Last weekend I went to a preview of The Golden Compass, the New Line film of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, fully prepared to love it. The trailers were terrific, and the casting of Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig was inspired. I’d heard Pullman’s insistence that cutting out all references to the Magisterium as a religious authority didn’t matter, because the Magisterium represented totalitarianism in all its forms. I didn’t buy it, but thought the film could still be worthwhile. Oh dear.
The adaptation of the story was clunky and simply concertinaed the plot into verbal asides. There was none of the cleverness in shortcuts or substitutions you sometimes see when a scriptwriter finds a novel way to explain background or the lore of the book. (There’s a lot of lore to explain, especially about daemons and missing children.) Friends who hadn’t read the books found the quick explanations and plot surges utterly baffling. Everyone agreed that the actress playing Lyra was superb, and Nicole Kidman pulled off the sexy, driven, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ chutzpah of Mrs. Coulter. But the magic of Gyptians, bears and witches was completely lost in the rush of events. When the battle in the arctic kicked off no non-readers could tell why anyone was fighting the far-from-home Tatars.
The big story before the film came out was how all the references to the specifically religious character of the Magisterium were ripped out to avoid offending American Christians. The logic seemed to be that if you took out all the God stuff, it would mollify the lunatic fringe who don’t read anyway, and more people would be watch the film and ultimately be led to the books. Nice try, except we all know there’s no negotiating with fundamentalists.
The story now the film’s out (as of later today in the US) is that the Christian lobby is calling for a boycott. More accurately, it’s the ultra-Catholics who are offended that someone has had the cheek to make a film out of an ‘anti-Catholic’ book. (The conservative Protestant churches seem to have missed the part of Pullman’s alternative history where Calvinism was absorbed into Catholicism to create the corrupt Magisterium.) So the evangelicals are leaving the protests to the Catholic Union of Permanently Outraged Mothers of Twelve, and so on. The moral of this story is there simply is no appeasing these people, so why take out the butcher’s knife and gut an inspired story about humanism and quantum theory when it wouldn’t help anyway?
It’s not surprising that the essence of Northern Lights was lost. In the tortured process of creating the film – Tom Stoppard’s treatment dropped in favour of Chris Weitz’s unsolicited one, Wetitz being fired, another director coming on and being fired, Weitz’ return, New Line’s insistence on dropping the voice actor for Iorek Byrnison in favour of a marquis name in fantasy film, Ian McKellen – the one continuous theme is the rationalization by the creatives of studio power. Weitz says he “grew” a lot between being the first and third director of the film. Presumably the creative differences just stopped bothering him. And public atheist Pullman says he isn’t perturbed at all by the complete excision of theocratic corruption in the film because all forms of totalitarianism are the same.
Except they’re not. Life in a theocracy means everyone – not just members of the Communist party or the military junta – must live out the philosophy of the rulers every day of their lives. There is a peculiarity to a complete absence of the separation of church and state that doesn’t prevail in a communist or a fascist state. When there is no distinction between religious and secular power, it’s not enough to obey the rules, you have to believe in them, too. Theocracies are obsessed with sexuality in a way that common or garden totalitarianism is not. Women get a spectacularly raw deal in a theocratic state, which is what makes Mrs. Coulter such a notable character; she plays the religious hierarchy at their own game and wins, albeit at a terrible cost.
Cutting out the special viciousness of theocratic totalitarianism from His Dark Materials is its own form of intercision, the books’ term for an operation that separates children from their daemons and cleanses them of original sin. The evil at the heart of the Magisterium is its abuse of religious power, its need to ‘free’ children of their sexuality by surgically removing their souls. For a children’s story, His Dark Materials is deft and courageous in taking on the idea of pre-adolescents as sexual beings. Its seamless invocation of quantum theory’s multiverse and beautiful treatment of a life after death that doesn’t require a singular soul are what make His Dark Materials linger in readers’ minds for years. They are the engine of the books, just as an unattractive, flawed and female lead character with an inborn knack for rallying society’s outcasts is the heart. Cutting out the central and challenging ideas of the books infantilises the viewers. Without them, HDM is just another in the current wave of fantasy films aimed an audience of children and adults, appealing to the lowest common denominator of both.
The current crop of fantasy films is purely a function of the development of CGI and its associated technologies’ ability to render the worlds the stories live in. Now the fantasy classics, old and new, are being consumed in a single binge-sitting, along with junk food pastiches like Spiderwick, Harry Potter and Eregon. But the concentration of capital needed to make these films is still enormous, (The budget for the Golden Compass was double that of The Fellowship of the Ring.) which means they can’t be made without a firmly mainstream audience in mind. Perhaps in another decade or so, production will be cheap enough to allow a revisionist take on the deeper, darker stories. Maybe our kids will chortle at today’s hopelessly off key takes on classic tales the way we sniff at early Hollywood versions of Jane Austen or Robin Hood.
Chris Weitz’s protestations aside, it’s not ‘grown up’ to shrug off burying the uniqueness of a story, or an unpleasant truth, or an unpolitic belief so as to get along with the powers that be. The whole point of His Dark Materials is to get right up the noses of people who say there’s no point fighting against the establishment, in whatever form it takes.
So, if you want to see a film of a book that challenges you to consider the insidious mind control of theocratic rule, or one that has interesting things to intuit about the many worlds idea in quantum physics, save your money. On the other hand, if you’d like an enjoyable and plotless romp with great special effects, fabulous gizmos, battles, talking bears and a plucky and not always button-cute heroine, it’s a wonderful film.