All Roads Lead to Pullman: The Golden Compass

Here’s an equal-opportunity steampunk fantasy. I give “The Golden Compass” (GC) a thumbs up, but if you haven’t read the book, this is probably going to seem like yet another big budget FXploitation flic.

Is there a name for the genre of stories that revolve around the youthful savior? This is one of those. Dune is about Paul Atreides. The Matrix is about Neo. These characters inherit (rather than choose) roles in their fictional worlds, and their worlds are simply not going to let them be. No hiding. And self-doubts only add spice to the mix that simmers them toward their fates.

However, the savior in GC is a pre-adolescent girl. Some might cite it as another example of Title IX seeping into popular culture.

There’s an international following for the source material, “His Dark Materials” (HDM) by Philip Pullman. This film is based on the first of three parts, known to true fans (i.e., the Brits) by its original title “Northern Lights.” A friend, another Pullman fan, after seeing it on opening night, made the observation that “It’s a movie, it’s not the book.” When I saw it, I understood what she meant, and that’s when I recalled Dune. I love Frank Herbert’s book, and it didn’t take much for me to decide I loved the movie too (flawed as it was, made by David Lynch but disowned by him when he lost “final cut” authority), but they are entirely different creative artifacts. I think GC the movie is a better movie than Dune the movie. I think I will love it, and I certainly want to see it again.

Still, one can’t avoid comparisons between the book and the movie. Lyra (the central character) in the film is almost a perfect rendition of the book’s character. And they got Scoresby (played by Sam Elliot) absolutely right (with brilliant casting of both the man and his spirit companion). For the most part, they did a great job, but there’s lots of compromises that may make fans of the book smirk.

The comparison with Dune are going to be on my mind… Both are tales of the youthful savior, Paul in Dune, Lyra in HDM. The gyptians of the GC film are more exotic than they were in my book-stoked imagination… just as the fremen of the Dune movie were. They both begin with expository voice-overs (by secondary characters, Princess Irulan in Dune, Serafina Pekkala in GC), intended to put first-time visitors at ease for the stranger elements of the alien worlds about to be entered… an impossible but necessary task.

This is a story about the mysticism of freewill and truth (which do not exist independent of one another, do they?) so the underlying philosophy is closer to “V for Vendetta” than “Dune,” which is about the mysticism of fate and faith that is at the heart of the religious traditions that have Abraham as their common father. So, GC is justly attacked by religious fundamentalists. They are riled up for all the same reasons that rise up when they encounter anything that smacks of freewill and evidence-based truth, whether it’s science or witchcraft — which are two-sides of the same thing to them, i.e., heresy.

Oddly, this New Line production comes into the marketplace as a commercial and philosophical competitor with Disney’s adaptation of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” based on the trilogy by C.S. Lewis. Superficially, these works may seem similar, but underneath there is the cultural warfare of freewill/truth vs. fate/faith. Woe to anyone who tries to find neutral ground in that war, which both sides see as the battle between right and wrong. Read Brecht’s “Galileo” before you build your homestead.

It should go without saying that a child watching these movies will probably not be even remotely aware of the issues I am babbling about… To them these films will be exciting though frightening tales well-told. It’s for the adults to fret about what fears are the proper ones to feed to our next generations, and fret we will, oh yes we will.

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