I am always excited about film adaptations of books. The same is also true of books that movies have been based on. Even if I didn’t particularly like the movie, if I discover there is a book behind it, I will get my hands on that book. I can’t exactly say why this is. I suppose I love comparing a story-telling across two mediums. Most of the time I am disappointed of course, but that is a universal cliché. I still always get something out of it, see something there I hadn’t considered before: the director’s vision sometimes so far from my own it enters my consciousness as an entirely new aesthetic, if not an entirely new story, so that I can appreciate it for its own sake. And I believe that is fairly peculiar of me.
The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights is what I consider a good example of a film adaptation. I say this particularly because I didn’t really enjoy this book, and that has nothing to do with the current controversy whirling around its religious themes. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was reading it for a class, but I didn’t feel the wonder and heightened emotion that one should feel from a good fantasy work. I didn’t ‘recover’ the ordinary through its fantastic estrangement. The movie effected this. The movie made me realize there were things in that story that had tuned in to my sense of the epic and the fundamental. But it had taken the movie to bring these feelings to flower. I find this quite remarkable, that the movie did what the book could not…definitely a first for me. And I have never cultivated prejudice for one medium, over the other. For me both books and movies nurture imagination in their own particular ways. Yet undoubtedly we have fewer opportunities to find book adaptations of movies than movie adaptations of books. I have found both, and been very surprised by both experiences. If anyone has any doubt of this, take a scene from what you consider a ‘good’ movie, try and write down all the subtle and fine touches in a single expression on a character’s face, make it into a ‘book’. You could write pages, but I don’t think you would get the same effect, not without being a tyrant over your reader’s imagination. And the same is true, curiously, of movies based on books; no actor could precisely capture what you felt for the words that originally evoked those emotions.
Maybe it was the effect of the succinct and the visual, and the medium just more properly suited the fairy-dimension. Then again I shall definitely enjoy the book more when I get it again.
One can read fantasy in the ‘right’ way of course, while still not succumbing to its emotional seduction. By the ‘right way’ I mean that we can ask ourselves the questions that we are supposed to ask, that the fantasy compels us to ask. In the case of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, people have been reducing this complex process to seeing ‘through’ the story to what it is ‘really about’. But this is missing the whole point of the value in fantasy’s extraordinary power to pull us back to the heart of the things we do. Reading (or watching) fantasy is never about what the story is about. It should give narrative form to ideas, the way myth does, but it is in its displacement to a world made strange, a world of magic and fairy-tale beings, it allows us to examine those ideas critically and consciously, without the distractions of the material. So the fantasists tell us.