Reading this article about the twists and turns in the journey of The Golden Compass from page to screen, and the obvious enjoyment Philip Pullman is taking in the trouble the whole thing has stirred up, I can’t help thinking of an anecdote about James M. Cain. An interviewer asked him if he was troubled by the way Hollywood had ruined his books, Cain — the author of such much-filmed novels as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and Serenade — nodded toward his shelf and said, “They’re not ruined. They’re all right there.”
Pullman, who is far from being a dummy, knows perfectly well that New Line Cinema bought the film rights to The Golden Compass because it wanted to make a big-budget fantasy film about a spunky girl and her talking polar bear. The fact that she plays a role in a densely textured epic that demands a great deal of alertness from the reader while building into a literal assault on religious doctrine is simply an impediment to the higher goal of selling toy alethiometers and cuddly Iorek Byrnison dolls.
But Pullman, too, has his own agenda, so he’s willing to be guarded in talking about the film version of The Golden Compass:
In the past, Pullman has defended the “good faith of the film-makers” and denied any “betrayal.” On the surface, his relationship with the studio has remained “cordial,” as he put it. The director, Chris Weitz, has made several pilgrimages to Oxford, and the two men exchange e-mails. Pullman got to review a video of the final 50 candidates for the part of Lyra, and he has made script suggestions. Still, the studio publicist seemed nervous when she heard I was going to visit him. All things being equal, Pullman told me, New Line would prefer he were, well, the late author of The Golden Compass. Dead? “Yes! Absolutely!” If something happened to him, there “would be expressions of the most heartfelt regrets, yet privately they would be saying, ‘Thank God.’”When we met, Pullman had just been to a screening of the film, and he praised many specific scenes. He was thrilled with Dakota Blue Richards, the previously unknown English schoolgirl who plays Lyra. And with Nicole Kidman, whom he described as having the “exact quality of warm and cold, seductive and terrifying” to portray the tender and evil Marisa Coulter. In discussing the film, he chose his words carefully, acknowledging that his role now is to be “sensible” so that the next two films get made. Nonetheless, he was honest about what was missing: “They do know where to put the theology,” he said, “and that’s off the film.”
Long silence. Then, “I think if everything that is made explicit in the book or everything that is implied clearly in the book or everything that can be understood by a close reading of the book were present in the film, they’d have the biggest hit they’ve ever had in their lives. If they allowed the religious meaning of the book to be fully explicit, it would be a huge hit. Suddenly, they’d have letters of appreciation from people who felt this but never dared say it. They would be the heroes of liberal thought, of freedom of thought . . . And it would be the greatest pity if that didn’t happen.
“I didn’t put that very well. What I mean is that I want this film to succeed in every possible way. And what I don’t want to do, you see, is talk the other two films out of existence. So I’ll stop there.”
I took Dances With Mermaids to see The Golden Compass yesterday, and I have to say it isn’t a film that improves in the memory. I watched it in an indulgent mood: much as I admire Pullman’s novel, I can recognize that there’s so much detail in play that at the very least an extended mini-series would be required to get everything in. For the most part, I let it wash over me as spectacle, taking note of the writer-director’s very heavy stylistic debt to Peter Jackson. But the ending was a dealbreaker.
Since New Line has made its sponsorship of The Lord of the Rings one of the big selling points for this film, let me take it a few steps further and compare where we are left by The Golden Compass to our situation at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Like Peter Jackson, Chris Weitz did not come to this project with a resume that inspired confidence: American Pie and the critical fave About a Boy are about par with Jackson’s splatter movies and the art-house hit Heavenly Creatures. But by the end of Fellowship, we had seen Jackson consistently address challenges head-on while bringing greater emotional depth to the story. Weitz is evasive where Jackson was direct; if Fellowship had ended with the glimpse of the Argonath, leaving the next film to deal with the Uruk-hai and Boromir’s betrayal and redemption, the letdown would have been about the same as the one left us by The Golden Compass.
Pullman’s ending is not just wonderfully cinematic in its own right, it also upends everything we’ve come to believe about two major characters, raises the stakes for the rest of the story and delivers a wrenching emotional twist to Lyra’s heroism. It also completes the first stage of Lyra’s emotional development, and our appreciation of the immense difficultird she faces. Ending the film with Lyra and company snuggled in the back of a dirigible, heading off to rescue Lord Asriel as the aurora plays over the northern wastes, is simply a cheat. Pullman’s ending puled the rug out from under the reader; Weitz’s ending tucks the viewer in for a night’s sleep. Will the next film open with the terrible deed that closed the novel? Or will Weitz simply skip past it and get to the cool stuff with the Spectres? And will anybody care either way?
Reading Pullman’s interviews, I can’t help but think he’s taking the James M. Cain attitude: the books are always going to be there on the shelf, laden with awards and still pulling in money. If Chris Weitz and New Line keep pussyfooting around and fall on their faces, no big deal. Philip Pullman has nothing more to prove with this particular story. Weitz has even more to prove now than he did when he began the film, and frankly, at this point I couldn’t care less about whether he will rise to the challenge.