There are a lot of interesting articles in this month’s Atlantic, but the piece on the film version of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass drove me batty.
The film looks promising, and my daughter and I plan to see it this weekend. But the article seemed first to be shocked by the idea that any novel might be transformed in terms of narrative and message in its translation to film, and that some aspects of a story might be seen as difficult or even unwise to put into cinematic form. It’s a dog bites man article in many respects.
But beyond the general issue, you know what? Anybody making Pullman’s books into films would be wise to ignore Pullman’s many statements about fantasy, his own writing, the power of imagination, religion and so on. He’s another one of those authors who in setting out to save us from a bad author with a shrill message drifts into becoming a bad author with a shrill message.
I like these books very much, including The Amber Spyglass. I’m an agnostic who regards most organized religion with suspicion, particularly the Catholic Church. But The Amber Spyglass is much less than what it could be precisely because it gets so preachy, because the message overwhelms the storytelling, because Pullman is so desperate to climb atop his soapbox that it overwhelms his imagination. It’s funny that Pullman hates C.S. Lewis’ work so much, because the conclusion of his own fantasy series resembles the conclusion of Lewis in exactly this respect: The Last Battle is Lewis at his most tin-eared, his most xenophobic, his least generous, his most unimaginative.
Job one for a filmmaker adapting The Golden Compass is to get the character of Lyra and her essential story right. She’s not cute, but as Pullman wonderfully describes her, “feral”, a wild creature living in the cool, conspiratorial environs of her world’s Oxford. She’s a child of destiny, but not a princess: she will be someone who chooses, and sometimes chooses wrongly or is wounded by her choices. She is betrayed by adults but also saved by them.
Job two is to get the enduring characters of the story right: Iorek Byrnison, Mrs. Coulter, Lee Scoresby, Lord Asriel. From the looks of the trailer, the film certainly gets the look of the characters right. We’ll see about the rest.
But the Atlantic article by Hanna Rosin seems to argue on behalf of lost screenplays where the philosophical character of Dust gets its full expository day in the sun, where Pullman’s reversal of Genesis is made explicit, and so on. It seems to me that the Rosin even misreads something that’s made explicit in The Amber Spyglass: the “God” who is overthrown is not God, but an imposter, the first angel (hence the “dark materials” reference to Paradise Lost.) That’s a reading that Pullman himself has arguably encouraged at times with his public, rather pretentious, declarations about various issues. But in any event, it’s no loss to fantasy or to art if the film of The Golden Compass doesn’t grind to a storytelling halt so that Richard Dawkins can guest-star in a Very Special Episode of My Little Atheist. Nor is it Hollywood’s commercial conniving that would have it so. Any cinematic storyteller worth his or her salt would, should bypass the more tediously fist-thumping parts of the books. It’s not religion that’s the enemy of imagination: it’s dogmatism.