Artists of the Year

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman

By Rod Smith

Even if New Line's Golden Compass were a halfway faithful adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel, rather than the miserably bowdlerized, $180-million spool of poo it is, the film wouldn't have been the biggest feather in the 61-year-old British author's hat last year—or the brightest. In June, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass's title everywhere but in the U.S.) beat out a 70-year accumulation of Britain's Carnegie Medal of Literature winners to make Pullman the first recipient ever of the reader-selected Carnegie of Carnegies award. Pullman—who copped a regular version of the prestigious children's book award back in '96—responded to the announcement by saying, "It is without any question the most important honor I have ever received, and the one I'll treasure the most." Sadly, he couldn't make the presentation ceremony as he was off in Dundee accepting an honorary degree.

Given Pullman's manifest eloquence and the universe-hopping breadth of the His Dark Materials trilogy—of which The Golden Compass is the first volume—the one surprising thing about the accolades he's won is that they've gone to a devout atheist who makes no bones about his anti-authoritarian stance. While his defenders include the archbishop of Canterbury, Pullman has come under fire from any number of religious organizations—including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who called for a Golden Compass boycott despite director Chris Weitz's failure to include any of the novel's religious meat in his movie. They needn't have bothered; the spectacularly mediocre effort will be lucky to break even before DVD and digital sales. Still, with a little luck, the film will drive kids to the trilogy. With only 12 million or so sold to date, Pullman has a ways to go before he catches up with J.K. Rowling.

Rod Smith is a Minneapolis writer and DJ and an instructor in media and criticism.

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