De-Mythologizing the Search for Self: A Comparison of Four Children’s Fantasy Films

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Sadly, this scene in the Potter film is not an isolated example of the trend to de-mythologize well-beloved fantasies for children and young adults as they are adapted for film, nor can it be dismissed simply as an example of the price we must pay to recast these beloved stories in a new cinematic mold. Two subsequent offerings, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, released in October 2007 as The Seeker, and Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (December 2007), prove equally problematic, although for different reasons.

A great number of things have been said about the ways in which The Seeker, under the direction of David L. Cunningham, falls flat.  Actually, the beginning of an online comment on Internet Movie Database may be only somewhat hyperbolic: “Worst film adaptation ever.”  Part of the problem with the film is readily identifiable in most any review one chooses to read as all around bad movie-making. Although it has some visually striking moments (the Great Hall is impressive, for example, if a bit over the top), the cinematography and set design are certainly not on a par with the carefully crafted look, feel, and sound of Narnia. Rather than the contrasting drab grays, muted blues, and black of the Narnian winter against the full-blown color of spring as the children near Aslan’s camp, David Lee’s dreary visual palate varies hardly at all and does nothing to advance the story. Similarly, the repetitious and forgettable Christophe Beck score pales in comparison with the rich textures that characterize Harry Gregson-Williams’ musical representations of Narnia. Joe Ransom’s camera-work, while perhaps intended as innovative with its tilted angles and distorted lens effects, does not serve any clear narrative purpose. The viewer never gets any real sense of the conflict that Will should face when confronted with the news that he is not an ordinary boy but the last of the Old Ones. The very tools Adamson uses so well become distractions in Cunningham’s adaptation of Cooper’s novel.

The script by John Hodge deviates significantly from Cooper’s novel, sacrificing any sense of wonder, atmosphere, or character development as the film rushes to get to the action sequences.  An American Will, wearing a UC Santa Cruz jacket as he enters the most hallowed hall of the Old Ones, has no sense of the mythology of the Arthurian quest narrative underlying Cooper’s tale.  This older Will feels misunderstood, but his new “powers” somewhat compensate for the teenaged angst he feels.  He even gets to fly at the end as he declares “It’s me! I’m the sixth sign!”.  Everything is accomplished through his new power, not through the deeper magic that comes from his being an Old One. There is no sense that there is any greater power than that which exists within Will himself. He is rather like Lewis’s blind man who mistakes the effects of light for light itself and plunges to his death (“The Man Born Blind”). The audience is left with no sense that Will has been significantly changed by his adventure, for he has not encountered the numinous. Even the “tingling” music that Will hears in the book, which signals the numinous in much the same way as the music of the spheres accompanies the descent of the Planets in That Hideous Strength, is missing. Instead, in a change that one can only suppose comes in deference to a putative visual audience who frankly deserves better, the signs are marked by a swirling psychedelic pattern.  This pattern is a more important visual motif in the film than the circle in the cross that marks the deeper magic underlying the symbols Will must collect to accomplish his quest. The frenzied pace of what Dennis Harvey of Variety calls “escalating, overblown, nearly nonstop action and fantasy” leaves no room for the mythic atmosphere Cooper creates so convincingly in her books and which Adamson proved could be recreated so much more effectively in the Narnia film.

The final film in this flurry of fantasy adaptations, is extremely well-made, in contrast to The Seeker film, but is also extremely problematic.  The problem with The Golden Compass, however, lies not in the film adaptation, but within the original text itself. The problems are merely exacerbated as the story is brought to the screen.  Although Chris Weitz creates a visually stunning version of  Lyra’s Oxford that is every bit as compelling for the viewer as Pullman’s descriptions were for the reader, Weitz has also, probably unknowingly, accurately translated the mythological vacuum that is Lyra’s world.

To anyone who has read Pullman’s works or the myriad of criticism surrounding it, this should come as no surprise.  Pullman has been consistently explicit about his deliberate attempt to create a world devoid of myth or superstition.  Although there are elements of superstition inherent in the cultures of people like the Gyptians, the armored bears, and even the people of Oxford themselves, ultimately Lyra exists in a world that has nothing to believe in.  In one of the interviews included in the bonus materials for the DVD, Pullman confesses that he has never been a fan of fantasy; he never read it, thus it is no surprise that he is unable to effectively incorporate it into his work. In fact, Lyra’s world has far more a science fiction than a fantasy feel to it as is reflected in the set design, which won a much deserved Oscar. Fantastic though it seems to the audience, Lyra’s Oxford, while imaginatively conceived and effectively portrayed both in the text and on the screen, is Lyra’s actual world. Lyra shows no sense of wonder in it. Although there are wondrous things she longs to see, such as armored bears, she finds no sense of joy in anything outside of herself.