How The Compass Lost Its Way

The Arts


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.

20 comments on “How The Compass Lost Its Way”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    I signed the petition for the Cinema Museum and have just received an email about the meeting yesterday.

    I thought I’d put it in today’s post as it’s more likely to be seen than in an older one. Hope you don’t mind, even though it’s irrelevant.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    Apart from Harry Potter all the things you mention in your post are completely off my radar, although I did start to read the first Lord of the Rings book years ago. I have to admit to being rather suspicious of people who think a make-believe world is more interesting than the real world. I cannot even get on with science fiction except some very hard sci-fi like some Arthur C Clarke.

    The Catholic League and other religious groups mobilised to keep audiences away from the film

    Down with this sort of thing.

    Careful now.

    Paradoxically the PR people must be getting down on their knees to thank God for this stroke of luck. “Banned by the Catholic Church” is the best bit of advertising ever. Reminds me of The Life of Brian – in Sweden they advertised it as being “So funny it’s banned in Norway”. (Could be the other way round.)

  3. Ian Luck says:

    If I were to see anything tagged with “Banned by the Catholic Church”, it would make me 100% more likely to look at it, read it, listen to it, or watch it than any other form of persuasion. In a similar fashion, a clique of Stepford wives tried to ban rap and hip-hop music in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Putting ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers on albums kept them out of some of the more staid chainstores, but it soon backfired – albums so stickered were quite obviously, to those in the know, the albums worth having – being made by people who had something relevant to say, things that authority didn’t like to be said. A ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker soon became a guarantee of quality. There are tales of some quite well.known artistes being annoyed that their new album hadn’t been stickered, and had them slapped on the record sleeves themselves, to bolster sales. Always the same story – tell someone that something is banned, and people will just want it all the more. Volestead Act – I’m looking at you…

  4. Ian Luck says:

    FATHER TED: (Whispers) Bishop Len Brennan.
    MICHAEL THE CINEMA MANAGER: (Disgustedly) Oh. That gobshite.

    One of the many reasons I love ‘Father Ted’. The utter lack of respect.

  5. admin says:

    The ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy is not disrespectful but disapproving. Pullman came up with a perfect parable for the dogma of organised religion – I think the CoE managed to endorse the books for attacking dogma.

  6. Jan says:

    I know a lot of these things go over my head but Ian + Chris have a point. As soon as the Catholic church puts its foot down (with a firm hand ) just about everyone wants to read/see what’s causing the problem. Best advert possible in a Carlsberg beer sort of way. Best advertising in the world…..probably

    One thing I might have mentioned b4 the multi millionaire writer Dan Brown attracts a fair bit of derision but one thing he managed to do was to get the facts from the “The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail” out into the open in North America. The Catholic church banned the book over there. + made reading it count as a sin (everywhere)which required confession and a few Hail Mary’s I’ve read the holy grail had to be offered up in penance. Brown did bring out to a massive audience a theory which the church had tried to block. Fair play to him + he spawned quite a few imitators – a whole new genre I suppose. So you don’t need to be a great writer to tell a cracking story.

    I reckon that film failed cos the young girl playing Lyra came over badly she was a difficult character to cast Lyra and the lass although close to her character in the book didn’t please an audience. I’m not saying she should have been Dorothy from the wizard of Oz but she came over as a bit snidey. Just didn’t work. Loads of the other characters were wonderful the boat gypsies, Lord Asrael. The special effects were smashing but Lyra and that wimpy lad were miscast.

    Be better on telly with more story telling time but every channel seems to be trying to exploit the market opened up by Game of Thrones. The Last Kingdom, Strange and Norrell being prime examples. Move along move along try summat new.

  7. Brooke says:

    Dear Jan, I can find no record of the US Catholic Church banning Brown’s book. The Vatican did try to initiate a ban in Rome; but you know how that went. Priests in conservative dioceses like Philadelphia did preach sermons against the book and the movie, but given church attendance in the US, I don’t expect there was much impact.

  8. Jan says:

    Brooke I didn’t say that Mr. Brown’s book had been banned the ” Holy Blood and the Holy Grail ” was subject to a ban not Dan Brown’s book but the book he based his work on. Maybe it’s me who has expressed it badly……

  9. Ian Luck says:

    Henry Lincoln, one of the writers of ‘Holy Blood And The Holy Grail’, was never happy about people using his book for source material. I read it in my teens, and found it fascinating, thrilling, slightly frightening, but ultimately frustrating. A more recent book on the mysteries of Rennes Le Chateau, ‘Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail’ (2005, by Christopher Dawes), about the former drummer of Punk pioneers, The Damned, and his obsession with Rennes Le Chateau, is a far more fun read. Incidentally, Henry Lincoln also found time to write (with Mervyn Haisman), the classic Doctor Who stories ‘The Abominable Snowmen’, and ‘The Web Of Fear’, as well as ‘The Dominators’. Unfortunately for the BBC, Lincoln was not keen on other writers using his creations, which is why the small, but lethal ‘Quark’ robots of the Dominators were never seen again, despite being very popular when the show was first broadcast.

  10. Jan says:

    A friend of mine lives not too far from Rennes Le Chateau it is a weird old place and it’s so strange getting to visit the church and all the odd places that crop up in the myriad of books which feature the mystery.
    A lot of the Languedoc is so interesting and right up into Andorra it’s beautiful; Cathar country is worth visiting whether you are interested in the mysteries or not.
    Isn’t Lea Tebing one of the names Brown features in his book an anagram of the surname of Michael Baigent the co author( with Henry Lincooln ) of the Holy Blood etc.?

    Not in connection with the Rennes left Chateau mystery I visited Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire a couple of months back and took a look at the stone reproduction of the picture of the shepherds Lincoln had used to extrapolate all the measured angles he used for the measurements in HB + HG. The sculpture is an exact reverse of the painting – a mirror image of the painting. That was cue for yet more conspiracy theories flying about! It’s lovely interesting but probably a complete load of #+’:*®©.

    Remember the court case where Lincoln + Baigent challenged Brown’s “use” of their research? Then it turned out they shared the same publishers and no doubt publicist!

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, help. I read the Pullman trilogy when it came out and had it in my library. It was never challenged, probably because the very conservative Christians in that neighbourhood were Chinese or Korean with a different faith structure. I had moments when I wanted to talk personally to Mr. Pullman but on the whole, and still in ignorance of many things, I felt he could say what he wanted and people could read or reject his work as they chose. It’s been years since I read it and I have only a few mental images, some of them lovely, and I’ll never forget the armoured bears of Svalbard.
    The advantage of fantasy is that you can write about things that would get you banned in Boston (that’s the original form, I think) if you put them in the “real” world, but leave it wide open for readers to interpret. It’s one step beyond parable.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    A mad woman got into the church at Rennes Le Chateau recently, and, with a crowbar, destroyed Saunier’s ‘Demon Guardian’ of the church. Nobody is sure if this wilful destruction was a terrorist crime, or simply a mad iconoclast. Whichever it is, onlookers said that she seemed to be in a mad frenzy. I hope that the (literally) iconic figure can be repaired. Like it or not, he’s part of French history, and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed like that. I hate people who, because they don’t like something, think that it should be destroyed so that nobody else can enjoy it. I’m always pleased when something so destroyed, is repaired, and put back on show with great fanfare, as if to say “Up yours!” to the imbeciles who dislike it. If the demon is repaired, they should put a plaque under it, bearing one Latin word: ‘Maneo’, meaning: ‘I Remain’.

  13. Vivienne says:

    I was really quite cross with Brown using Lea Teabing – what a stupid name anyway – by anagramming Baigent’s name. He may have felt that Baigent’s theory was in the public domain but it was crude to stoop to that sort of thing.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I’m sure everybody here is aware of how highly Mr. Brown’s work is regarded…

  15. Joseph Gurman says:

    The first book of the trilogy was published in the US as The Golden Compass a good decade before the film was released. Don’t know why the title was changed.

  16. Jan says:

    The whole mythos around that church has been hyped up that much that the damage done to that poor old demon could just as easily be the work of a treasure hunter rather than a religious fanatic. (Ummm did they find anything in the demonic rubble?)

    I agree with you Vivienne it was clumsy there’s this puzzles within puzzles aspect of the RLC legend and Dan Brown was trying to copy this with the words at the start of the chapters + the words that r spelt the same front to back and back to front (Can’t remember what they are called. Ian will know) I think he did drop a bit of a clanger with Baigents name.

    Not trying to win any popularity competitions here but I reckon Dan Brown did well; a boys own adventure story type read maybe. Dan Brown got a theory the Catholic church detested and had done its best to sideline out into the general public’s imagination not only in his own country but throughout the world. Loads of people really enjoyed the ” Da Vinci Code” and it opened up their minds to an idea. What’s so wrong about that? There’s no intellectual pretensions – unless I am too thick to spot them. Which is entirely possible! It’s a good story as I said yesterday you don’t have to be a great writer to tell a good story. Or perhaps you do and I just don’t understand it properly.

    I can remember being asked for directions to the Templars church whilst mooching about the Inns of Court. Two young Italian girls very glamorous, very well dressed wanted to go up there. I directed them up in the right direction thinking To myself why on earth do you two want to go up there for goodness sake( the place didn’t get many visitors at that point) but of course they had read Mr. Brown’s book.

    Fair play to the bloke.

    And let’s be honest he did make a few Bob. Or is that really part of the problem people have with him?

  17. Brian says:

    Jan, I believe the word you are looking for is palindrome.

  18. Jan says:

    That’s the one! Pantomime kept skitterring through my head this morning when I thought of that back to front word.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    I always thought it was a missed opportunity that whoever thought of the word that describes a word that can be read both ways didn’t invent a palindrome to do so.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    The ending of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ seems really rushed to me, almost as if Mr. Brown was in his room, writing like fury, when a mate of his tapped on the window, and shouted: “Come on Dan! We’re having a kick-about! Join us!”…

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