So, HIS DARK MATERIALS is over but not quite done with, even seven+ years after the final book in the trilogy. The promised book about the book by Pullman himself seems to have drifted off into the ether -- which is probably a good thing, given that he's not as good at explaining what he's done as he is at doing it. A little over four years back came a charming little booklet, LYRA'S OXFORD , which seems to be the opening chapter(s) of a sequel to the original series. It was extremely promising -- the best thing he'd written, I'd say, since THE GOLDEN COMPASS itself -- but afterwards he seems to have been distracted by the movie adaptation and there's been no more word on what happens to Lyra's world since then.
Now comes a new entry in the series, a side-story about Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby. It's a prequel, describing his first meeting with armored bear Iorek Byrnison (a series favorite). Due out in April (4/8-08), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH looks like it'll look a lot like LYRA'S OXFORD but be about twice the length (112 pages). It may wind up only being a lightweight entry in the series as a whole, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.
And speaking of the film, it turns out it's not the flop some would make it out to be. To compare it with another fantasy film released about the same time, BEOWULF, both made about the same on their opening weekends (in the $26-28 million dollar range). In all, both earned about $80 million at the box office. And both did much better than that overseas, with BEOWULF adding another $100 million plus and THE GOLDEN COMPASS another $250 million. So why is BEOWULF considered a huge success with total receipts of just under $200 million, while THE GOLDEN COMPASS is written off as a flop with about $330 million?
Well, for one thing the Pullman film cost about $180 million to make, while BEOWULF was basically a film-length computer-game cut-scene. For another, BEOWULF is a stand-alone, while New Line had hoped THE GOLDEN COMPASS might pull in numbers like Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS films (i.e., a billion dollars or so each at the box office). So, as so often, it's a matter of expectations. A lot of people went to see THE GOLDEN COMPASS, but it only made about a third of the studio's wildly overoptimistic projection, so it's tagged as a flop. Some, myself among them, may blame this on the director's decision to tone down the story into something as unoffensive as possible (e.g., ending the movie before the conclusion of the first book in order to pretend Lyra's quest to save her friend had a happy ending). Some, like the Catholic League, claim the credit to their 'boycott' (which, if anyone had been aware of it, might be arguable; as it stands, I think this a classic case of 'post hoc ergo propter hoc). And the best case of all can be made for the simple fact that Pullman's not Tolkien; that Tolkien's audience, and his popularity, and his influence, is of a magnitude unto itself.* Given Jackson's success, we'll be seeing a lot of fantasy movies from now on. But I'll be very much surprised if any of them become a phenomenon like Jackson's three movies -- unless, of course, Jackson makes (writes, produces, directs) THE HOBBIT. We'll see.
My thanks to Richard West for letting me know about ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH, and sending me a copy of the PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY review.
*a striking example of this came years ago (?1987-88) when LOCUS ran a poll asking people to vote for what they thought was the greatest work of fantasy fiction. THE LORD OF THE RINGS won, of course, by a huge margin. What is surprising is that THE HOBBIT came in second place -- not that it was folks' second choice, but that it got enough votes as 'all time greatest' to rank behind only LotR itself. The distant third-place winner was Le Guin's A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, a legend in its own right.