The Good News About The Golden Compass

By now the news is plain: this season's would-be fantasy blockbuster, The Golden Compass, is performing below financial and critical expectations. Even just among the subset of reviewers worth taking seriously, the film's mixed reception ranges from Roger Ebert's considered four-star praise to Walter Chaw's zero-stars cri de coeur against the film's "full-on attack on good taste and coherent filmmaking."

Then we have the film's de facto built-in fan base, the millions who love Philip Pullman's three source novels -- published under the umbrella title His Dark Materials -- and who express equally mixed feelings about the compression and other alterations that are inevitable in any Hollywoodized, 114-minute, big-screen translation of a 400-or-so-page novel. The Atlantic's recent article on this long-troubled film translation is a must-read, followed by the December 2 article by Pullman himself in the London Times. The forum and chat room at the books' most impressive fan site, Bridgetothestars.net, are good places to put your finger on the pulse of the audience most emotionally invested in the material's adaptation to another medium.

And of course there's all the argle-bargle over the film's supposed antireligious subversiveness, with calls for boycotts and spam emails coming from the usual corners. That trumped-up controversy probably hasn't impacted this "secularized and sanitized" film's performance nearly so much as the deflated hype about it being "the next Lord of the Rings." New Line Cinema's "let's please everyone" approach to the material means, as such moves always do, that the end result pleases only too few. Richard Corliss said it well in Time magazine: "It's as if The Golden Compass has misplaced its artistic compass. Somebody stole its daemon."

But hey, people are talking about it, so that's a good thing. It's better to be controversial than ignored, and more purposeful to be passionate than indifferent. So both "sides" of the issue can take credit for boosting sales of the books that the movie and its presumptive sequels are based on. Random House has reported that the new attention generated by the film translates into gangbuster business for the novel. "More than ten years after its original publication, The Golden Compass has hit USA Today's Top 50 Best Sellers list, having seen a 500 percent increase in sales over the last three months," says a press release.

The omnibus edition of Pullman's complete His Dark Materials trilogy currently holds a Top 10 position at Amazon.com and has also moved onto USA Today's Top 50 list. In the U.S. alone, the Golden Compass has sold over 3.5 million copies to date, and the trilogy has sold over 7 million.

Earlier this year in Britain, its land of origin, The Golden Compass -- there titled Northern Lights -- was voted the best children's book of the past 70 years by the public. That's sure to work hand-in-glove with any controversy sparked by the film, guaranteeing a similar uptick in book sales and the number of festively wrapped editions placed under Christmas trees.

While The Golden Compass, the movie, trapezes over chapters and plot points, and reduces the book's characters, story and themes well beyond even a Hollywood blockbuster's own good, readers can still point to the books in their laps and on the store shelves and know that they're still the same books they've always been. There's no such thing as a movie "ruining" a book it's based on. The book goes on, not trapezed-over or reduced one jot. And if it's true that there's no such thing as bad publicity, then viva la controversy!

So fans of Pullman's children's fantasy series -- and anyone who likes the notion of kids reading, period -- have something to be thankful for this season, no matter how they feel about the movie itself. The already popular books are selling more copies than before, exposing new readers, young and not-so, to a world and characters that are rich, thoughtful and (gasp!) thought-provoking.

Besides, every time a call goes out to suppress any film or book on religious grounds, or to prevent even a young person's free-inquiry exposure to it, Philip Pullman automatically wins his books' central argument -- that it's always wrong for zealotry and intolerance to squash democratic values of openness and free expression, and "other values such as humaneness, kindness, intellectual curiosity and a sense of the wonder and the beauty of the physical universe." So as long as the current "controversy" over The Golden Compass continues, the game goes to Pullman without his even trying.