Sunday, April 08, 2007

The celluloid spyglass

I'm finishing Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (which starts with The Golden Compass), and loving it. It's clever and graceful and full of neat ideas, and the emotional drama is better handled for my taste than in other fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books.

In the back of my mind, though, I can never be immersed fully in its drama because it is so clear that whether or not a character dies rests on her utility to the author. There are sudden deaths and reversals, and some of these are shocking, but when a central character goes away from the narrator in the middle of a brutal fight, I can trust that he won't be dead when we next see him. The eye of the narrator, rather than being unnoticed or, in the reverse, played creatively, instead hobbles the story and takes the sting out of bullets.

Of course this problem is not so bad as it is in the dissapointing Lord of the Rings movies. A reader of the books hears horrible tales of cruelty by Sauron, the orcs, and the ringwraiths. In the films, the rape of the shire is skipped entirely and the ringwraiths are innefectual bumblers who can only grab helplessly at Liv Tyler as she goes through the motions of fleeing them. Sauron's eye is creepy, but never seems to do any harm. The only moment of real fear comes when Gandalf is pulled down by the Balrog.

These errors will soon be able to be made again. A film of The Golden Compass is in the works, with, presumably, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass to follow. The Times has a piece by Pullman reflecting on the process, which reveals him to be as thoughtful a writer on writing as he is a plotter of fantasy:
...when I heard that the script was to be written by Tom Stoppard, I was interested to see how he’d go about it... While he was writing it, he asked me many questions about various aspects of the story, questions to which often the only true answer would have been “I don’t know — I just made it up,” or “It felt right,” or “I just thought it needed X at that point.”

It felt as if I were being viva’d for a pass degree by a genial but profoundly clever don who knew my subject better than I ever would. So I stumbled around offering what I thought were intelligent answers, but that were almost certainly not. Actually, I doubt whether authors ever know what their own novels mean. If they do, they’ve probably written them to make them attractive to university teachers of modern literature, or so they could sound interesting when discussing them on Newsnight Review. I don’t think I conveyed a lot to Stoppard, but perhaps he didn’t need my answers so much as he needed to articulate the questions; and the result of it all was a very Stoppardian script that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. However, it wasn’t what the studio wanted, so the process began again. [emph added]
By the way, Nicole Kidman is to play the beautiful and deeply evil Mrs. Coulter (ahem), a part that may as well have been written for her.

Here's an excerpt--I'll explain little of the context so as not to spoil anything--of the thoughts of one protagonists, who has just confronted Mrs. Coulter and believes her to be his greatest enemy:
... why did he hesitate?

Balthamos knew. In his own angel shape, shimmering like a heat haze in the sunlight, he said, "You were foolish to go to her. All you want to do now is see the woman again."
And Will scowled, but it was true. He had been captivated by Mrs. Coulter. All his thoughts referred to her: when he thought of Lyra, it was to wonder how like her mother she'd be when she grew up; if he thought of the Church, it was to wonder how many of the priests and cardinals were under her spell; if he thought of his own dead father, it was to wonder whether he would have detested her or admired her; and if he thought of his own mother...
Let me be the first to say Kidman is not up to the role. Mrs. Coulter is nearly insane, and can deeply cover her cruelty with radiant warmth to a level that requires a level of separation of intention and expression straight out of the DSM-IV's section on psychosis. Kidman is known as being capable of radiance, but the weakest part of her acting in To Die For was that she never stopped vamping and winking, even as her character was playing the seductress. The power of the Mrs. Coulter character is that she is not having fun when she turns her charm on and off at will, pouring it on with all her heart when she needs to manipulate others. At these times, she is fully immersed in her lie. Nothing is held back. To play her right, an actress (and director) need to trust the audience to remember the complexities of the character without needing the Anthony Hopkins-John Malkovitch tropes of tics and crazy-talk that reassure the audience that the character is mad. The problem is that this subconcious communication to the audience is there on screen for the other characters to see; they too should pick up on it, though in Hollywood they seldom do.
Blogger Jeff'y on Mon Apr 09, 09:26:00 AM:
I really enjoyed His Dark Materials up until book three (The Amber Spyglass). I thought that Pullman did an admirable job of balancing his "message" with traditional fantasy elements throughout the first two, but too much of Spyglass was spent on digressions from the main story line with rather forced imagery and questionable character motivations. I can definitely believe the quotes from Pullman about making things up for the sake of advancing his plot.

Still, it's a fun trilogy and I'm looking forward to the movie. I'll speak up in minor defense of Kidman in To Die For: from what I remember, the over-the-top elements of her performance were keeping with the overall tone of the movie. I think she can handle Mrs. Coulter, who comes out of book three as being an overall muddled character. There's some leeway in how she can be played throughout the series.