Way Better Than the Movie: The Golden Compass

the-golden-compassI stayed up late finishing Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I was tired most of today as a result, but Pullman’s book was well-worth the lost sleep. And I’m happy to be staying up late to finish books again. I used to do this quite frequently when I was younger, so it suggests that I’m finding pleasure in reading again (an issue that seems particular to grad students in English literature). I had seen the film adaptation of The Golden Compass and enjoyed it, but hands down the book is far better. By now I should know that the book is always better (as my partner reminds me constantly), but this is especially clear in Pullman’s series. Not only does the book go farther in terms of plot (the movie leaves off the entire last third of the book), but it also gives more depth and characterization to Lyra, the gyptians, Iorek, and the rest of the characters. The version that I read also included some bonus material in the form of Lord Asriel’s journals. They were a nice touch for the 10th anniversary edition (although probably not worth purchasing the book again if you already have it).

The Golden Compass is set in an alternative universe where all humans have a daemon that they share a special attachment to. The daemon (most often the opposite gender of the human) is a life-long companion and depends upon the human for life (and vice versa). This feature is the key of Pullman’s series and this novel’s plot. It adds an interesting twist to the steampunk world that he creates. I particularly like the way that the human/animal relationship is explored throughout (without being too philosophical or over-the-top). In a way, you could say that the daemon is like a human’s soul … although this might be an extrapolation proved correct or false by the later books.

I had heard that Pullman’s series was explicitly anti-Roman Catholic and I can’t say that this really comes out in the first book. Now, I am not a Roman Catholic, so maybe I missed some clues here but Pullman is clearly in the secular humanist camp. His critique of a too-tight and controlling religious authority (which also murders and tortures children in the far north of Lyra’s world) seems to be at a remove from the world we live in. However, the American Union of Catholics did not think so as they warned Catholics against reading any of the books or seeing the film adaptation. Perhaps what complicates the issue is that the book is children’s literature, aimed at young readers so the fear of a book brainwashing a reader might become a possibility. Personally, I think this is ridiculous because it underestimates a child’s ability to think critically and suggests a problematic reading position where all books which criticize the church or religion are banned (weirdly coming back to Pullman’s semi-buried critique of the church’s censhorship in The Golden Compass). I should stress that I have not read the latter two books, so perhaps these critiques come from the content of those books.

This has gotten a long way away from Pullman’s excellent narrative. The Golden Compass is fast-paced, taking readers into a well-drawn fantastical world.

I would recommend The Golden Compass to fans of children’s fantasy.

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. 1995. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.

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