19 December 2007

His Dark Materials

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
- Oscar Wilde

Philip Pullman once remarked that he was surprised that the Christian right had taken so little notice of his trilogy. That seems to have changed with the release of the cinematic version of the first volume, and recently I've been reading various reviews and interviews that I've found around the internet. And a better illustration of Wilde's dictum I can't imagine.

Pretty much the only thing that's certain is that Pullman regards himself as an atheist, and considers his novel as an attack on organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Anything more than that is unclear. While some avowed Christians believe that Pullman is teaching children to kill God, and that His Dark Materials is evil, others—most notably the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, Dr Rowan Williams—think that the novel(s) should be read by everyone. I've even heard it called 'a Christian classic', with some believing that, while Pullman thinks he is attacking Christianity, he is inadvertently upholding its principles. Many materialists and atheists have embraced the work as being 'anti-Narnia'; yet others—myself included—have been mildly confused as to why everyone thinks the novel is so materialist: it rather seems dualist, since everyone in Lyra's world has a dæmon, effectively an embodiment of the soul. Pullman's response: you don't have to be an emergent materialist to be a materialist.

Maybe you do, maybe you don't. But while some have called for a boycott of the film, others have criticised it for pulling too many punches—for not bashing God enough (for example, the tyrannical Magisterium is never referred to as 'the Church', as it is in the novel).

There are altogether too many critics, too many bandwagons, too many agendas: blissful ignorance is not an option, then, for anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Less antagonistically, I mean to say that the books are causing such controversy that you owe it to yourself to ignore everything you've heard, read them, and find out what the fuss is about. Just remember that, as Wilde said, art mirrors the spectator, not reality.

05 December 2007

The Golden Compass

Just got out of watching this for the second time today (honest!) and I have to say that I have mixed feelings. I did enjoy it more on the second viewing—as I suspected I might—because I wasn't looking for holes. Just like everyone else is doing, to make my point I'll compare it to The Lord of the Rings.

There's a scene in the theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring where you see a shot of Boromir in a boat looking peeved; and later, as he's dying, he seems overly enthusiastic when Aragorn say that he will save 'our' people. The meaning of the two scenes really only becomes clear in the special edition; just before the scene in the boat, Aragorn and Boromir argue, and Aragorn insists that he will never take the Ring near 'your' city. Everything falls into place with the addition of this scene. Boromir is tense because of the argument, and because he believes that Aragorn's refusal to accept his lineage will lead them all to doom; similarly, when Aragorn says 'our' rather than 'your', Boromir understands that Aragorn has finally accepted his fate: and that gives him hope in his last moments. There's an entire level of narrative and interaction between these two characters which is absent in the theatrical version, and which is essential to proper appreciation of the film.

The Golden Compass is full of these moments, or rather, full of telling omissions. It's not that it contradicts the details of Philip Pullman's excellent novel, so much as it leaves out details which lend sense to the rest of the film. Everything on the screen — aside, perhaps, from the readings of the compass itself — is great: the acting is excellent, the music is good, the digital effects superb; but somehow the whole amounts to less than the sum of its parts. It suggests the story, rather that embodying it.

If ever there was a film which truly needed an extended director's cut, this is it. It should be, and still could be, a magnificent film; but we'll have to wait and see.

(I'm looking forward to the start of the next instalment — assuming it gets made — since it should open with Roger being killed by Asriel. Maybe too bleak a way to end a film, but an awesome way to begin one. Bwah ha ha.)