The Golden Compass

· culture ·

Reading a review in the Guardian of The Golden Compass -- the film adaptation of the first part of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (HDM) trilogy -- I was not sure whether to be excited or appalled. I'm a massive fan of Pullman's work, and HDM is one of my favourite books of all time. Despite ostensibly being books for children, they are as rich, subtle, disturbing, intriguing, exciting, and many-layered as any adult book you are likely to find. Even after reading them twice, there are still aspects I don't fully understand or that I wonder about, and that's exactly the way it should be.

ThoughtBadger and I had a brief conversation about this in the comments for my review of the last Harry Potter book, so I know I'm not the only one who feels a certain dread about the films. One of the things which troubled me most about the review by Peter Bradshaw was when he said, " this non-Pullman-reader, the claims often made on behalf of his legend about striking a blow for rationalism against religious authoritarianism don't precisely hold up." He also describes the film as "deeply conservative". If they didn't capture the fierce, rebellious exhortation for everyone to think for themselves, use their own intelligence and live this life, rather than hoping for a life hereafter, then the film will be a terrible failure. It's true that the books only gradually reveal the full import of what Dust is over the course of the trilogy, rather than at the start, but I hope that they didn't miss the point completely.

I'm worried about the characterisations, too: according to Peter Bradshaw, Lord Asriel is a "gallant hero". One of the brilliant things about HDM is that none of the characters are entirely good or evil (or even what they seem at first), but rather real people with complex emotions, personalities and motivations. From the start in the book, Asriel is a very ambiguous character, and far from being a gallant hero. He's an adventurer, and appears to be on the side of good, but he's ruthless, arrogant and seemingly out for personal glory. Mrs. Coulter is also not purely evil at all, though she is rather chilling in the first book. From the clips I've seen, Lyra (played by Dakota Blue Richards) appears to be rather a delicate, wistful child, which is a million miles away from the way I see Lyra.

At the start of the book, Lyra is a tough, independent tomboy, running over the rooftops of Oxford colleges, and starting fights with local kids. She's fierce, brave and scruffy, and has a tendency to lie to get her way or to talk up her own achievements. But she is also deeply empathetic to the feelings of those around her, and has a strong sense of natural justice. At one point in the first book, she unselfconsciously puts herself into a situation which horrifies and disgusts the adults around her, purely to provide what comfort she can for a boy in a terrible situation. Iorek Byrnison (the armoured bear) rebukes the adults hanging back where Lyra jumps in, because he shares Lyra's deep sense of honour and justice, and the importance of keeping one's word. Throughout the books, the things she has to go through make her more serious, and she loses her innocence. In short she grows up, which is one of the themes of the series -- what does it mean to be an adult? Pullman's thesis (I think) is that the mythical expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the best thing that ever happened to us^1^ -- that losing our innocence and gaining knowledge about ourselves and the world around us is a precious, important thing, and not something to be mourned.

I could ramble on about HDM for ages. Just the other day, I was thinking about how skilfully and subtly he shows us what it might be like to have a part of your spirit^2^ as a separate, external being. Daemons in HDM are not airy, ghostly things, but warm and solid animal-formed beings. They can speak, and people and their daemons have discussions and even arguments over what is the right thing to do. But a daemon isn't a kind of magical conscience like Jimminy Cricket; neither a person nor their daemon have all the answers, but they must come to understand the world together through discussion and joint experience. The remarkable thing is that Pullman describes this thing which is very far outside our experience in such a natural and vivid way that you feel rather lonely without a daemon of your own by the end.

The mainstream cinemas around here are pretty dire, so I'd probably wait until this came out on DVD anyway, but if anyone else goes to see the film (particularly anyone who loves the books), I'd be curious to know what you think of it. I might summon up the courage to watch it if it's not a total travesty.

^1^ Since I don't believe in this, I think of it as a metaphor.

^2^ The closest word I can get to his idea of a daemon, but it's not quite right.