I call it a bait and switch. The first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, was an adventure fantasy that was fast-paced and written in an incredibly smooth style. Intrigue, danger, children in peril, armoured polar bears, witch clans at war with each other, and above all, a girl named Lyra as a feisty, smart heroine. The next book, The Subtle Knife, had some worryingly bad moments but still kept my interest and sympathy.
Things go really bonkers in the third book, The Amber Spyglass, which ruins everything that came before. Worst of all, Pullman really means it. Instead of the flawless and exciting story that came before, Pullman ends with a Big Message.
What do I mean by this? The easiest way to make my point is by comparison to Narnia.
Narnia has been in the news lately, as happens when a book gets a big budget movie adaptation. The loudest detractor, particularly of the books, has been our very own Philip Pullman, and he’s been in the news because of quotes like the one where he calls parts of the last Narnia book “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology”.
Now, Pullman never comes out and says that it was artistically bad for Lewis to use the books to convey a point of view, just that Lewis’ point of view was wrong. So it’s not entirely surprising that Pullman would lose his sense of esthetic proportion and kill his story by telling us exactly how we should think.
Lyra and the Will, the boy she meets in the second book, are part of a rebellion against the Authority, the God-figure in Pullman’s world, and all of the Authority’s evil henchmen, namely the Church. There’s no whisper of this whatsoever in the first book; Pullman announces this in the second book out of left field, but it’s in the third book that all the stops come out. Everything builds up to the moment when Lyra and Will kill the Authority, who turns out to be frail and easy to murder. Combine this with statements like the following, from a nun who has renounced her vows — “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” (p. 393, The Amber Spyglass) — and Pullman has crossed from allegory (which is the worst that Lewis can be accused of) to artless hack job.
And it actually gets worse. The last 100 pages of the third book feature a second ending that reminded me of The Fifth Element and its hilarious all-you-need-is-love denouement! At least The Fifth Element was a cheesy movie that had a few inklings of its essential lowbrowness. Pullman means it all seriously: Will and Lyra really do save the world by jumping into some bushes and having sex. No explanation, just healing the broken universe by two random people getting it on.
Having said all that, it’s both ironic and sad what is happening to Pullman’s own big budget movie. The success of Tolkien, Harry Potter, and now the Narnia adaptations have made fantasy the hot new thing, and the books of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are being made into movies. According to preliminary reports, the writer/director is going to ditch the anti-religion angle! I’m split on this: this is likely an artistic improvement, but it also guts what is unique about the books. Why not make some other random kid’s adventure movie rather than removing Pullman’s distinguishing feature? I say this because adaptation is a different art than creating the initial text; sometimes a free translation makes for a better end result, but not always.
I also say this because, as it stands now, Pullman’s story is a mess, a didactic mess, and I’m not confident that the Hollywoodized version is the approach that will fix this. I might be getting upset over nothing, since the first movie is set for a 2007 release and anything might happen to the project in the meantime.
I’ve talked quite a bit about crappy endings here in the Gutter — it’s happened to both Stephen King (Not So Happy Ending) and Steven Spielberg (The Trouble with Endings). Pullman is in fact the disappointing author I alluded to in my look at Garth Nix’s Sabriel (Stories Never Fail Us — as a follow-up to that article, I’ve subsequently read the second and third books in that series, Lirael and Abhorsen, and while it’s sadly true that that they are not as good as the first book, at least the first book was self-contained and had a great ending of its own). Satisfying and/or worthy endings are not easy but they do sometimes happen. Instead of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, I would recommend Le Guin’s Gifts (The Bandwagon) or Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds (The Never-Fail Recommendation) as examples of endings that worked.