About a month ago I picked up The Golden Compass to read the first chapter for something I was working on. It’s the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which I wrote about a year ago. Rather than stopping at chapter two, as I’d intended to, I accidentally finished the novel in the course of the day. I’m not the who loves His Dark Materials: this month’s Atlantic has an article called “How Hollywood Saved God” (warning: it’s in a walled garden, so if you’re not a subscriber you should buy the magazine) that says Pullman’s books have sold 15 million copies worldwide. Each book of the trilogy probably counts as a sale, and his other books are probably included too, but it’s safe to assume many people have read him. The number will no doubt increase with the release of the first movie.
“How Hollywood Saved God” describes the movie based on The Golden Compass. I’ll probably watch it in December, somewhat reluctantly, just as I saw The Return of the King despite knowing the high probability of disappointment. I was right about The Return of the King, a movie that provides an excellent of example of how more special effects can lead to an inferior result. With The Golden Compass, five years and a lot of wrangling have apparently succeeded in watering down the sharp content of the book. Hollywood as portrayed by this Atlantic story is the McDonald’s of art, seeking to dull strong flavors to make a more standardized product that will appeal to the widest audience, but also destroying what made the original good. Hollywood isn’t the only place with this tendency.
Some of this comes from technological fetishization, and some from the perceived effect of strong statements on financial aspects, leading to the end result:
To an industry intoxicated with sophisticated visual effects, Pullman’s creations were irresistible. In 2003, when describing what sold him on the movie, Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained, “It was two words: Iorek Byrnison.” Iorek is an “insanely awesome character,” he added. “He can’t tell a lie,” Emmerich told me recently, “and [Lyra] is an expert liar.”
You can probably guess how things turned out. Given enough time and effort, Hollywood can tweak and polish and recast even the darkest message until it would seem at home in a Fourth of July parade. In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable. The studio settled on villains that, as Emmerich put it, “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian/KGB/SS” stew. The movie’s main theme became, in one producer’s summary, “One small child can save the world.” With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.
Read the article to see how it happens and this for more on The Atlantic regarding movies, art, and commerce.