Rowling VS Pullman
Yesterday Charles commented on my complaint that JK Rowling (whom we all rightly regard as A Good Thing) has in the past not been too worried about developing characters or plots, and that the books offer a full-scale retreat into happier times. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s nice to see a sub-plot in ‘Fantastic Beasts…’ relying on a smidgen of character development.
Many children’s authors have been granted extra life by film adaptation. Kids like straightforward tales, so Hugh Lofting’s ‘Doctor Doolittle’ books, with their empathy for animals and simplistic stories, became (terrible) hit films while Norman Hunter’s ‘Professor Branestawn’ stories, even with wonderful illustrations from W Heath Robinson and various TV incarnations, never quite reached the same level of popularity. The latter’s ideas were madder – at one point Branestawn reanimates people in photographs, including half a policeman – and the language is more ornate.
In uncertain times children seek out order and structure. The nostalgic Potter novels are smartly filled with the rewards and punishments of school life. But Potter also belonged to the first true internet generation, being inward-looking and episodic. After the film adaptations began to appear, the last four instalments set records as the fastest-selling books in history.
The spacing of publication allowed the entire span of childhood to be covered, so that the characters aged with the reader. But Potter had something else that was uniquely modern; marketability. Children could dress as the characters, buy replica props and enter the world online, or at the Warners Studio Tour. As a result, the books are inextricably coupled with the films. Many a fine children’s book has failed the adaptation test and been lost.
In this area Phillip Pullman was very unlucky. The first Rowling novel was published two years after Pullman’s epic fantasy trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’ started. The film of the first part, ‘ Northern Lights’, was retitled ‘The Golden Compass’ and made a decent fist of capturing the novel. However, it failed thanks to a campaign run by secularist organisations in America who urged a boycott of the already religiously neutered film, on the grounds that it would lead audiences to the more subversive sequels. The message was clear; Rowling was safe, Pullman was dangerous. The film industry could raise up authors, but also slap them down.
I failed to access my inner child for the Potter books, perhaps because I had grown up on heartrending novels like ‘The Once and Future King’. But I could not be interrupted for a couple of weeks while reading ‘His Dark Materials’, and when it ended I wanted more.
Rowling is not a prose stylist, but with ‘Fantastic Beasts’ she has found her metier as a good screenwriter. The film is nicely structured in the Joseph Campbell style even though the plot is clumsily advanced (at one point Jon Voigt says ‘My son was murdered. I want revenge’, possibly the baldest character statement ever heard).
Most importantly for young audiences (and ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is for the young) it’s a lot of fun, although the fun may wear off over Warners’ cash-milking seven film cycle, tipped off with the cynical inclusion of next villain Johnny Depp at the end of this first one.
I pray someone gives Phillip Pullman another screen chance – the ‘His Dark Materials’ books are truly for young and old, have utterly memorable characters and a powerful, moving plot that feels deeply embedded in the English psyche.