Rowling VS Pullman

Books, Film


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.

15 comments on “Rowling VS Pullman”

  1. James W says:

    I’m sure I read somewhere that the same people who did the Jonathan Strange mini series are adapting Pullman’s books for tv?

  2. admin says:

    Wonderful news – I thought the Jonathan Strange adaptation was terrific.

  3. admin says:

    Sorry about the type – I was experimenting with the font coding…

  4. chazza says:

    I like the font size; at least I can read it!

  5. Roger says:

    I thought all the film adaptations of Lofting’s Dr Dolittle (get it right!) books were box-office flops. I remember reading a book (by John Gregory Dunne?) which featured a version with Rex Harrison as a studio disaster.
    In fact, Lofting is closer to Pullman in some ways: the last book, the posthumous “Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake”, features The Truth about the Flood. Noah and God don’t come out well.
    It’s interesting about the Flood: the official religious view is that the people that drowned were wicked and had it coming (never mind the animals), yet I don’t know of a depiction that doesn’t show it as an act of monstrous cruelty and a tragedy.
    “The Sword in the Stone” is a children’s book, but is “The Once and Future King”? Incest and mass infanticide, anyone? Certainly, a good children’s book can be read by adults too A bad children’s book shouldn’t be read by children anyway.
    It was W.H. Auden, I think, who said that some fantasy is a kind of mythology where things like style or skill in writing don’t matter and I think that applies to the Harry Potter books.

  6. Roger says:


  7. Brooke says:

    Can you use a darker color for the type, please? I find it hard to read now–much too light on a light background. Sorry, I’m older than Arthur with eyesight just as bad.

  8. Davem says:

    I finally got around to reading the Pullman books only a few weeks ago, although my kids read them many years ago.

    Would love to see a great director give them a go.

    Pleased to see that at least they will be on TV as I also enjoyed the Jonathan Strange adaptation.

  9. admin says:

    Hi Brooke – actually this is the old type! I removed the new font plugin and reverted to the old font & colour. I’ll play around with it over Christmas and see if I can find a setting that’s better for all.

  10. Colin says:

    Hi Chris,
    Have you read The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly? A stunning book, well worth reading if you haven’t yet

  11. admin says:

    I have several others of his but not that one, Colin. Thanks for the recommend.

  12. Wayne #1 says:

    I have your pages set on +2 magnification permanently so that I can read your blog in comfort. My browser keeps the choice by itself so I need do nothing just enjoy it.

    On the two Authors thing, can’t you just enjoy both? I don’t get why if you like one you have trouble with the other. I was a lot younger when I was introduced to Master Potter and J.K. than I was when I discovered Pullman, I still enjoy both and in both I don’t look for anything other than to be entertained.

    Filming any book means sacrifices have to be made, that is unless you filming the Hobbit or Lord of The Rings of course….

  13. davem says:

    Agree with Colin, The Book of Lost Things is a good read.

  14. John Griffin says:

    Pullman is dark and compulsive, and my wife – who hates the Potter books – DEVOURED the trilogy, indeed was immovable while doing so. The film was very good indeed, and some of the casting inspired – for me it could have become an LOR-legend trilogy without the grandiosity and longeurs.

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