Director – Jamie Stone, Teleplay – Tom Edge, Based on the Novel by Jasper Fforde, Producer – Laura Hastings-Smith, Photography – Adam Etherington, Music – Russell Shaw, Makeup Design – Sue Michael, Production Design – Michael Fleischer. Production Company – British Sky Broadcasting
Ellise Chappell (Jennifer Strange), Pauline Collins (Lady Mawgon), Ricky Tomlinson (Moobin), Matt Berry (King Snodd), George Webster (Sir Grifflon), John Bradley (Gordon), Andrew Buchan (The Great Zambini), Noah Jupe (Tiger Prawns), John Dagleish (Wizard Blacklock), Anna Chancellor (Stuffco President), Richard E. Grant (Voice of Maltcassion), Nick Mohammed (Brian Spalding), Adeel Akhtar (Mr Brittles), Nina Wadia (Mother Xenobia), Mimi Ndiweni (TV News Anchor)
In Hereford, Jennifer Strange is about to be plucked from the orphanage to be sent off to the Troll Wars when the wizard The Great Zambini intervenes. Zambini takes Jennifer to the Kazam employment agency for wizards he manages but vanishes not long after. A few years later, Jennifer is sixteen and now runs the agency in Zambini’s absence. However, magic is declining in the world and magicians are only regarded as being useful for home repairs and deliveries any longer. While on a plumbing job, the magicians have a premonition of the date of the death of Maltcassion, the last dragon. This immediately becomes of interest to all, especially King Snodd, because it means the dissolution of the Dragon Pact. The Pact creates a forcefield that maintains the Dragon Lands as a preserve and disintegrates anybody who tries to enter – without it, anyone is entitled to claims the unprotected lands. Jennifer searches for the hereditary dragonslayer only to be appointed to the role herself. Having no desire to kill the dragon, she tries to avoid Snodd’s determined efforts to either make her claim the lands for him or relinquish the title.
I am delighted for the opportunity that The Last Dragonslayer presents me with to be able to rave enthusiastically about the works of Jasper Fforde. Fforde is a British author who began publishing with The Eyre Affair (2001). Releasing on average a book a year since then, Fforde has become the most enjoyable of modern humorous fantasy writers. The most popular of Fforde’s works has been the Thursday Next series, which began with The Eyre Affair and currently extends to seven sequels, concerning a detective who is tasked with policing literary fiction and must venture into classic books to stop characters from escaping or set their plots aright. The books come with such a mind-bending conundrum of meta-fictional jokes – the footnotes on the printed page become a means for characters to communicate with one another, for instance – and droll humour that it is hard to imagine a soul brave enough to want to try adapting them to the screen. Fforde has released several other series, including the Nursery Crimes series beginning with The Big Over Easy (2005) about a detective branch that polices crimes involving nursery rhymes characters, and Shades of Grey (2009) and sequel set in an alternate future where social status is dependent on the number of colours people can see.
One of Jasper Fforde’s other series is the one begun with The Last Dragonslayer (2010) and extends to two follow-ups The Song of the Quarkbeast (2011) and The Eye of Zoltar (2014) with a fourth novel projected for some time in 2017. The series concerns teenager Jennifer Strange who lives in an alternate England where magic used to work but has become a weakened force meaning that magicians are only able to gain employ as the equivalent of plumbers and pizza-delivery people. She runs a temp agency for magicians and by a quirk of plotting complications (which are more detailed in the book than the film) is appointed the Last Dragonslayer with the task of killing the last dragon, something she has no desire to do.
The Last Dragonslayer is the first of Jasper Fforde’s works to be adapted to the screen. (In an odd trivia note, Fforde had previously worked in the film industry before becoming a full-time writer and has credits mostly as a focus puller on films such as Slaughter High (1986), The Trial (1993), Death Machine (1995), GoldenEye (1995), The Saint (1997), Entrapment (1999) and Quills (2000), among others).
The adaptation of The Last Dragonslayer is something I greatly anticipated as the book is an enormously enjoyable read, filled with Jasper Fforde’s dry deadpan wit and appealingly quirky take on the familiar. (It makes an amusingly down to earth counterpoint to the Harry Potter series, for instance). I suppose my disappointment with the finished result can only be compared to the expectations one had of works like Logan’s Run (1976), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Starship Troopers (1997), The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and I Am Legend (2007) based on reading the original books first and the way the source material ended up being thoroughly trashed by the film adaptation.
Watching The Last Dragonslayer is akin to growing up enjoying home cooking and then going to a restaurant to order or have someone else cook the same meal in adult life. It might technically contain the same ingredients, be called the same thing but the balance of each of the ingredients, the way they have been combined, the length of time the dish has been given in the oven, the way it is served is so off that the two dishes resemble each other only in name. The same thing is at play in The Last Dragonslayer. The film technically has the same ingredients as the book – a teenage girl named Jennifer Strange who is appointed the Last Dragonslayer; the prophesied death of the last dragon Maltcassion; much toing and froing over who gets to claim the Dragon Lands following the dissolution of the Dragon Pact; an orphan named Tiger Prawns; the pompous King Snodd and his self-important knight Sir Grifflon; an assistant named Gordon; the Slayer Mobile and hereditary sword; the Kazam agency. It is just that all of these things have been thrown up in the air and rearranged in an order completely different to their placement or context in the book.
Perfect examples of this might include The Great Zambini. In the book, he is the founder of the Kazam Agency. Crucially, he vanished some time before the story’s frame starts and makes no appearance throughout. In the film, he appears in the opening scenes played by Andrew Buchan and is the one who recruits Jennifer to join Kazam. He then disappears and wound into the film’s story is now a big mystery about how to get him back and how Stuffco are involved in some way (clearly set up to be resolved in future instalments). Perhaps the most egregious change is that the Quarkbeast. In the book, this is a fearsome-looking creature with scales and razor-sharp fangs and a habit of eating everything and anything, but in the film merely becomes a cute puppy with the ability to occasionally transform.
Key elements of the book are missing or emphasised all wrong. Much of the first half of the book was taken up with Jennifer knowing and everyone else wanting to find out the date of the dragon’s death and the king and other interested parties employing devious methods to force her to tell. Here she just tells everybody the date fairly soon into the show. The book opens with a witty scene where the various Kazam magicians magically swap the wiring in a house; here the scene is padded out into something that never happens in the book where this goes disastrously wrong, followed by a lawyer turning up at the doorstep of the agency to sue them. All the jokes about the eccentricity of the Kazam agency – the oddities of the other magicians and the appearances from a phantom moose – have been written out.
Even worse is the fact that the filmmakers have chosen to set the film in a hyper-realised cartoon world. All of the buildings and villages have a cheerfully unreal quality as though they have been designed for some cartoon series theme park. Added to the film are several scenes where Sir Grifflon pursues Jennifer through the town – she is in the Slayermobile and he is in a tank that has been designed with a turret like a battlement and plating like the stone blocks of castle walls. During the midst of the chase, the castle tank goes plowing through an aisle of goods in a Stuffco store for no other reason than it looks daft and the film can get a laugh out of it. In this world, all of the supporting magicians – Kazam is only inhabited by two and the others have been written out – and the king’s guard are bumbling fools that take constant slapstick pratfalls. In other words, what we have is a film that doesn’t have a clue what its audience is. Jasper Fforde’s books were sold as Adult or Young Adult Fantasy but the film opts for a tone that pitches everything down to children’s television and lets it play out in a Playschool world surrounded by simplistic characterisations that only exist for witless comedy value.