University, not to mention giving free rein to Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, the book still manages to fall a little bit flat. For me, there are three reasons for this.
By this point, with the series passing into double figures, Terry Pratchett had very firmly locked on to what, in a lesser author, would undoubtedly be called a formula. Each book was based around a theme, some aspect of of life or narrative, to which the unique distorting lens of Discworld would be applied, simultaneously breaking it down into all the little absurdities inherent in the concept, and penetrating to the essential heart, the elemental centre that anatomises what makes this thing significant.
The very title gives away that this book is about Hollywood, the Dream Factory: giving the scene of the action the name of Holy Wood is less a punster’s tip of the hat than a feeble acknowledgement of the fact that there is nothing more subtle that can be done with the name.
And that goes for the entire book. Pratchett is parodying the early years of the Movies, the silent era, and whilst he’s his usually imaginative self in converting/paralleling the events of Tinseltown’s foundational years, he’s up against the fact that those years were so unreal in themselves that too much of the time he’s doing little more than follow.
The problem with parodying something that’s already in a high state of fantasy is that there is comparatively less room to manoeuvre before you hit the badlands of outlandish and just too stupid to be believable.
Though Pratchett does get in some degree of analysis of what Holy and Hollywood actually do, the way he sets up his story, there’s no room for any light to go with the extremely deep shade that lies behind this phenomenon. Pratchett builds what motivates Holy Wood into something irrelievably black and dangerous, that the overwhelming innocence of everyone who gets themselves involved can only appear as excessive naivete. And the fact that someone like Dibbler can so quickly become such a big wheel in Holy Wood doesn’t actually suggest it can have any sort of redeeming factor.
The second factor in Moving Pictures falling flat is the absence at the heart of it. I speak, of course, of Victor Tugelband, student wizard and proto-Rudolf Valentino. Victor is a very clever but fundamentally lazy person who is prolonging his student days in similar fashion to Roger Zelazny’s Fred Cassidy in his 1975 novel, Doorways in the Sand. Victor’s industrious attention to ensuring he neither fails nor passes his exams leaves him short of any other qualities, and his rejection of even the possibility of growth goes hand in hand with that to deprive him of any kind of charisma, other than that imposed on him by Holy Wood’s own brand of magic.
Victor is nothing more than a clothes-horse for Pratchett to hang jokes on, and as for Ginger, his female equivalent, she’s even more of a character-free zone, given that she doesn’t get to have any thoughts that aren’t interpreted through the filter of Victor. No, the second lead in this book, and the one who gets all the personality, is Gaspode the Wonder Dog, a small, cynical, flea-ridden mutt who’s learned to talk, thanks to Holy Wood’s magic slopping around, and who spends most of the book being ignored.
With such a character void at its heart, the great mercy of Moving Pictures lies in it possessing a wonderful array of supporting players.
There is Gaspode, for one thing, who turned out to be so good that, despite taking the magic away from him at the end of the book, Pratchett found himself having to restore the Wonder Dog at a later stage. And Dibbler who, after having played a mere bit part in Guards! Guards!, was swept into prominence here, and who would go on to be a force all by himself for many years.
But the real advance of Moving Pictures lay in its introduction of Mustrum Ridcully as Archchancellor of Unseen University and, by the endgame of the book, virtually all the Faculty, who would come to the fore in later books, as their nascent series merged with that of Rincewind.
Like Drunken Captain Vimes, our first exposure to Ridcully the Brown feels strange. He’s introduced as exactly what he appears to be: a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ countryman who, in an Anthony Trollope novel, would be at the forefront of the statutory fox hunting scene. Ridcully is chosen as a safe (i.e. stupid and easily malleable) pair of hands, a stable figure after a period of crisis at the University, which has been going through Archchancellors like a hot knife through butter.
Indeed, it’s not certain whether Pratchett actually views him as a serious character or whether he’s just got bored with making up new names for identikit scheming/schemed against Archchancellors. This is emphasised by the way that we never get to see into Ridcully’s head at any time but instead view him through the medium of the Bursar, a born administrator if there ever was one.
For most of the book, scenes at the University centre on the Bursar and Ridcully, with only the ridiculous figure of Windle Poons (the University’s oldest wizard) and, in entirely a side role, the fortunate student Ponder Stibbins.
Suddenly, as the crisis reaches its peak, with Holy Wood’s magic gathering its strength, a party of wizards sneak out to go to the cinema. And they’re (almost) all there: the Dean (of Pentacles), the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer in Recent Runes: only the Reader in Invisible Writings and the Senior Wrangler are missing.
I have a confession, one that is probably more common than is usually admitted: even after all these years, I cannot tell the Chair, the Lecturer and the Wrangler apart. Nor, other than the fact that the Chair is described as the fattest wizard at Unseen University, is any effort made to draw any distinctions here. It’s the crosstalk, the meandering, ever-distracted conversations that matter.
But having at a stroke introduced a handy supporting cast, Pratchett then demonstrates that there are greater depths to Ridcully than he’d been letting on. At this stage, it’s mainly the fact that he’s actually quite bright underneath, but it’s the first glimpse of the real Ridcully, and it reminds me of Arthur Ransome’s treatment of Timothy Sterling (aka Squashy Hat) in Pigeon Post, as a shy, quiet, absorbed and fairly ineffectual character, until the crisis strikes and he suddenly becomes both calm and resourceful.
It’s a good supporting cast, but in the end it can do no more than huddle, protectively, around the absence at the centre that is the cardboard figure of Victor Tugelbend.
The third element that works against Moving Pictures is, unfortunately, its central menace. Because the danger of Holy Wood is that it works at one of those points where reality – in Discworld terms – is at its thinnest. It seeks to break through, to enter into that reality because, yes, once again, on the other side is the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions. And by this time they’re running a little stale.
Unfortunately, for all its inventive trimmings, Moving Pictures is one trip too many to the well of the Dungeon Dimensions. Been there, did that, wore one of Dibbler’s t-shirts for the very brief time before it fell apart.
Better was, of course, to come, in the shape of five successive crackingly good and very funny novels, most of them tens on my personal scale of Discworld novels. With a score like that, Terry Pratchett could easily afford the odd book here and there which fell flat.