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Roger Sutton interviews Philip Pullman | December 2007

Roger Sutton: I have to confess I have never met a writer who felt truly happy with any film adaptation of their work. How about it?

Philip Pullman: Well, yes. To be truly happy with it you have to be the director as well as the scriptwriter and the star and the composer and the producer and everything else because the whole nature of the film obviously is collaborative. It’s the work of many, many people and the writer, even of the script, is not at the center of it. The director is at the center of it, and the writer of the original book on which the film is based is a long way away from the center of the action. So inevitably there are things that, as writers, we always think we’d have done that differently, or “I wouldn’t have put the camera here, I’d have put it there.”

RS: And that’s why Lois Lowry told me that she thought she was happier being a writer than a director, which was her original ambition.

PP: Yes. That’s right. When you write a novel you are the director of the film. You can direct the audience’s attention to something as small as you like or as big as you like. You are directing a film really. Am I entirely happy with this film? No, of course, I’m not entirely happy, but I wouldn’t be entirely happy with anything unless I myself had personally done all of those things. On the other hand there is so much more that I am happy with than I am not happy with that I am unusually happy to be in that happy situation.

RS: Was there anything left out in particular that you miss?

PP: There were quite a lot of things left out, because to read the novel aloud takes eleven hours and this film lasts for only two. So inevitably there are things left out. The big meeting with Lyra and the Gyptians, when she is taken slowly across the waterways to the great big meeting hall — I was looking forward to that scene. That had to go for reasons of time. A lot of scenes like that that I enjoyed writing are not in the film, but enough is there for the main structure of the story.

RS: I hadn’t read The Golden Compass since I reviewed it about twelve years ago when it came out. We’ve had so much talk about the religion involved, plus we’ve had two other volumes since the first, and when I reread it the other day I had forgotten how action-packed it is.

PP: Yeah, there’s a lot going on.

RS: There’s a lot going on! It’s a true adventure story. It’s not a sort of a dreamy philosophical discourse on the nature of God. It’s one thing happening after another.
It’s a lot for a movie to handle, even today with all of the special effects available. Are you happy with how the movie captured the action?

PP: Yes, they’ve done that very well indeed. The big technical problem was, of course, always going to be the special effects with the daemons and the armored bears. Well, they’ve conquered all that. The daemons look entirely convincing, and the armored bears look superb. They’ve really done it extremely well. The film moves quickly. I think that was the thing I was most pleased about when I saw it the other day. It moves quickly. There are no slow patches. There are no long passages of exposition or anything like that. I just hope that people who don’t know the book will enjoy the story, which is very present in the film.

RS: It looks to me a lot more technically complicated than even the Tolkien books would be, if you really try to capture all the action in The Golden Compass on the screen. The fights and the flights and the escapes and the battles.

PP: There is a great deal of that. But there’s also a difficulty involving what I suppose you could call narrative tact. Now the reason the daemons work on the page is that I only draw your attention to them when they do something, when they speak or when they act. Otherwise you forget about them, they’re not there, they don’t get in the way. But on the screen of course they’ve got to be there all the time. And that introduces the problem of how much do we show? Do we show everybody’s daemon all the time, or what they are doing when the human beings are doing something?

RS: It turns into Doctor Doolittle.

PP: It could easily get like that. Have every screen filled with animals talking and fiddling about and that would get terribly distracting. I think [director] Chris Weitz has solved the problem pretty well. It was no less expensive to have a daemon that just looked like a little bit of a shadow hiding by the corner of somebody’s chair instead of a full-blown peacock sitting on top of it because somebody still has to put all those little pixels in place. But that was a problem I was aware of from the very beginning, and I nagged the filmmakers until they were aware of it, too. We don’t need to see everybody’s daemon all the time.

RS: So the daemons are all pixilated or whatever the word is.

PP: Yes.

RS: I saw a clip of Lyra’s, and it looked just like a little real cat.

PP: Yep, it does!

RS: Quite a good job there.

PP: Very good job. And they managed to make the bears heavy, too. The big problem with CGI monsters, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which is where we first saw CGI work on this scale, is that they haven’t really looked heavy; they bounced around like big balloons. But they managed to make the armored bears look heavy in this, and I was very glad about that because they should be heavy. They should be massive.

RS: There’s a lot of muscle in them, too. I saw a clip. I think it was Lyra’s first meeting with the bear and he’s very sinewy and strong.

PP: They’ve done a wonderful job, and Ian McKellan does a great job of voicing him, too.

RS: You know that the movie has whipped up some controversy here in the States about religion in the books. Are you having the same reaction in England?

PP: No, because we don’t take religion in quite the same way over here. The United States has a strange and intense relationship with religion that just doesn’t seem to exist in the rest of the world. I’ve never met this kind of reaction in any of the other forty countries in which it’s published. And it seems to me, from looking at what’s been happening, this is largely the work of one organization, The Catholic League.

RS: Which is one person, really.

PP: Which is one person.

RS: Bill Donohue.

PP: Yes, and his attitude seems to be “You must not decide what you read. I will decide what you read. I will tell you what is good for you. I’ll tell you what films not to see.” My attitude is exactly the reverse. Come and see it if you like. Don’t see it if you don’t like it. But don’t dismiss it until you’ve got some knowledge of it.

RS: It’s really not until this movie was announced that would-be censors started taking a closer look at your books. I remember when the fundamentalists started taking on Harry Potter and thinking, oh my God, what if they got a hold of the Pullman books. There’s something for them to chew on.

PP: Exactly, yes.

RS: But why do you think it took the movie to really get things started?

PP: It is a little bit of a puzzle to me, Roger. I mean, the first book came out in ’96, whatever it was, eleven years ago. And yet they haven’t met the amount of concern that Harry Potter did. Maybe Harry Potter just attracted all the flack.

RS: Well, Harry Potter just has so many millions more readers than anything else.

PP: That’s the other thing, of course.

RS: And Harry’s easier.

PP: And they’re easier. So maybe I’ve just been sitting there on the library shelves being quietly read by people and ignored by the troublemakers, the noisy ones. Well, they know I’m there now.

RS: It’s interesting to see my children’s book friends jumping into this debate and saying “No, these books are not anti-religion.” Which I think is just as bull-headed as Donohue’s argument.

PP: Well, it’s an argument that’s easily polarized. Easily oversimplified, too. The line that I’ve been taking really ever since I started talking about these books, ever since I started writing about these books, is simply that religion is not something that I condemn. Religion is something that human beings do. Every society that we have ever known about has had a religious belief of one sort or another, which has been sometimes formulated into a myth, a sort of creation myth, and then later codified into laws and rules of behavior and so on. But religion is something that is a natural human response to the universe, to the place where we find ourselves in this mysterious way.

The problem is when religion gets hold of political power. That’s when the problem starts. Religion is at its best when it is occupied with the poor, with the oppressed, with the suffering, with the sick. That’s when religion does what good work it’s capable of. It looks after people who are ill or who are in trouble. But as soon as religion gets a hold of power, as soon as it acquires the power to send armies to war or to order people to be executed or to reach into our daily lives and tell us how to dress and what to wear and what to think and what to eat and what not to eat. As soon as it acquires those powers, in a political sense, it goes bad very quickly. And curiously enough I find this view echoed by some people on the religious right in America.

I was just looking only today at an article in The Week. This article [originally published in the New YorkTimes] quoted someone called the Rev. Gene Carlson of Wichita. He’s gone sour on politics. He was once deeply involved in conservative politics via the anti-abortion movement. At seventy years old, he’s gone sour on politics because when you mix politics with religion, he says, you get politics. Quite right. He leans left on social welfare issues and considers it his Christian duty to protect the environment to stop global warming. “The religious right peaked a long time ago . . . It has seen its heyday. Something new is coming,” he’s quoted as saying. There is a feeling that maybe these people have had their time, and it might be time for another point of view now.

RS: These boycotts never really get anywhere. You get nowhere telling people not to read Harry Potter.

PP: Not only don’t they get anywhere they actively stir up interest that wasn’t there before. When will they learn? This is such a simple, basic point, and they never seem to learn it.

RS: Even Bill Donohue has said he’s not worried about people going to see the movie. He’s worried about the movie encouraging them to read your books. Why do you think adults are more concerned with what will happen when a child reads a book then they are when a child sees a movie? Because more kids see more movies than read books.

PP: Well, it’s easier to have a photo opportunity by taking a book and setting fire to it. It’s not quite as easy to do that with a movie. But I don’t know. Also, they can reach into the school boards, can’t they, and they can order the schools in this particular district to take all the copies of it off the shelves and so on. You can’t easily do that with a movie. Not quite so easily. But certainly it’s a welcome confirmation of the power of books, anyway.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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