With The Book of Dust announced (fairly) recently for release in October, I was reminded of the trilogy I never finished, and was driven back to its pages to rediscover what I missed the last time. Northern Lights was read to me when I was younger – why it was only book one and not the rest of His Dark Materials, I do not know – but I decided it was high time that I revisited the tale, and go the whole hog this time. Now you may have seen the film adaptation The Golden Compass, but whatever your opinions of that, stick with me here, because the book has plenty more to offer.
Before starting Northern Lights, I remembered most of the main beats of the story from being familiar with the film version. As a 10-year-old, I had no quarrel with The Golden Compass. Now though, revisiting Pullman’s world as it was originally intended, it’s much easier to see the glaring holes left by the filmmakers.
Firstly I’m going to come to structure. The most obvious change from book to film is that the setting for the second and third acts have been switched. As Philip Pullman writes, Lyra visits Bolvangar before Svalbard, but in the film we hit the land of the ice-bears first. It seems a curious decision to reverse those two sections of the story, and I think it was likely this decision (and the reasoning behind it) that led to a shaky box office reception, and the distinct lack of any sequels. What they did wrong was this: the filmmakers tried to create an ending to serve the purposes of Hollywood over and above the story they were telling.
**SPOILER FREE POST**
The books ends in high drama, with a devastating turn of events. It seems to me that the filmmakers cut out the final three chapters of the book to help create an ending that would satisfy filmgoers, i.e. a happy ending. But in these chapters is the main culmination of the action, where the story has been heading this whole time, and they need to replace it with something. So some bright spark in the writers’ room pipes up that if they change the order of events, they can use the escape from Bolvangar as their big finish. Brilliant! Fantastic! Bravo!
But there’s one problem. Nothing is solved.
In these final chapters of Northern Lights we discover what it is that Lyra was delivering to Lord Asriel – something she has only been half-certain of since the beginning. We also learn far more about Dust in these closing chapters than we have all the way through the story, and how Dust connects the horrors of Bolvangar with Asriel’s expedition, and those pictures he showed to the scholars back in Oxford. We even learn something of the nature of Dust from Pantalaimon’s astute observation of how Asriel and Mrs Coulter react to one another, thus opening the gateway (pun intended) to the next part of Lyra’s journey.
In The Golden Compass, none of this is given to us, and Lyra is in no better position at the end of the film than she was when she left Jordan College: she has something to deliver to Lord Asriel, and no explanation of why. Not to mention that the audience are left in the cold about Dust. This mysterious thing that seems to connect everything but we know nothing of its true nature.
They tried to give us a film that would satisfy as a stand-alone, but also leave the way open for sequels should it perform well. Unfortunately this is an all-too-familiar ploy in modern Hollywood… remember Eragon, the one about the dragon? I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t. There’s too much concern for lining people’s pockets to do the material justice and make a real success.
But The Golden Compass film also shies away from some of the meaty stuff in Northern Lights, some of the intellectual stuff. The big one, the one that’s really missing, is Pullman’s commentary on religion and the Church. Our big overriding mystery, Dust, is intrinsically linked to the Church: its discovery, its meaning, and investigations into it. Though it seems as though some of this passes over young Lyra’s head, it’s clearly there for the reader to see. But I’m not going to sit at my keyboard and dictate to you what that commentary says to us, because that’s one of the greatest things about Pullman’s commentary: it’s not spelled out for the reader, and it gives you the freedom, to some extent, to read it in your own way. This also rings true for the philosophical points about worlds beyond our own, and how complementary sides to a person make up their identity, and he touches on sexuality in here too. It’s subtle and poetic, and often left incomplete, as mysteries of the complex world his story inhabits.
Bigger picture aside, boiled right down to the basics, Northern Lights works far better as a story because of its structure, and because of Lyra. In the book she is a far more engaging protagonist to follow: more likeable, less fickle, and more real. Her accent is jarring in the film adaptation (and Roger’s is even worse!) and the high emotion material just doesn’t come across as well.
I devoured Northern Lights in just a few days, and I’m itching to move on the second book of the trilogy. Looking back on The Golden Compass again now, after returning to the novels, it’s all the more disappointing because the gap in the standard is so wide.