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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 April 2018

Rhianna Pratchett on building her own universe

The British comic book and video game writer, daughter of fantasy author Terry, tells us how the latest ‘Tomb Raider’ film reflects her version of its heroine

While she called time on her collaboration with Tomb Raider three years ago, which included crafting a dozen comic books and the 2013 Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider video games, Rhianna Pratchett is satisfied that her version of Lara Croft is the one that’s on the big screen. PA
While she called time on her collaboration with Tomb Raider three years ago, which included crafting a dozen comic books and the 2013 Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider video games, Rhianna Pratchett is satisfied that her version of Lara Croft is the one that’s on the big screen. PA

“That’s the blood of my ex-boyfriend,” says Rhianna Pratchett when I spot her vial necklace at the recently concluded Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai.

While the comment is in jest, the 41-year-old British comic book author and novelist was wearing a get-up hinting at the swashbuckling female characters she is renowned for. In addition to the stormtrooper boots, gritty skull and bones rings resembling knuckle-busters are wrapped around her fingers.

The fearsome look aside, Pratchett is fun to be with, and exhibits none of the stress of being connected to two of the most beloved bodies of work in science fiction and in comic books.

When it comes to the former, she is the daughter and creative heir of the late author Terry Pratchett, who through more than 40 novels created the wide universe of Discworld that has been savoured by more than 85 million readers.

In comics and graphic novels, Pratchett had a three-year stint authoring Tomb Raider novels and video games, and in turn transforming the tough-as-nails archaeologist Lara Croft from gun-toting boys’ pin-up into a deeper multi-faceted character. The comic books are currently riding a new wave of popularity due to the new film adaptation, starring Alicia Vikander.

Dealing with both of these aspects of her career remains an agile exercise. For example, on the morning of our interview, Pratchett awoke to media reports that her father’s fantasy book series Discworld had been snapped up for a television adaptation. While not denying the claims, she stated that an official announcement – which has yet to take place – will be made at a later date. After sorting out that response to media, Pratchett then reverted to her other guise as a notable author at a literature festival.

“It is a balance, both managing my father’s work and myself,” she says.

“The best example I can give is of me trying to build my own train set and then someone comes along and puts a bigger train set down in the middle of it – it’s all shiny and built already. They tell me to play with this one instead, but I want to work on my own one first. Fans of my father want certain things and I am trying to look after that, but at the same time I am still trying to do what I want to do.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 23:  Terry Pratchett during Chelsea Flower Show Press and VIP Day on May 23, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Chris Jackson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Terry Pratchett. Getty Images

While she called time on her collaboration with Tomb Raider three years ago, which included crafting a dozencomic books and the 2013 Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider video games, Pratchett is satisfied that her version of Lara Croft is the one that’s on the big screen.

“I would have liked to be asked to take a crack at writing it, because I also do screen adaptations. But the producers probably saw me as almost like a novelist, and novelists rarely adapt their own work,” she says.

“So because of that I do feel quite detached from it. But at the same time, it is also kind of weird to see clips from the film that are just like the game. It is obviously the representation of Lara that I worked on and it is nice to see her in the big screen, even if I had nothing to do with it.”

Pratchett is weary of suggestions that her Tomb Raider work was a transformation, as it takes away from the franchise’s previous success.

“There was a definite move to explore different aspects of Lara and make her more relatable,” she says.

“But at the same time, it was not that I was working with a blank slate. When I was hired by the [developers] Crystal, we viewed it more as a hard reboot, but at the same time we wanted to keep certain elements of the game in place and expand certain things across the span of the game.”

Pratchett doesn’t think the new character development was down to the developers keeping up with the times. Lara Croft’s intelligence and curiosity were already apparent in the early games; it was just that it wasn’t sold that way.

“The marketing was responsible for a lot of the sexualised portrayal of Lara, and because of that they did the character a disservice. They wanted men to play the game, so there she was being a pin-up and appearing for advertisements for [the energy drink] Lucozade,” she says.

“While they did turn her into a household name, that’s not the real character. And as a gamer myself, it really irritated me because it was all so gendered towards men. But you can’t deny it worked. The marketing elevated her, but at the same time narrowed perceptions of her.”

But the move to develop Croft also cannot be attributed to Pratchett’s singular vision. That’s not the way game-writing works, she says. Unlike screenwriting or working on a novel, creating a game is a deeply collaborative process.

“It’s like writing a script while the film is being shot,” she says.

“You are working in tandem with everyone else. The art, the music, the animation, it all comes together to tell you something about the world or the characters. So there’s all these different parts that need to be held together. So that’s one of the things that makes it very different.”

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The creative insights gleaned from such a process means decisions to erase some already-developed characters sometimes come into play. “I call them ‘death drafts’,” she says.

“Sometimes it will be decided to extend the game play in a certain part. So I would have to go back and kill off that character and take them out of all the scenes … I missed some of the characters that I had to kill.”

While Pratchett is pleased that Croft is increasingly added to the conversation surrounding strong female action heroes in films, alongside the likes of Wonder Woman and the cast of this year’s blockbuster film Black Panther, she doesn’t necessarily view what’s happening now as a new development.

She points to the films of her childhood in the 1980’s as a period full of powerful female action roles.

“I grew up in the ’80s, which was a great decade for sci-fi and fantasy. So characters like Sarah Connor [Terminator] and Ellen Ripley in Aliens informed me a lot,” she says.

“There were also secondary female characters like Valeria in the first Conan movie [Conan the Barbarian] who was a really great character. And there was the actress Grace Jones, as well, who was in the sequel.

“When the first Tomb Raider game [released in 1996] came out, I kind of thought that we have already been fighting dinosaurs, aliens and killer robots from the future. I thought, well, of course, women are cool, and games and movies are waking up to that.”

Tomb Raider is out now in UAE cinemas

Strong women from the comic book and fantasy cosmos

With Lara Croft ripping up the jungle in cinemas, here are some other not-to-be-messed-with ladies from the world of fantasy films and comic books

Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017). Courtsey:  Warner Bros.
Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017). Courtsey: Warner Bros.

DC’s Wonder Woman has been twirling her lasso with aplomb ever since she first appeared in the comic books in 1941. The iconic character first hit our screens in an ill-fated 1974 TV movie starring Cathy Crosby. That was intended as the pilot to a TV series but was scrapped in favour of the version that actually came out in 1975, with Linda Carter taking on the role of Princess Diana of Themyscira. In more recent decades, the character has become an icon among female superheroes, rather than a slightly tacky ’70s TV show heroine. Gal Gadot’s take on the character, epitomised by last year’s box-office slaying Wonder Woman, as well as appearances elsewhere in the DC Cinematic Universe, led to a strong female lead stealing the show from male co-stars, who included Chris Pine and David Thewlis. In Patty Jenkins, the film had its own female directorial superhero behind the camera too.

Xena: Warrior Princess

Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess (1995)
Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess (1995)

Xena: Warrior Princess was something of an institution during its six-year run from 1995 to 2001. The show’s production values were always questionable, and the scripts often verged on the comical, but Lucy Lawless’s title character, a Greek warrior who makes amends for past sins by protecting the helpless, was a towering presence, and the show developed a cult following that kept it in or around the US TV ratings top 10 throughout its six-year run. The show’s camp appeal was doubtless in part helped by the involvement of co-creator and executive producer Sam Raimi, of Evil Dead fame, and Lawless would later reunite with Raimi to play Ruby on the Starz hit Ash vs Evil Dead, but let’s leave the men out of this. Xena was all about Lawless and her Amazonian alter-ego. Fans will be disappointed to hear that last year, NBC cancelled plans for a reboot that would have seen Lawless pull on the armour one more time.

Jessica Jones

Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones (2015)
Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones (2015)

The Marvel canon isn’t short on flawed heroes (Iron Man Tony Stark’s narcissism being a case in point), but even among such a flawed bunch, Jones is a standout. She may possess super-strength, invincibility and the power of flight, but that doesn’t stop her from being a walking ball of attitude, and the epitome of the modern career woman, in this case juggling her job as a hard-punching crime-fighter with the challenges of motherhood and a sometimes rocky marriage to fellow superhero Luke Cage, aka Power Man. She’s a strong woman, but she’s not afraid to seek assistance when needed – at one point in Marvel’s comic books she even hired Squirrel Girl (whose superpowers include a four-foot prehensile tale and large buck teeth) as a nanny. That alone deserves a round of applause.

Ellen Ripley

Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn in Aliens (1986). Courstey: Twentieth Century Fox
Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn in Aliens (1986). Courstey: Twentieth Century Fox

Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is surely one of the strongest female characters ever to grace a cinema screen. From her first appearance in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien, in which she confounds expectations to be the sole survivor of the mostly male or android crew of the ill-fated Nostromo, to her development into a hard-as-nails alien hunter in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, and successfully dealing with the not-insignificant personal conflict associated with becoming the mother of an alien-human hybrid in later episodes, Ripley laps it all up, blaster in hand and always ready to outsmart the alien menace. Ripley’s intelligence is perhaps what the factor thatkeeps her ahead of both bloodthirsty aliens and self-serving corporate goons throughout the series, and it’s probably what led to her smartest move too – she steered well clear of the atrocious Alien vs Predator spin-off series.

Chris Newbould