Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I was looking forward to seeing the big-screen adaptation of this book; you might even say that I was excited. I liked the visuals that I saw. It had a good cast. It had talking, armored polar bears. It was co-written and directed by Chris Weitz. What could go wrong? Apparently everything. The movie was a startling disappointment.

The main problem with the movie was that it felt cobbled together. It jumped from scene to scene, with very static, utilitarian dialogue. This was odd, because I would describe Chris Weitz as a good writer. The movie just barely made sense, giving the impression that it had been heavily edited. Supposedly this was the case. Whether to quell the cries of conservative watchdog groups that were calling for a boycott of the movie, claiming it was anti-religion and even anti-God – something that simply does not come across in the film – or because they thought that it needed to be punched up, or because of any number of reasons the studio stepped in, chopped the film to pieces, and shoved it back together again.

I knew the books had to be better. The overall premise of the story was intriguing. In an alternate universe much like our own, people’s souls are outside their bodies, in the form of animals. (The explanation and depiction of this in the movie was incredibly piss poor.) The book opens with Lyra Belacqua, an orphan who was deposited at Jordan College after her parents died. The college has no means in place to train a small child, but Lyra gets a cursory education from the various scholars that grace the campus.

When a mysterious socialite shows up at the college, Lyra is intrigued. She is more than happy to accompany this lady to the North. But not long into the trip, Lyra realizes that things are not as they appeared. She becomes involved in a plot, involving warring polar bears, skyships (think Teddy Ruxpin but less colorful), and the Aurora, or what we here in our universe would call the aurora borealis or northern lights. (Incidentally, this book was first released under the name Northern Lights in England. They must have assumed that U.S. kids would be uninterested in one of the most amazing natural phenomena that our world has to offer...but how about a shiny piece of metal?) Lyra is guided along her journey with the help of a compass of sorts that she alone appears to be able to read.

Philip Pullman does an excellent job of progressing the plot. It moves at a quick pace, with surprise and danger always waiting in the wings. His writing is fluid, and he does a good job with dialogue, especially with capturing the differences between the ways children and adults speak. His description of battles were great, unlike the battles in the movie, which were quite boring, and resorted to standard film tropes, like deus ex machinas, which were not in the book.

At the beginning of the book, Pullman explains that this story is set in a universe like ours, but different in many ways. The way that this is played out in the book is rather bizarre. Lyra lives in Oxford, England. They refer to the 17th century, and wine from 1898, so they appear to be using the Gregorian calendar. The United States does not appear to exist, but one of the characters is described as coming from the nation of Texas. This character mentions sending money back to the Wells Fargo Bank. There are countries and ethnic groups that don’t exist in our universe. It is rather odd. I hope Pullman has an interesting explanation for these crossovers from our universe to this one. I wonder if his explanation will be similar to the view espouse in the "documentary" about spirituality and quantum physics, What the Bleep Do We Know?. I suspect it will be.

The Golden Compass is the first book of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I plan on reading the next before too long. Now that I am familiar with the material they had to work with, I can't believe how crappy the film was.