How The Compass Lost Its Way
I suspect that when it comes to fantasy (although tell me I’m wrong) that you’re either a Harry Potter fan or you prefer the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell trilogy. A more divisive choice lies between ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ and ‘His Dark Materials’. The choice is complicated by the issue of religion.
CS Lewis’s books are a clear Christian parable. Pullman’s trilogy is an inversion of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (and now to be – hurrah – a sextet, plus a third novella). Awash with physics, philosophy and theology, they tackle grand themes in the most delicate and clear-headed way imaginable, without diminishing the excitement of the adventure. He didn’t write them for a specific audience, just for anyone who likes a story.
The multiple-universe idea is not new, nor is the creation of a Victorian steampunk otherworld of England; Ian Macleod’s excellent ‘The Light Ages’ is about the discovery of aether, the Industrial Revolution and the guilds. Trilogies like ‘The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter’ feature strong girls in alt-timelines, as does the delightfully London-based ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’.
Somehow Pullman does it best. After the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, which transformed a pair of (to me, at least) fairly unreadable books into thrilling cinema, and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, which was also passably filmed, it seemed obvious that ‘His Dark Materials’ would be a huge success. But timing is everything, and the problem of fantasy fatigue was starting to set in. Critics started saying they’d seen it all before.
Bigger troubles lay ahead as ‘Northern Lights’, now retitled ‘The Golden Compass’, became the first in a proposed trilogy. In the US the powerful Catholic League had been unhappy with the books, as they had been with Harry Potter, describing them as ‘the stuff of nightmares’ and ‘worthy of the bonfire’ – clearly the lessons of martyred heretics had not been learned. The League failed to notice the irony which required them to imitate the Authority in the books.
Fox Searchlight obscured the explicitly biblical character of the Authority to avoid offence. Chris Weitz, the director, declared that he would not do the same for the planned sequels. “Whereas The Golden Compass had to be introduced to the public carefully”, he said, “the religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimised without destroying the spirit of these books. I will not be involved with any ‘watering down’ of books two and three.’ However, the mere fact that the titles were being messed with was a bad indicator of what was to come.
The Catholic League and other religious groups mobilised to keep audiences away from the film, even though the specific secular message had now been excised. Catholic press gave out bad reviews of the film sight unseen. However, the faint parable that can still be perceived in the film (just about) was not entirely responsible for its failure.
With so much world-building to cram into a first feature, the scriptwriters dropped the ball. Expository speeches are clumsy and complicated, and the introduction of the lead players was very confusing. For audiences who hadn’t read the books the film became all but impossible to follow. Worse, it ended at the worst possible point, before Lydia reaches Lord Asrael, and petered out with a long dull speech about what was to come in the next chapter. This unsatisfactory close sealed the film’s fate. Films two and three were never made, although a successful two-part production was staged in London.
The BBC’s long-awaited version of the series is still pending, but tackling the script seems to be proving a problem. Let’s hope the BBC doesn’t just overload it with in-house stars like Mark Gatiss – again.