Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Golden Compass

I took the guys to see this movie today. I have never read Pullman's stuff--he started up too late for me to enjoy him as a kid, and our sons are too young to have gotten into him yet (well--the older one could read them now, actually), and so I am at long last one of those people who saw the movie without having bothered to read the book. And all evidence suggests that the book is better. Which of course is inevitable for any decent book, because it's a book, and a movie is never a better book than a book, unless the book was written expressly for the purpose of getting turned into a movie.

But as a movie, The Golden Compass is pretty decent, and the young lead actress is terrific, and Ian MacKellen is very fine as a polar bear (sorry--an ice bear, which is a like a very large polar bear that talks like Ian MacKellen), which the CGI geniuses have actually managed to make look quite a lot like Ian MacKellen when he talks.

I post about it here though because I read a review of it last week in our local Gannett paper, which utterly trashed it, leaving it with an anemic star and a half. Gannett is not in the business of disliking things--liking them is more profitable for everyone--and so this review, which stressed the "emotional coldness" of the film, struck me as a possible right-wing hit piece aimed at the movie's apparent anti-Christian bias. (And let me say that, yes indeed, it does seem to be pretty unsympathetic to religion, a sentiment Pullman has been more than happy to confirm in interviews.)

And so, hit piece it was, I think. Surely word came down from corporate that The Golden Compass must be snuffed out. Because, although the movie is not great, it's thoroughly entertaining, and posits some extremely interesting fantasy what-if's, most remarkable among them the idea of human souls taking the form of animal familiars. I assume this is straight from Pullman, as it's too smart for a movie otherwise--the implications of this arrangement allow for all kinds of fascinating psychological experimentation. Nicole Kidman, for instance, as Cruella DeVil (or somebody like her), actually abuses her own soul, then tearfully mommies up to it as it whimpers on her shoulder. BAD ASS!

I'm no atheist (agnostic to the core, thank you), but it certainly is nice to see this kind of moral rigor (however smarmily presented) thrown onto a big-screen kids' movie. It's thought-provoking, and the bears are way cool. I believe I will try to get Owen into Pullman ASAP.

Your thoughts?


ed said...

I had my students read The Golden Compass a few semesters ago when we spent a semester on Paradise Lost, which opened their minds up a little bit to both PL and to the possibilities of fantasy & fancy & litry imagination. The movie was certainly smeared, not so much by the right wing folks as by the general media which wanted to stir up a controversy that might please their right wing overlords, who generally seemed unconcerned about the movie aside from some fringe groups. The Catholic media reviewed the movie favorably. The result was worse than actual concerned people making a fuss--it was the stultifying effect of an aura of evangelical disdain. As a tv watcher it seemed that CNN was beating the drum more than FOX, in their continuing effort to appear foxlike. Easy to make the jump to media coverage of the political campaigns and an anticipation and nostalgia for fights. It's all very school-yard. I see it also in the reviews of The Savage Detectives and the appearance of Roberto Bolano as someone that we're all going to have to pay attention to from now on--a weariness and suspicion of the new and genuine. Let me make another jump to the coverage of the Writer's Strike (mostly by news media who also own the studios being struck against, such as the LA Times)--as these writers are making increasingly logical and reasonable arguments with conviction and principle, and as the studios make increasingly snarky offers and petty gambits, the persuasiveness and morality of the writers is being turned against them--we're supposed to laugh at their outrage and accuracy. The peace movement and the democratic party have been neutered in the same fashion, in old schoolyard bullying and frathouse exclusions. Might as well write poems and novels, I say.

Anonymous said...

That, my friend, is a post unto itself.

To push this tangent further into the heart of tangentia, I have pretty much decided I don't want to have anything to do with commercial book publishing anymore. I am so weary of failing to meet their expectations, how my shitty sales figures are always being trotted out as evidence of how my work is not worth their while publishing, how my ever-so-mild attempt, with Happyland, to use art in order to sneer at authority is held up as incontrovertible evidence that I have Tainted The Brand. Book reviewers suck (that was the theme of the post I wrote then erased last night), publishers suck, newspapers suck, and people are fucking cowards.

I do hope this era of corporate namby-pamby dollar-whipped nonsense creates a renaissance in independent media outlets. There is evidence that this is happening, in any event. (See Black Garterbelt's Dec. 11 post to witness the spectacle of print book reviewers expounding upon the worthlessness of blogs--if they're shitting their diapers over us, we must be doing something right.) A lot of good recent books, records, and movies have come out from unexpected places, and the trend may continue. I hope it does.

Anyway, this movie is not exactly the perfect vehicle for this discussion, because it is merely OK, rather than awesome...but still, it's interesting, an extension of a book series for children that actually doesn't treat them like a bunch of drooling idiots with no moral consciousness. It was awesome talking to my kids afterward about some of its more obscure elements--what it all means, to what extent it's trying to make an argument about morality and religion, etc. You don't get that watching, say, "Cars," which was of course a universally praised piece of garbage.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha!, what is happening to me?!? Not yet 40 and already a crank!

ed said...

I think you're less of a crank than you were at 25. You see the real opportunities for hope, & have some faith, & desire to be part of the change, & understand that it's not clear what that change is going to be.

Used to just be letters to the editor about sewerage surcharges and gout.

I myself am becoming less cranky (though my coworkers & spouse may disagree).

My newest sincere conviction is that the only way to live properly is to listen to Archie Bell and the Drell's "Tighten Up" without ceasing.

Josh Russell said...

We're the same kids we were at twenty-five: the ones who bought music put out by indie labels and wanted to see art house movies. So what made us care about commercial publishing? The brainwashing was very successful.

PS: Pullman's a dick.

Anonymous said...

I read Compass and the second book, The Amber Spyglass, to my kids and saw the movie. The writing in the books is excellent--spellbinding and poetic. Very lovely. So of course, that's missing in the film.

I do think that Pullman must be an ass, though, for as wonderful as his writing is and as interesting his theology, I saw the "cutting" in the book as all about castration (he even says so in the book) and the child abuse positively terrifying.

Pullman is British, yes? So this isn't an American happening--probably could never be. Like your work, JRL, it seems to do best over there.

Mr. Saflo said...

Philip Pullman belched in my face (loudly) and suggested that my mother is a prostitute.

ed said...

Phillip Pullman kicked a hole in a moose. And grinned at me through the gory absence.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's what I need to do--be a dick and write about child abuse!

Russell, it was you who got me on this whole anti-commercial kick. You made me take the red pill! Or wait, was it the blue pill? Or maybe it was a whole bottle of seven-dollar Chilean wine.

zoe said...

I've seen Pullman read and he was great. I haven't read the Dark Materials trilogy yet because I find fantasy really hard to get into, but my understanding from the British media and Pullman himself last summer, was that the US makers of the film insisted on diluting the novel. For example, the whole inaccuracy of the compass as a starter.

I'm all for anything that helps kids to express their dislike for authority and totalitarianism.

I've read the Sally series of novels which portray a strong, resourceful girl hero and I really enjoyed his writing. His books are aimed at teenagers and older kids and they are very good at engaging those audiences. If the film helps kids to pick up a decent, thoughtful book then I, for one, salute Pullman. Thanks Christ it's not about bloody pansy arsed wizards.

Anonymous said...

Are you mocking the sexual orientation of Sir Ian MacKellen?!!? Good God, woman!

ed said...

One of my brothers is a dedicated reader of sci-fi and fantasy, and since the passing of his favorite writer Robert Jordan he's been talking plenty about Terry Pratchett (potential christmas spoiler alert, bro). Not much of a reader of those genres myself, though John turned me on to China Mieville and Cory Doctorow, both of whom are expanding what can be done. But I still turn away from that section in the bookstore (those few bookstores that remain). My brother who likes those books doesn't have a bookseller aside from Wal-Mart for hundreds of miles around his little town in the great plains, and Wal-Mart won't sell a sci-fi book that isn't either about Star Trek or was written, or at least brand-name-leased, by an actor on Star Trek.

zoe said...

God know, he's a national treasure. I was criticising Daniel Radcliffe's shite acting. I loathe Harry Potter. However, that's mostly down to the adult cover marketing ploy and the fact that so many "grown ups" think that the HP books are the pinnacle of child fiction.

Nobody can surpass Roald Dahl and I will fight (in all my heavily pregnant glory) anyone who says otherwise.

zoe said...

Sorry, that was a tad aggressive. I'm blaming hormones and that I just read "Fight Club".

Anonymous said...

z: I was just kiddin'.

ed: I think you just gave me the perfect idea for my next book: LEONARD NIMOY'S SCEPTERS OF DEFIANCE by j robert lennon

ed said...

Very good, sir.

aos said...

The only real problem I had with this film was the ending which reminded me of the nonending of the first LOTR movie, the coming over the hill, and seeing what? The sequel? It put me off LOTR entirely (never did like the book). Eventually saw the rest and thought it wasn't all awful. In the case here, Pullman and a perfectly good ending which still hinted at so much more. Actually, one more problem was the absolutely horrible song as the credits began at the end. If you have not seen this film yet, do, but run out as soon as it is over.

But yes the book is better. The best children's fantasy I have read. Even the best of children's fantasy to me seems a little shallow simply because the full richness of existence has not been experienced yet but Pullman's trilogy doesn't suffer as much with comparison to "adult" fiction.

Grant Munroe said...

Great comment re commercial publishing!

I sometimes wonder whether the problem might be the public's perception of - or lack of appreciation for – “the author”. They don't get much respect anymore, they don’t capture people’s attention. A friend called up after Mailer died and asked a great question: Are there any other living authors whose death would make the front page of the Times? Roth. Maybe Pynchon?

Then we wondered what had happened to spectacle in the world of letters. Not the spectacle of angry op-ed pieces, of political outrage. More old fashioned drunken spectacle. Fitzgerald making an ass of himself, or Mailer getting piss drunk on national television. Authors were brilliant people with little self-control. The public respected that.

So what happened? Why have authors tamed? Could it be the influence of academia? Is it that authors as teachers now feel the need to set a moral example? Whatever the reason, I think it’s a shame.

For one, you never hear anecdotes like this one that Philip Gourevitch told when he was interviewed by Powells:

“A few days ago I was in L.A., and I was talking about the book with Stephen Gaghan, the guy who wrote Traffic and wrote and directed Syriana. A long time ago, Stephen was a Paris Review intern.

“He remembered being with George Plimpton once, and he asked about the Hemingway interview. George had this kind of patrician accent. He told Stephen, "I remember one morning when we were down in Cuba, we were going out tarpon fishing. We went down to the pier in the morning, and he was putting all the gear in the boat to go out for the day. I was coming down the pier, and I said, 'Papa! I've been wanting to ask you about the white birds.'

“Hemingway turned around and said, "What's that?" So Plimpton explained, "The white birds. You know? In your stories, at a significant moment, the white birds appear."

“Hemingway took two steps toward him and clocked him. He knocked him out cold.“

McQ said...

All 4 McQs are tremendous Pullman fans. Like you, JRL, I was born a bit too early so I hadn't heard of him until five years ago. A man waiting for the same JetBlue flight from CA to NY as I struck up a conversation about writing when he noticed the business card/luggage tag I'd made from my Dummies book cover art. Somehow we transitioned from investing books to children's lit (most likely due to the tots I was attempting to keep entertained) and he was shocked to learn I hadn't read any Pullman.

I checked the Golden Compass audiobook out of the good ol' county library that very week and the tots and I began what turned out to be a six month string of the most enthralling car rides any of us have ever experienced. We'd actually manufacture errands during the especially exciting parts; there was an unspoken agreement that we'd only listen in the car, and only when all three of us were in it.

By the time we finished the last cassette of The Amber Spyglass, Pullman had become my literary hero and I remembered why it was that I'd spent every moment possible reading when I was younger. A story, a good story, heartwarming, heartwrenching, real...what better gift to give a child? Reading Pullman is what made me wonder why I'd never once thought of writing for kids before, and what got me started in that direction.

I'll be forever grateful to that bearded stranger at the airport for setting me back on a path I didn't even know I was on. I must've sensed the potential of that chance recommendation because I remember wanting to thank him as we deplaned. I would've, too, if I hadn't been busy scraping the remnants of in-flight tot vomit from my parka before starting the midnight drive home from Syracuse. Ah, those were golden times...

So yeah, get thee to the library and check out one of those audiobooks yourself. Both Lennellison young'uns will enjoy them. (You and the missus will, too.) Full cast with Pullman himself narrating - perfect entertainment for quiet snowy evenings spent doing the crafts of your choices around the woodstove. Or you could read the books aloud - that's what I've been doing to catch the professorial McQ up on the Pullman he missed while in lab all those years. He's a convert, too. The Sally Lockhart trilogy is smashing as well; we watched the BBC version just last night (good, but not nearly as good as the book itself, we all agreed).

Another thing I like about Pullman? He says he can no longer justify the environmental impact of flying abroad for speaking engagements and vacations such and so he's given it up. I'm not quite that strong in my convictions yet, to my shame, but that's another way that Pullman's inspired me. Maybe I'll be braver about walking my talk someday, too.

Let me know if you want suggestions for other great kidlit as yours grow older. That's practically all I've been reading the last few years, and I'm astounded by the quality of what's been written since we were that age.