The Christmas Compass

For at least a few years, I’ve had an interest (that I have yet to write on) in the problems of adapting works of intellectual property. E.g. moving from a particular book to a film, from a film to a video game, or from a video game to a film or book. Or in some cases, like Shrek or Harry Potter, from book to film to absolutely everything.

I’m interested in this process for multiple reasons, but perhaps the most fascinating thing about adaptation is how problematic it is for authors and their control over the meaning of their work. Quality in a game does not translate easily, if at all, into quality in a book or a film. Yet the owners of the rights in the primary work often have some ability to control the development of the adaptation. At times they essentially cede this right to new authors (and wash their hands of the result in the new media). At other times they struggle to maintain their vision and find themselves attempting to master a new form. Both approaches have pitfalls.

Yet despite these pitfalls, the messy business of adaptation, and more generally transmedia, is pursued because adaptations are highly profitable and popular. Risk-averse investors will often favor making adaptations over financing true novelty that might flop. E.g. Harry Potter video games are bound to sell, no matter how bad they are as games. It’s about a brand as much anything.

Which brings me to The Golden Compass, the latest fantasy adaptation, and the interesting kerfuffle about Pullman’s views on organized religion.

A few days ago I found myself in a waiting room where I had the rare opportunity to listen (while reading something else) to ABC’s morning line-up, including Josh Groban singing Silent Night and The Christmas Song. The accompanying commercials were almost exclusively Christmas-themed spots but there were three Golden Compass trailers. Perhaps it’s the tradition of Coca-Cola (who didn’t invent Santa Claus btw), but wintry pictures of anthropomorphic CGI polar bears seem very much like Christmas advertising. The voiceover theme of these three advertisements was that the reviewers were all agreeing that The Golden Compass was destined to take it’s place in the pantheon of epic fantasy films between the prior fantasy adaptations, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

I’m looking forward to the movie and will probably see it in the theater. I read the first book (Northern Lights) a few years ago and thought that the first 2/3 of the book was the most brilliantly written children’s fantasy I had ever read. The last third wasn’t bad per se, it just kind of fell apart and failed to deliver an epiphany that could match the imaginative explosion of the early chapters. (The daemons and armored bears of the book were incredibly cool–I can’t wait to see them on screen.) But because I was a bit disappointed by the end of the first book, I never got around to reading the other books. I probably would have, but two very close friends read them and, while endorsing them, found them depressing and a bit incoherent. So they’re still on my “sometime” list.

When I read the first book, the criticism of organized religion really didn’t jump out at me, but apparently Pullman (once) viewed his own books as embodying a fairly explicit anti-religious agenda that becomes more apparent in the later texts. Some religious groups are protesting the movie on that basis. If you’re not aware of that background and Pullman’s thoughts on it, here’s an article from the L.A. Times. Actually, some of the critical writing I’ve read on this point suggests that whatever Pullman’s authorial intent is, it is pretty well subverted by the plot line of the story.

But if Pullman feels so strongly about these things and about how terrible C.S. Lewis is, how does he feel about the Golden Compass being sold as the next big Christmas movie?

Well, by all available evidence he doesn’t care one bit as long as the film succeeds at the box office. Yet despite this, his work has raised issues with other folks engaged in adapting the movie. According to Wikipedia (as it reads at the present moment–this one is sure to be in flux), Chris Weitz, the director, originally quit after struggling with how to tackle the problem of changing the film:

In 2004, Weitz was invited by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson onto the set of King Kong in order to gather information on directing a blockbuster film, and to receive advice on dealing with New Line Cinema, who Jackson had worked for on Lord of the Rings. After a subsequent interview in which Weitz said the novel’s attacks on organised religion would have to be softened, he was criticised by some fans,[2] and on December 15, 2004, Weitz announced his resignation as director of the trilogy, citing the enormous technical challenges of the epic.[8] He later indicated that he had envisioned the possibility of being denounced by both the book’s fans and its detractors, as well as a studio hoping for another Lord of the Rings.[2]

(The advertisements I watched were clearly hoping for that.) But then Weitz came back when the new director hired to replace Weitz, Anand Tucker, quit himself. Weitz returned because he was apparently swayed by a personal letter from Pullman.

According to the Baltimore Sun, though:

Weitz expunged the word church from the story: “I thought it would be unnecessarily provocative and hurtful to certain individuals.”

Nicole Kidman has also commented to the media that she didn’t think the script was anti-religious, appreciates Pullman’s appreciation of her acting, and hopes that the whole series gets made.

Pullman has been pretty content, publicly, with the way The Golden Compass has been adapted. He says this is a very carefully phrased (as befits a writer) article published over the weekend in the Sunday Times:

[T]he author of the original is expected to regard the Hollywoodisation of their novel with resignation, despair or outrage. The only alternative seems to be indifference. James M Cain, author of the novel that was turned into the Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity, said: ‘People ask me, “Don’t you care what they’ve done to your book?” I tell them, “They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it”.’

So I find myself in what seems to be a rare position: now that the film of my novel Northern Lights is about to be released as The Golden Compass, I can say with perfect truth that I like it.

Pullman downplays the controversy over the religious themes and actually makes a great sales pitch for the book’s universal themes. He pretty much reads his own story as some of his critics have done, summarizing its message as:

[T]he tendency of the story is towards celebrating [openness and free expression], and other values such as humaneness, kindness, intellectual curiosity and a sense of the wonder and the beauty of the physical universe, and it is not afraid to tell a story that criticises religious intolerance and hypocrisy.

And who wouldn’t be against intolerance and hypocrisy?

So Pullman has essentially re-interpreted his own writing and thoughts, pulling other people on board while giving them considerable freedom to reinvent a story that is still his own. A very successful strategy for getting to this point.

The question is, after all this effort on Pullman’s part: will the film work?

Another question: if it’s a big success, will they adapt the rest of the books in the trilogy? Consider that in the third book we have “the mulafeh, elephant-like people who roll around on wheels made from the giant seeds of giant trees” who are “starting to die off from the raids of giant swans.”

I’m not sure the trailers for that one will be able to fit with Christmas themes — but maybe if they really played up the swans…

3 thoughts on “The Christmas Compass

  1. Just wanted to add, in case anyone chances across this in the future, that I saw the movie and while it was visually interesting, it had none of the edge of the novel. Much too much revisionary Hollywood schmaltz.

    Rather a disappointment. I’m hoping they don’t make the next one.

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