Friday, January 4, 2008

The view from up here

We saw Golden Compass today. Before I give my opinion of it, I should preface by saying that I've only read the first book of the series and that was at least five years ago so my memories of more than the broad details of the plot are pretty sketchy. That said, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I've heard complaining that it felt like the plot was too crammed trying to get all of the plot of the book in a two-hour movie, but it seemed fine to me - easy to follow, good pacing, no weird jumps. The visuals were fantastic.

I think Golden Compass falls into the rare category of movies I liked better than the books they were based on, usually because putting the book on screen takes out what I didn't like about the book and lets me enjoy the story.* In this case, I ground to halt because the narrative voice just felt too negative - barely anyone was likeable, almost none of the adults could be trusted, the main character was a little brat. I think the movie was an improvement because it's a lot easier to like Lyra when you can't hear her inner monologue. The movie version of Lyra came across as plucky and endearingly contrary, not bratty and oppositional defiant like her book counterpart. They also wisely ended the movie before the book ends, which left it on a much more positive note and made it easier to walk out of the theatre feeling good about what I had seen, instead of the somewhat depressed feeling I had putting down the book.

In any case, His Dark Materials is going back on my reading list, hopefully to make it all the way through this time. I keep finding myself wondering if I would have liked the books better if I had read them when I was ten. At that age, I was a lot more oblivious to the things that bother me now. Certainly seeing children in danger didn't bother me nearly so much, and I think I wouldn't have disliked Lyra nearly so much when I was a child myself.

I've been thinking again about the odd experience of rereading childhood books with adult eyes lately because I've been reading the Little House books. I discovered a while ago that while I had read the rest of the series many many times, I never read Little House on the Prairie. I think maybe my elementary school library didn't have that book for some reason. Goodness, it's much harder to enjoy a book when you're much more aware of racism and the devastation that Western settlement caused to the Native Americans. I suppose it was gracious of Pa Ingalls to disagree with the idea that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, but his airy assurances that the US army would move the Native Americans who were inconveniently inhabiting the land they had stolen and that white people deserved that land more than the people who had just lived on it for the past thousand years or so are more than a little appalling, and dampen my enjoyment of the book, to say the least.

And yet I'm still reading the series. The books are mostly about Laura, after all, who was innocent in what her parents were doing (well, until she grew up and settled her own stolen land). I enjoy the stories (that don't involve Manifest Destiny or naked racism) and the historical detail is fascinating. One thing you have to be prepared for when reading historical books is encountering historical attitudes that were the prevailing opinion of the day, so this sort of thing is the price of admission for this sort of book. You can either put it down in disgust or take it as an object lesson of how far we've come and a reminder of our not-so-glorious past. And most of the Native American stuff is concentrated in the one book, so once you get past it, it's not so bad.

Still, this reminds me a bit of a couple years ago when I was looking for a book to read while I was in Michigan and decided to reread Narnia before I saw the movie. I had read them again when I was twenty, but clearly the years since then have changed my perceptions. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn't so bad, although the sexism made me sigh resignedly and for the first time, the shallow, hand-waving nature of the ending really bothered me (they lived entire lives in Narnia, and then just left them to go back to our world without a second thought? No homesickness on either end or mourning for the adult live they had left?). Prince Caspian was fine. And then I read The Horse and His Boy, which was my favorite, and ran aground on the rocky shoals of the book's naked racism. Do I condemn C.S. Lewis for the obvious prejudices in his books? No, because like Laura Ingalls Wilder, he was a product of his times and I don't generally condemn people for being unable to see past the values of the times they lived in. C.S. Lewis was a generally good man who had the somewhat congenial racism and sexism common to British men in the 50s, and I don't really expect much different out of him.

At the same time, it's hard not to let it affect my enjoyment of the books, and I'm now planning to have some discussions with K about these issues when she's old enough to read them. I'm pretty sure my reaction to the movie of Wardrobe was influenced by my new perceptions of the book. I found it disappointing, largely because I think I wanted to see the movie as a ten-year-old, and instead I got a movie that stuck most of what bothered me about the book up on the screen and emphasized it.

It's a dicey thing, revisiting the things you loved as a child. I'm certainly a better person for my increased empathy and sensitivity and being more aware of my cultural assumptions and trying to see past them, but occasionally I miss being able to read with the uncritical eye I had when I was ten.

*The other movie/book that falls in this category is Lord of the Rings, which was able to correct Tolkien's inability to grasp the concept of "Show, don't tell." I had always wondered why I couldn't get into the books more, until the last time I took a stab at them after watching the movies and discovered that it was all of the pointless detail. He took three pages to describe what happened to the hobbits' ponies after they ran away in the first book. Three pages. Good Lord, nobody needs that level of detail. No wonder I had trouble getting into the plot. (Note to rabid Tolkien fans: please don't hurt me)

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