Philip Pullman profile

I mentioned Philip Pullman again as a contract to the execrable fantasy described here; I wrote about Pullman’s wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy here. Now I’ve come across an interview with Pullman. A sample:

“I had been thinking about the central question, which is the innocence and experience business, and the transition which happens in adolescence, for a long time. I’d been teaching children of the same age as Lyra, children who were themselves going through this physical, intellectual and emotional change in their lives. The biggest change we ever go through really.” Once, when I interviewed Pullman in front of a packed house at the National Theatre, he drew a big laugh when he explained what was so special about this age: “Your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family.”

This article, like so many appearing now, is coming about thanks to the movie version of The Golden Compass. Originally I’d planned to watch, until critics panned it; the Seattle Timesreview is typical, saying the movie “has a by-the-numbers feel to it.” In other words, the movie appears to be what the studio sought: a slot machine instead of a story, and by jettisoning the latter is also seems to have lost the former.

Hollywood, The Golden Compass, and artistic corruption

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.

His Dark Materials

Like so much fantasy, His Dark Materials has more commentary on our world than about its own, just as Paradise Lost is more interested in the world of men than that of God. The fingerprints of Paradise Lost are all over His Dark Materials, and intentionally so, even if one of Pullman’s purposes is the diametric opposite of Milton’s. Pullman has discussed the connections to Paradise Lost in interviews, and a quote from it starts The Subtle Knife.

If Paradise Lost justified the ways of God to Man, then His Dark Materials justifies the ways of Man to Man—or, rather, the fiery spirit and independence of the individual against the poisonous power of authority. It’s more about the relationships of men among each other.

His Dark Materials points toward self-reliance, and the American myth of it informs the books’ championing of the individual against the faceless bureaucracies. The fear of Big Brother is there, although Big Brother is the Church rather than government. It’s anachronistic to cast the Church as a villain—that would’ve been more appropriate five hundred years ago, or at least during the Victorian age, because the major potential oppressors of today are governments, not religions. Still, if Pullman is concerned chiefly with the oppression of a particular individual, his villains work, and when either institution concerns itself with reducing individual liberty, it is as terrible as the other.

Missing all that among the ceaselessly moving plot should be forgiven: The Golden Compass starts fast and never lets up. Not until the middle of The Subtle Knife does the pacing even catch a breath. Lyra, who seems built around the adjective “spunky,” has no one but herself, and like so many Romantic protagonists, begins the story as an orphan. But her parents turn out to be more in the model of the power-crazed and narcissistic ones in Story of My Life or Less Than Zero than the classical model of caring guardians who were forced to abandon her, leading to a joyous reunion. Lyra has to find companions and helpers where she can, and the motley ensemble must take on the mighty, glittering edifice of the dominant social and political structures.Over the course of the flight and then fight Lyra matures. The external plot charts the internal process of growing up: taking on responsibility, dealing with adversity, and a host of other things that, so baldly stated, sound terribly boring. Much better to represent them through a fantastic world filled by marvels and not bound by science as we know it. The external actions are a manifestation of the internal development. In many ways, it parallels the growth of adolescence into adulthood, which is even more explicit in His Dark Materials than most fantastic literature because of Lyra’s age. If the external/internal growth process sounds familiar to regular readers, that’s because it is.

Although featuring children and obviously targeted in part at them, His Dark Materials is a hybrid in the sense that adults can read and enjoy it as well as children, much like The Chronicles of Narnia. The same is true of Harry Potter, although to a lesser extent: His Dark Materials reflects a strong classical education, which allows it to function at deeper levels and with a greater awareness of what has come before. His Dark Materials is stronger than either of those series, both in terms of the writing itself as well as the content; its tone remains strong and serious, even when it is funny, whereas The Chronicles of Narnia at times descends to the level of conventional children’s stories, and Harry Potter never fully leaves that realm.

The ending, like that of Lord of the Rings, is bittersweet: the gains outweigh the losses, but those losses can never be assuaged or made whole; they merely become a burden that can be transmuted to wisdom, but the some aspects of the loss endures despite all efforts to mend them. So it is with the transience of life, and like all the best works of art, His Dark Materials has a lot to say about life—if we are perceptive enough to listen.

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