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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Pullman’

Strong Spoilers. Please note that this discussion will probably only make sense if you are familiar with all the Harry Potter books and films. WARNING: DO NOT READ, if you don’t want to know what happens in the film before seeing it.

My rating: ****
Imdb link

With this action packed and very watchable film, the last of the 1990s blockbuster fantasy franchises draws to a close. Fantasy science fiction viewers are now faced with a bleak landscape of dreary comic book super hero adaptations stretching ahead in seemingly endless vistas. 3D trailers for The Green Lantern and Captain America ran at the sold out 3D Imax session I attended, and although clearly big on spectacular special effects, the clichéd characters, plots and politics induced an overwhelming sense, in this viewer at least, of yawning apathy. Other attempts to create big fantasy franchises in the wake of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have all failed. C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia is simply too dated, too loaded with sectarian overtones and elitist assumptions about social class and race to really bring into a modern sensibility and the attempt to make Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy into something, fizzled out after a very ordinary first film, The Golden Compass, and the impossibility of rendering the equally sectarian (but in a deliberately opposed sense to Lewis) subsequent novels palatable to a mainstream audience.

I hasten to add that I have never had more than a lukewarm interest in the Harry Potter films either, regarding them simply as no more than the poor and rather tedious cousins of the books. But this last, all stops pulled out, instalment is a cut above the rest and indeed is actually better in some ways than the book. But this last entry aside, I think in general the books would be better suited to the medium of television, rather than film. A lengthy, and no doubt unfeasibly expensive BBC series might do them better justice.

Of course, the books have their problems too, as has been pointed out at great length by critics, particularly in terms of their very conventional views on social hierarchy and gender and the problematic division between an elite of magical people and a plebeian race of non-magical people (muggles). But for all that, they are compelling and highly readable stories and Rowling creates extraordinarily vivid detail in describing the minutiae of her created world. She also plays with language creation in interesting ways – combining Latin, French and English in some of her neologisms (for example, the pensieve). They are also probably one of the most widely shared cultural texts amongst the under 30s. This is certainly the case with regards to my own (Australian) teacher trainee university students and thus the novels can be used as a literary point of reference in teaching contexts. Very few of these students have not read the books, or at the very least seen the films, and they are widely and enthusiastically loved. That other fantasy franchise with which Harry Potter has often been compared in terms of its popularity, Twilight, is on the other hand almost universally reviled and ridiculed by the student body.

But to return to the last Harry Potter film, the rather clumsily titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2. The battle scenes owe much to that benchmark film, The Lord of the Rings of course, and the extraordinary and intricate visuals and special effects are given meaning by the journey of the characters and the plot. But what really made the film for me was a relatively short section which forms a story within the story – namely the story of Severus Snape. Professor Snape, master of potions and eternally aspiring Black Arts teacher, has always been my favourite Harry Potter character. I have long had a bit of a weakness for characters who hide their softer side under a harsh exterior. Snape, for all his authoritarian and sartorial social maladjustments, is finally revealed as a romantic idealist in the final book and film. This secret had been hinted at from the start and the final revelation of his true loyalties and motivation (his undying and unrequited love for Harry Potter’s mother) came as no surprise to me, at least, when I read the final book.

But sadly, I found Rowlings’ treatment of Snape’s backstory to be perfunctory and highly unsatisfactory. The final exposure of his story read more as a series of notes than a properly developed final draft of a novel, but no doubt the narrative problems posed by Snape’s backstory within the Harry Potter format were simply too difficult to solve. Indeed, the character probably deserves a separate novel in his own right and from his own point of view. This is where film comes in. Such narrative conundrums are far easier to deal with when you have people – actors – who can invest proceedings with layers of emotion and complexity. It had been my hope that the film would come up with the goods where the book had singularly failed and I am very happy to say I was not disappointed.

In an all too brief capsule, with a fine performance from Alan Rickman and some beautiful nostalgia inducing visuals evoking the lost hopes of childhood, we find the tale of a classic flawed hero: social exclusion, unrequited love, dalliances with the dark side, noble self-sacrifice and final tragic redemption. The story of the tragic hero is one that remains endlessly resonant in literature and from my own point of view, Severus Snape is perhaps Rowling’s most interesting character. Sadly this story within a story draws to a close all too quickly and we are returned to what another reviewer has described as the rather wooden performance of Daniel Radcliffe.

Interestingly, Dumbledore the ostensible hero and mentor figure of the series, emerges as somewhat tarnished in Rowling’s final book and in the final film, Dumbledore’s brother alludes to the former’s less than creditable past and secretiveness and as Snape’s memories reveal, Dumbledore is quite happy to raise Harry as a lamb for the slaughter, knowing that he would eventually have to be killed. It is a pity that the film, probably for reasons of time, was not able to include the story of Dumbledore and his sister. Due to the omission of some of these plot intricacies, one thing (amongst others) I found lacking in credibility in the film was Harry’s continuing ready trust and admiration for Dumbledore, even after viewing Snape’s memories in the pensieve. Rowling’s narrative intentions here are quite obvious. Those we consider heroes are perhaps less heroic than we think and those we despise as villains might perhaps not be what they seem.

Rowling recently hinted at the possibility that she might consider writing more entries in the Harry Potter saga, but as many hope, she will not be tempted to tamper with the integrity of the existing series. (Although I have to admit I find the idea of Harry and the team at wizarding university an entertaining prospect.) Indeed, her final epilogue which sees the trio all implausibly married to their adolescent crushes would actually seem to close down the possibility for future adventures. Unfortunately (except for Harry’s brief tribute to Snape ‘as the bravest man I have known’), this epilogue was also tagged on to the film. One critic accurately describes its inclusion as ‘unintentionally hilarious’, with the actors we have been used to seeing as children and adolescents suddenly appearing as fond parents. It is certainly true that the incongruity of this scene caused quite a bit of laughter in the cinema session I attended.

Rowling has recently launched an interesting (and clearly no expense spared) online transmedia experiment, titled Pottermore centering on the seven novels and promises to include a lot of material (extra scenes and back story) that was not included in the original novels. A kind of updated, and one would hope more entertaining (!), version of Tolkien’s Silmarillion for Harry Potter fans. My own hope here for the transmedia project would be that we might finally see a more satisfactory written treatment of Snape’s story.

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My rating: *
Spoiler Alert

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book 3) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman


My review

This book is well written and the story really hooks you in, but I really disliked the philosophy Pullman is pushing. This philosophy seems to be a kind of Nietzschean materialist version of gnosticism (phew!). His is a universe which allows only of one interpretation, a place where the event is nothing but the intervention of chaos and the void and must be negated so the status quo can be restored in the full glory of its disciplinary order. It is a universe where the human curiosity for knowledge leads to ruin and annihilation (although the author overtly claims the opposite) and where the fluidity of identity must be replaced by the supremacy of the rational and by fixed identity.

Just to break down those abstractions a bit. The ‘event’ is the opening up of windows to other worlds by scientists – Lord Asriel and the scientists in the Cittagazze. This leads to the beginning of the breakdown of the universe and the potential annihilation of consciousness. It is scientific curiosity about what is out there and other worlds that leads to this situation.

Views on identity centre around daemons (souls). Children have daemons which can change shape until they reach puberty. After that, they become fixed which Pullman indicates several times is a good thing and a sign of maturity and wisdom. This identity also appears to maintain the social order. Once a servant always a servant. As Lyra explains in The Amber Spyglass the daemons of servants are usually dogs, indicating that these are people who need to be led and ordered around. One is not a servant due to unjust social circumstances or questionable social hierarchies but because that is what one’s nature is and one must remain as ordained. Entire armies of Tartars have wolf daemons. If one is not happy with one’s daemon – too bad – you are stuck with it. So much for social justice or working on the self as a project.

Lyra, when she hits puberty, loses her intuitive ability to read the alethiometer and must then be formed by the disciplinary institution of the (boarding) school in order to develop rational techniques to read it. It is the Modernist idea that fantasy and intuition are the province of childhood and are properly replaced by adult ‘rationality’. C. Wright Mills provides a classic example of this kind of thinking in his 1959 work The Sociological Imagination.

Dust appears to be conscious matter which works in sync with humans – it is both attracted to humans and generated by humans. It relies on humans to aggregate into a conscious form. Angels are beings who can’t quite pull it off in terms of really existing because they have no real material body. They are half existences (even if they are powerful) and envy the body of humans.

A propos this angelic nature, Will is content to ask entities such as angels whether they are stronger or weaker than humans. When the first angel he meets, Balthamos, replies he is weaker than humans, Will bluntly tells him that he has to do what he orders him to do in that case. This theme of exploiting his position as the strongest emerges again and again. If Will thinks he can exercise power over somebody or something he doesn’t hesitate to do so. The Nietzschean hero indeed.

‘God’ or ‘the Authority’ is an evil being who only wants to dominate and control Man and is frightened of the power of the latter. What we have here is an old-fashioned modernist anthropomorphic view of the universe. Humans (and the equivalents thereof) are the centre and the raison d’être of all conscious being.

On another topic, the idea of a romantic interlude between two twelve year old children resulting in the salvation of the universe both present and future is both tacky and unconvincing. Why should ‘Dust’ (aka conscious matter particles) find such an event to be the stabilising point?

There is no room for multiple interpretations of elements within Pullman’s cosmology, which makes it a very closed and small universe. At the same time it is hard to pin down what is actually going on satisfactorily and it all seems very confused and self-contradictory at the edges. It would appear that both scientific and spiritual forms of experimental knowledge are dangerous to the well-being of the entire universe and that the best we can do is conform to a rigid disciplinary status quo which will preserve our nature and protect us from the danger of annihilation. There is nothing but a gaping void beyond or outside of this status quo. Even when you are dead you are recycled to guarantee the ongoing existence of this ghastly stasis.

In conclusion, one is left with nowhere to go at the end of Pullman’s trilogy but that would appear to be the author’s aim in any case.

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My rating: ***

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, Book 2) The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

My review


I found this book a bit disappointing after the first one. It has taken me a while to analyse why. I think it is a combination of a number of things.

First of all I’m not quite convinced by Pullman’s cosmology. Somehow it isn’t big enough – there is not enough to it to really give me a sense of large spaces and ambiguous complexity. The cosmology works much better in the first book where it is highly organised. It is less convincing as it starts to change and break down in The Subtle Knife. Even though we have three worlds in this book – including our own world the cosmos feels much smaller than in the first.

Secondly, it appears that Lyra after having initially been the heroine is now in fact just there to help the hero. This was something I found really disappointing about the film The Matrix for example. In the film Trinity is set up as a remarkable and admirable figure and then all she becomes is a helper for the central male hero. Lyra becomes a far less interesting and likeable character in this second novel with a strong emphasis on her uncivilised character traits.

The central character Will also reminds me of that other Will in Susan Hill’s The Dark is Rising a traumatised and rather distant character, old beyond his years with the weight of the universe and destiny on his shoulders. I continue not to be a fan on ‘chosen one’ kind of thematics.

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My rating: ****

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials I) Tenth Anniversary 1995-2005 Northern Lights (His Dark Materials I) Tenth Anniversary 1995-2005 by Philip Pullman

My review


I enjoyed this book a great deal. Well-written and well-plotted with interesting characters. It also created a most convincing alternative world.

Of particular interest is the idea that humans have souls which manifest themselves in physical animal form and never leave people’s side. One can also engage in conversations with this ‘soul’. Quite an attractive idea, although my last housesit with a really clingy dog did take a bit of a shine off the notion (!)

Also interesting is the Nietzschean character of Lord Asriel. The philosophical discussions about free will and destiny, the nature of the Fall and original sin are quite readable even if I didn’t necessarily agree with the positions being argued.

I had a few quibbles about the familiar ‘special individual with great destiny who alone can save the world’ trope. I am really not a fan of that idea – but I think it is fairly popular as a way of getting the engine of a plot moving along.

I saw the film adaptation The Golden Compass when it came out and rewatched it again after having read the book. I thought the film was pretty colourless when I originally saw it and watching it again confirmed this perception. It does nothing more than provide a rather dreary plot summary of the book.

I have no idea why so many claims were made that elements which were critical of institutionalised religion in the book were toned down for the film. In my view, the film is far more blatant and one-sided in its demonisation of institutional religion than the book is. Evil popery indeed. The film reduces the ambiguities of the book in this and so many other places to black and white.

The book is never sentimental but sentimental elements are introduced into the film.

Why the film ends somewhere before the end of the book is also somewhat of a mystery, The book presents a well balanced story and to take the end of the story to the next film doesn’t make sense – unless the film makers are just going to skip over the ending as being too difficult.

To tell the truth, the next two books would be an absolute minefield when it comes to mainstream American film. It is difficult to see how they can be transferred to screen without offending just about everybody.

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