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24 December 2017updated 05 Oct 2023 7:59am

Why Studio Ghibli should make a film of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights

All I want for Christmas is Hayao Miyazaki’s version of His Dark Materials.

By Julia Rampen

“Bland, bloodless and bereft of magic, New Line’s corporate sanitisation of Philip Pullman’s exciting, provocative fantasy novel, ‘The Northern Lights’, strips the book of its humanity and soul,” wrote Time Out film critic Nigel Floyd when The Golden Compass came out in 2007. “Excruciating pap,” wrote Fernando F. Croce for CinePassion. “This Compass points to the end of a would-be movie franchise,” declared Christian Toto of the Washington Post.

Ten years after the beloved book of my childhood was murdered by Hollywood, I have a different suggestion. Forget those starry boulevards. Get Studio Ghibli to make it instead.

Most critics identify common reasons why The Golden Compass failed. The sharp criticism of religion was watered down, after New Line worried about the reaction of Christians in the United States (they were still angry). Then there’s the Hollywood definition of family friendly. We will never know how New Line would have treated the second and third books in the trilogy, but even Pixar would struggle with the honest portrayal of adolescent sexuality in The Amber Spyglass.

These issues were Hollywood-specific (and I’m not even going to try working out the film rights situation now), but there was a third reason some critics judged it failed: the beginning of the film was overloaded with explanation. Pullman’s original opening was far more deft:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen… Lyra stopped beside the Master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the Hall.

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“You’re not taking this seriously,” whispered her daemon. “Behave yourself.”

I first read this opening when I was roughly the same age as Lyra in the book. I had never been to Oxford, and the grand hall was as fantastical to me as the speaking daemon. I didn’t need an explanation – the dialogue explained it all.

Image: Castle in the Sky

If Pullman is masterful at creating the atmosphere of a different world, so, too, is Studio Ghibli, which has its own set of multiple universes. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 film, Castle in the Sky, inspired in part by Miyazaki’s visit to Welsh mining towns during the Miner’s Strike, plays on the tension between an industrial landscape and a seeming utopia in the sky. The hero Pazu, declares, Lord Asriel-style: “Beyond that cloud is a floating city that no one here on earth believes exists… but I swear I’m going to be the one to prove it.” In Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), the setting is Baltic Europe, with witches. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) shifts between different, British-inspired settings. Each one is vivid, delicate and dripping with atmosphere. Do we need to know how, or why, until it becomes crucial to the story? No. I watched Spirited Away shortly after I finished His Dark Materials, when it was released in the UK in 2003. I had never been to Japan, nor visited a bathhouse, nor had I even heard of Studio Ghibli, but I understood a spooky, abandoned restaurant and Chihiro’s greedy parents turning into pigs.

There is already a precedent for Studio Ghibli successfully adapting a British fantasy author: Howl’s Moving Castle is based on the book of the same name, by Diana Wynne Jones, who said of the director Miyazaki: “He saw my books from the inside out.” But there are some particularly interesting parallels between Miyazaki, who co-founded Studio Ghibli, and Pullman. Both were born in the 1940s, with fathers involved in military aircraft – Miyazaki’s manufactured parts for Japanese fighter planes, while Pullman’s father was an RAF pilot. Both have an interest in flight that runs through their creations. In Northern Lights, the elite travel by zeppelin, while Castle in the Sky features military airships, and The Wind Rises (2013) is a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed many of Japan’s fighter pilots in World War II (Miyazaki’s fascination with planes is combined with a hatred of war). Both share an anxiety about manmade environmental disaster: in The Amber Spyglass, Will and Lyra realise that it is humans that have upset the delicate ecosystem of conscious life, in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Nausicaä dons lab-like clothing to enter a toxic forest. Both show a recurring interest in coming-of-age stories and a secular optimism that a younger generation can remake the world for the better.

Image: The Wind Rises

If I had one concern about a Studio Ghibli adaptation of His Dark Materials, it would be the reduction of the adolescent protagonists to the stylistic expressions of anime characters. But re-reading His Dark Materials as an adult, Will and Lyra are to a certain extent a blank canvas, there for a younger reader to project themselves onto. “It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative,” wrote Pullman in Northern Lights, and Will’s motivation in The Subtle Knife is equally simple – to return home to his mother. It is only in the closing pages of The Amber Spyglass that their feelings about each other, and what they want in the world, become more complex. Instead, the interesting characters are the adults wreaking havoc throughout the pages: Lord Asriel’s ambitions, Mrs Coulter’s opportunism, Iorek Byrnison’s struggle to regain his soul.

Studio Ghibli has a good track record in creating young, female protagonists, but like the adults in Pullman’s novels, its villains are morally ambiguous. No-Face, the seemingly pitiful spirit in Spirited Away, turns into a ghastly monster as he takes on the traits of the other spirits he consumes. In Howl’s Moving Castle, the Witch of the Waste eventually redeems herself. Just as Pullman plays on the tension between a human face and the shape of their animal daemon, Studio Ghibli films repeatedly explore human-animal metamorphosis. A giant baby turns into a mouse, a bus-shaped giant cat appears on a country road, a wizard transforms into a bird. In The Red Turtle (2016), a co-production between Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch, a red turtle transforms into a woman, and back again.

Image: Spirited Away

In many ways, the idea of a Studio Ghibli adaptation of His Dark Materials is a terrifying prospect. Fans of novels are not known for their flexibility when it comes to film adaptations. Miyazaki (officially, but not very convincingly, retired) works without a script, and told the film magazine Midnight Eye in 2002 that: “We never know where the story will go… It’s a dangerous way to make an animation film.” Yet here’s Pullman speaking to the BBC in 2017: “Basically, I sit at my desk and stare at the wall blankly until I find my pen moving over the paper, for want of any better word.” There is no doubt that if all parties involved in the film rights could work it out, the resultant creation would run roughshod over some of the finer details of the plot. But it would have atmosphere, and elaborate airships, and adorable animals, and characters that are sinister one moment and disarming the next. In one world, The Golden Compass spluttered onto the big screen and died. But in another, it’s Studio Ghibli’s turn, and I’ve got a front row seat.

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