I have been half-writing (mostly in my head) a review of the first book in Philip Pullman's masterful trilogy, (known collectively as His Dark Materials) The Golden Compass, originally published in the UK with the title Northern Lights, since I started this blog in 2008. Like the other books that have meant a tremendous amount to me as an adult and/or as a child (Harry Potter, The Phantom Tollbooth) I have not reviewed them here, either because I wasn't sure I could add anything new to the conversation or because the task was too overwhelming. A review of Pullman's almost 20 year old book falls into both categories. Contemplating writing a review of this philosophically provocative, theologically challenging brilliant work of fantasy (really - dæmons? The best fantastical creation ever!!) feels comparable to starting my thesis senior year of college. What follows is a review of the graphic novel with a brief synopsis of the plot of the graphic novel adaptation (but not the whole book) for readers who have not had the immense pleasure of reading this trilogy yet. For an encompassing review of all three books in one, read Brian Anderson's review of The Amber Spyglass for the New York Times.
But, as a fan of the graphic novel, I think I just might have something to say about this new adaptation of Pullman's work. First of all, I think that the only logical choice was to have this illustrated adaptation creation taken on by the French. I learned years ago that the French love, love, love and have deep respect for the art of the graphic novel. And, last summer over the course of a few days in Paris, I visited many bookstores and several spent hours in the graphic novel sections regretting the fact that I had forgotten all of my high school French but marveling over all the gorgeous, inventive visual storytelling. Another smart choice was made when this book was divided into three volumes, with books 2 and 3 coming out in September 2016 and 2017.
I also think that I am perfectly poised to review the graphic novel adaptation of The Golden Compass because I first read the trilogy about 16 years ago, just before the third and final book, The Amber Spyglass, was published. Since then, I have listened to the fantastic audio production of the trilogy (including a full cast with Pullman himself narrating) a couple of times. So I remember the book, but not enough to get really picky about the adaptation itself, which would detract from enjoyment of the graphic novel. Of course aspects of the plot have to be simplified and speeded up because this is a graphic novel - and because of the complexity of the themes. Melchior, who also wrote the graphic novel adaptation of The Great Gatsby (Gatsby le Magnifique) does a fine job explaining the fantasy elements of the novel, like dæmons, the alethiometer and panserbjorne, while Oubrerie's illustrations bring the familiar but strange world of an England and Northern Europe to life. For me, Pullman's novels are so richly magical and polished (they are often ranked alongside the works of C.S. Lewis and Tolkein) that I think I might have imagined a more lush illustration style, like that of Kazu Kibuishi. But, Oubrerie's scratchy, kinetic style captures the almost feral nature - and enthusiasm - of Lyra and the archaically civilized world of Jordan College that brushes - sometimes roughly - against the natural world around them and the various tribes that inhabit it.
Of course there are aspects of the novel that I found missing in this graphic adaptation, but this is also a three part adaptation of a single book. I am hopeful that things I noticed missing - like the compelling relationship between dæmons and their humans - will be explored in the next book as we move closer to Svalbard and the Northern Lights. However, as sometimes only a graphic novel can do, there are winks and nods as well. In one scene, Lyra and Pan are in the heart of the city at night and they pass a theater where John Milton's Paradise Lost is being performed, a nod to the title of the trilogy, taken from Book 2 of Milton's epic poem.
The Golden Compass: The Graphic Novel, Volume 1 begins with a zeppelin hovering over Oxford, preparing to dock at Jordan college where Lord Asriel, the great explorer, is due to give a talk about his travels in the North. Hiding in a cupboard with her dæmon Pantalaimon, is Lyra Belacqua. So much happens in this one scene - Lyra saves Lord Asriel, a man she believes is her uncle and benefactor, from being poisoned. She also overhears Asriel's discussion of Dust and the appearance of another world through the glimmering Northern Lights. From that night, the story takes off at a fast pace. The head of Jordan College sends Lyra off to live with Mrs. Coulter, an elegant explorer with connections to people in high places, such as the Magesterium and the General Oblation Board, also known as the Gobblers. Before Lyra leaves Jordan College, the Master gives her the alethiometer, a golden compass that Lord Asriel entrusted to him, telling her to keep it hidden. When Mrs. Coulter's dæmon finds it, Lyra and Pan make a quick escape. A dangerous night leads them to a gyptian boat and safety. Hidden amongst this community that has lost many of its children to the Gobblers, Lyra finds her place and a deeper understanding of the alethiometer as they sail towards the North to make a dangerous rescue.
Book 2 of The Golden Compass Graphic Novel, coming September 2016
(the French cover, which reflects the original British title, The Northern Lights)
Melchior's graphic novel adaptation of
The Great Gatsby