Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is a philosophical pondering upon the nature of childhood—and indeed, human nature—that presents itself as a children’s fantasy about a girl named Lyra Belacqua and her quest to rescue her kidnapped uncle. The book is slow and unfolds delicately, as if Pullman were a philosopher assembling a complex argument piece by piece, and it is this quality that makes The Golden Compass an exceptional book for a careful young reader. In treating Pullman’s work as fantasy rather than philosophy, Melchoir and Oubrerie create a visually engaging yet disappointing companion to Pullman’s original that might confuse the readers using this book as an entry point into Pullman’s work.
The Golden Compass takes place in an inverted version of a typical children’s fantasy story. While some of the fantasy tropes are here, like promised lands and talking animals, the adults have, with power and greed, destroyed or manipulated much of the good that could come from these benefits. Oubrerie reflects this fall from Eden through using a muted yet expressive color palette with watercolor and detailed pencil work. It’s easy to become absorbed in the darkness of this work, whether it be the in the shadows of Jordan College at Oxford or in the many folds of old Farder Coram’s face, against which wide-eyed and curious Lyra is determined to find her uncle.
But that’s where the strengths of this volume end: this is a brief graphic novel, Pullman’s book is hundreds of pages. Characters who clumsily appear and disappear in this volume take their time in their hellos and farewells in the prose version. The dialogue is crunched on the page, making characters sound unnaturally verbose for the graphic medium. Concepts that are continually reinforced in the book, like the animal companion daemons that accompany every adult and child, are skipped over in this telling. Also, Pullman has the time to invert and subvert the tropes that he sets up: for example, Lyra is innocent to the fact that her former guardians believe her journey to rescue her uncle in the north is fated, and that she will eventually betray herself. This is mentioned in the graphic novel in about two completely forgettable panels.
Lastly, librarians and readers should know that this book only covers a third of The Golden Compass, which is the first book in a trilogy. The second and third volumes will be coming out in September 2016 and September 2017.
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass Graphic Novel, Volume 1
by Philip Pullman
Art by Stephane Melchoir, Clement Oubrerie
Publisher Age Rating: 10 and up