For a long time I was resistant to the idea of making a point of reading novels that were being made into films. If a noted filmmaker’s reading list intersects your own, then fine — but I’m generally more interested in the film qua film than I am in its relationship with the source material, unless said source material is uncommonly fine. I found complaints about changes made by Peter Jackson to the Tolkien mythology to be tediously petty, especially since the films turned out so well (and also because the books bored my pants off as a youngster), and although I suppose I’m grateful when a talented critic nutshells the vagaries of a particular book-to-film adaptation, I seldom feel the need to do the kind of homework required to elucidate that process myself. At the end of the screening, after all, the film needs to stand on its own.
I started thinking more about this subject over the past few years, as the Harry Potter movies made their way into multiplexes one by one. I had no real interest in either of the initial Chris Columbus outings, but would have gobbled them up fairly eagerly in anticipation of Alfonso Cuaron’s Part Three — if only my wife would agree to watch any of the movies at all. But I’d describe her curiosity level as less than zero. She was enjoying the books, and had no intention of soiling her own experience of them by replacing the images inside her head with the potentially more vulgar imaginings of mainstream Hollywood.
Of course, it’s easy for casual viewers to pick and choose their movies, saving certain adaptations for later and avoiding others entirely. But if you start feeling a need to keep up with the zeitgeist — this sense of obligation is familiar to dedicated cinephiles as well as working critics — you have to make a decision. If you plan to see a new movie theatrically, you have a limited amount of time in which to make the acquaintance of any related source material. Once it opens, you have to either bite the bullet and buy a ticket, or relegate that particular film to wait-for-the-DVD purgatory.
This year, for whatever reason, I decided to be more proactive. Word out of Cannes pegged No Country for Old Men as a possible masterpiece. And because I haven’t ready any Cormac McCarthy, I immediately plowed through both that book and his subsequent The Road. I carefully avoided reading a plot synopsis or viewing a trailer until after I had finished. A good thing, too — the book is very good indeed, and I suspect my experience of it was heightened since the movie in my head wasn’t influenced by any real knowledge about the filmed version. When I went online to watch the trailer, my suspicions were confirmed. It doesn’t matter how scary Javier Bardem is in the role — the Anton Chigurh who lived in my head was even more mysterious, exotic, and implacable.
That positive experience reminded me of another book buried somewhere on my comically long to-read list: The Golden Compass (published outside the U.S. as Northern Lights — a better title, I think). I’m not big on “Young Adult” books — even when I was a kid I gravitated toward the public library’s adult wing, and its science-fiction section, where I pored over volumes by Harlan Ellison and Edward Bryant — but the announcement of New Line Cinema’s movie version of this, the first book in what’s known (after Milton) as the His Dark Materials trilogy, raised a hue and cry that piqued my interest because it seemed less superficial somehow than the ruckus raised whenever anyone’s favorite book gets developed as multiplex fodder. First, there was the question of New Line’s choice for director: Chris Weitz, of American Pie and About a Boy fame. Concerns were raised about the qualifications of a director of straightforward comedies to make a sweeping, complicated, and occasionally quite dark fantasy epic. Second there was the interview by Bridgetothestars.net in which Weitz revealed that New Line had, essentially, told him to remove all references to “the Church” from the screenplay. The problem, you see, is that Pullman’s book takes place in a sort of parallel universe where the Reformation never happened and the Church exerts enormous power and authority. According to Weitz, the studio feared a perception of “antireligiosity” and therefore asked that he bowdlerize (my word, not his) the material — a request that Weitz seemed happy enough to comply with, noting that the book is generally anti-authoritarian, not necessarily anti-religion.
Well, OK. Having finished the book a few hours ago, I can follow that argument to a certain point. I didn’t find anything in The Golden Compass — a fantasy novel, after all — that should, on the face of it, challenge anyone’s belief in God. But the book pretty clearly has its claws out for organized religion. Pullman is wary of the political influence enjoyed by religious entities, and has very dark dreams indeed about what might happen if their power to misdirect and deceive grew unchecked. I’d go so far as to say he seems to see theologians as bullshit artists, spinning wild yarns to gain the acquiescence of laypeople while mounting cruel attacks on the spirit itself. Many strange things are happening in Philip Pullman’s world, with different factions within the Church struggling to dominate humankind’s response to them, but by the end of The Golden Compass, the only characters who seem to have any plausible grasp on reality — or much claim to the moral high ground — are the child Lyra and her shape-shifting daemon, Pantalaimon (as well as the myriad humans, animals, and witches who have sworn to protect her).
Let’s return to Weitz’s assertion above. Is The Golden Compass “anti-religion” if it only casts aspersions on the kind of worship that’s specified and delineated by churches, rather than on a single man or woman’s own belief in a higher power? Given that the popular conception of God is driven in large part by Church doctrines, can there be a meaningful difference? Even if The Golden Compass is generically “anti-authoritarian,” it derives a great portion of its skeptical power from selecting the authority of the Church as its example. And, again, judging on the evidence within these pages, Pullman himself has a rather dim view of the Church’s soul-saving ways. “Young adult” readers thinking hard about these issues could easily find this book to be just the catalyst for a break with Sunday School doctrine.
Anyway, The Golden Compass is a marvelous book, one of the best I’ve read lately. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, etc. (Well, you’ll probably not do either of those if you’re reading it, as I was, on a crowded commuter train.) It’s a lyrical fable about what a strange thing it is to grow up, but it’s also a warning against trusting the sugared words of the rich and/or powerful. (I keep thinking for some reason about the American philosopher Bruce Springsteen, who said, “Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.”) And the Church, which operates from a presumption of righteousness and divine intervention, makes an excellent literary surrogate for authority.
I don’t have any problem with Chris Weitz’s pedigree as a director — I honestly think both American Pie (see my review) and About a Boy are pretty good movies, so if he’s driven enough to tackle Pullman’s trilogy, I don’t see any reason he shouldn’t be allowed to do it. (It’s no riskier, surely, than hiring someone like Oliver Hirschbiegel to direct an Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake.) There is the potential — if Weitz can retain control of the story’s human dimension while steering the project through what must be incredibly elaborate and expensive special-effects work — for it to be a marvelous film. But if Weitz and New Line really have turned Pullman’s Church into a more generically malevolent organization, they’ll have not only plucked the teeth out of the story’s social critique, but also robbed Pullman’s alternate history of its specifics. No doubt that decision would eliminate a potential economic barrier for the film. (It’s well-known that the forces behind The Chronicles of Narnia courted religious organizations to help exploit noted Christian C.S. Lewis’s cachet in that community, and New Line must fear that, if The Golden Compass were branded with the “Narnia for atheists” tag that shows up in some discussions of the book, that kind of marketing magic would quickly become a curse.) But it would be a damned shame — if Weitz actually delivers, it could mean the difference between an agreeably elaborate fantasy movie for kids and a mind-altering cautionary classic for the ages. And whatever else he does, I’ll remain forever happy that his film version induced me to pull the book off the shelf and finally dive into it.
But, yow, what an ending. And now, of course, I have two more books to finish.