Sunday, November 25, 2007

No, I'm not referring to the Eagles' almost-heroic loss to the Patriots tonight, though it was one of the most surprising (I thought the 24-point spread was about right and that the Eagles would roll over, as they generally have on "Sunday Night Football"; I couldn't have been more wrong on either count) and ironic (think similarities to Super Bowl XXXIX, with turnovers, dumb blitzes and questionable clock management wiping out superb effort and occasionally brilliant execution) football games I've ever seen.

I'm referring to the upcoming film adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first novel in a superb trilogy by British author Phillip Pullman that takes the fantasy forms of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia and attaches them to a thundering denunciation of faith-based authoritarianism through history. Annie's finishing the trilogy right now, and we are--were--greatly looking forward to the movie's release next month. The look is right, the casting was strong, and you presumably could trust New Line Studios, who made the Lord of the Rings films, to competently handle the production.

What they couldn't be trusted for, however, was to stay true to the moral and philosophical core of Pullman's story. Terrified of controversy and the depradations of professional assholes like the anti-Semite Bill Donohue, New Line gutted the story and, based on this Atlantic Monthly piece, has produced something that will have the body of Pullman's story but not its soul:

The final, shooting script includes no mention of sin or the end of death. As Emmerich told me, Dust is “akin to the Force” in Star Wars. Coulter tells Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi: “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it,” he says. “They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

It may make sense if you’re in a dark room dazzled by special effects and not thinking too hard. Then again, maybe it won’t. What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all: “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions.

This is Hollywood at its most hazily indignant and self-congratulatory, recycling the generic theme of Victory, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poets Society, and countless other films—a band of grubby, half-crazed heroes takes on the System and wins.

As the piece details, The Golden Compass had a long and difficult gestation period, with multiple writers and directors coming and going. Chris Weitz, who wound up writing the script and directing, comes across as a well-intentioned douchebag who let his best instincts get rolled by Hollywood types desperate to avoid "controversy." Weitz claims to love the books; it's hard to grasp how anyone who truly gets what Pullman was going on about would allow the story to be stripped of the themes that elevate it from "good yarn" to "becomes a permanent part of who you are."

Call it--like the Eagles tonight--a tremendous opportunity squandered.

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