Thursday, January 24, 2008

What I'm reading: The Golden Compass

Usually I try and avoid the hype around the "now-a-major-motion-picture" kinds of fiction. The last time I succumbed was waaaay back in the Eighties when I chased down the original material desecrated by the Sean Penn/Madonna excresence "Shanghai Surprise" and found the cleverly entertaining "Faraday's Flowers" by Tony Kenrick.This year's model appears to be "The Golden Compass", adapted from the first of Phil Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. I honestly don't have much of an interest in seeing the film until it emerges on DVD. While I don't mind seeing movies of books I enjoy - I'm no book-to-movie purist - I just can't see how you fit all the density of TGC the book into a flick and keep it under three hours. There's just too much there. I understand that the movie-insider world is full of talk about an "extended cut" DVD, which makes perfect sense to me.

Funny - after getting a couple of chapters into TGC it dawned on me that I had read this as a younger man, probably some time in the Nineties when it was first released. It was as rich and complex as I remembered, with an enjoyably flawed heroine, Lyra "Silvertongue" Belaqua, whose adopted surname is a self-tribute to her most polished trait - her ability to instantly invent a lie that will fly. All the other elements were as I remembered them...the gyptians, panserbjornen, witches, daemons...and the subject of this post, the Bad Guys, the "Authority" - the "Church" of the Dark Materials world.

So the public face of the film, and to a lesser and earlier extent the book, has been clouded by some sort of odd religious fooforaw from the Catholic League, supposedly because of the anti-clerical and atheistic content of the film, drawn from the text it is based on.

What's fascinating to me about this is what it tells me about how we (Americans, Westerners, Euro-Americans) as a culture tend to be so easily fixated on the simple comic-book versions of things. I have no idea what the movie says about religion or churches, but I understand that the antireligious content is considerably suppressed relative to the book. And in the book, which is one of the most entertaining things about the book, the question of "Who is The Authority, what is it doing and why" is complex and deeply woven into the story. There are no cackling, drooling heirophants or burly inquisitors bursting with dark energy. What does emerge from Lyra's adventures is that there is an entity deeply committed to its agenda, that is, its beliefs, and that to protect and advance those beliefs this organization is prepared to make great...efforts. To the point, as I'm reading now, of committing crimes; physical violations of people the organization sees as dangerous, as threats to its' beliefs and the power those beliefs provide.

And...I would ask; what is so shocking, so heinous, about asserting that? From the Albigensian Crusade to the silence of the Vatican about the Nazi genocide, when hasn't power and temporal gain warred - and often won - over righteousness in the history of the Christian Church? And don't think I'm letting Islam off the hook. Monotheistic religions in particular tend to spend a LOT of time chasing down and smashing heretics, apostates and nonbelievers in general. This "controversy" seems to me to have more to do with the incapacity of our ever-less-literate society to comprehend that there is usally more to any conflict than "good-guys-bad-guys". I'd use the term "fatheaded" if I didn't think it an insult to Dora the Explorer's immense, football-shaped head.

But, regardless of the faith of the reader, the writer in this case has produced something worth reading. Give TGC a try - I think you'll be pleasantly diverted spending some time in the world of the dark materials.


walternatives said...

"There are no cackling, drooling heirophants or burly inquisitors bursting with dark energy..." Gawd, I love the way you write, Chief.

I'm not one for sci-fi and fantasy; truly, it's a genre I avoid. But I'll reserve this from the library for the Goob. Thanks for the recommendation.

atomic mama said...

Same goes for me as for Walternatives - not generally a genre I read, but I am intrigued by anything that's gotten people's feathers in a ruffle, and the whole science/religion dichotomy... that, and it can never be bad to spend some time in the world of the dark materials. Thanks, Chief.