Before we get started, a few caveats. First, I haven't read The Shadow in the North. My complaints are going to be entirely about the BBC's adaptation. I understand the plot is essentially unchanged from the novel, but I don't know how Pullman treats the issues I'm going to highlight. Second, I'm going to spoil the hell out of the material.
There's a lot to be said for Pullman's first Sally Lockhart novel, The Ruby in the Smoke. It's dark, it's violent, and it features a refreshingly good heroine. Sally is strong, smart and independent without too much resort to the usual clichés about feistiness or vulnerability or whatever. Ruby is a kid's novel, so coincidences tend to be a little too neat and resolutions a little too perfect. But Pullman doesn't pull his punches: it's a pretty grim book. A lot of people die, and all fairly horribly. I'm sorry I didn't know about Ruby when I was a kid; I'd have loved it.
And the BBC's 2006 adaptation does the novel no injustice. The cast is good, the direction is good (if unremarkable one way or the other), and it's faithful to the source material. Ruby retains the book's surprising violence and adds some welcome ethnic diversity to the cast. And, at a mere 93 minutes, Ruby moves at a tight clip. There simply isn't time for grandiose indulgences, and the film is stronger for it. I was surprised by how much I liked it.
So I popped The Shadow in the North into the DVD player full of good will. A day later, I'm still fuming.
How shall I put this? The Shadow in the North is a minor disaster. Where Ruby's resolution depended on smart characters puzzling things out, Shadow's relies on psychic visions. Seriously. There's a medium, and she's a charlatan, but she's also a real psychic and has a real psychic vision which contains clues linking the story's two main mysteries. Although Ruby's climax is fueled in part by information Sally gleans from an opium-fuled dream, the dream is at least based on her actual memories. With Shadow, the case-cracking vision is actual paranormal activity. It's hokey and it's stupid and it's insulting and, worst, it's out of keeping with the grim realism that makes Ruby such an interesting book (and film).
And, what's more, it's not the only hokey shit Shadow throws our way. It's not even the worst hokey shit Shadow throws our way.
I'm serious about the spoilers here.
Love-interest JJ Feild's character dies. (More on that later.) Indeed, he doesn't just die - Feild's Fred is smashed up by his collapsing house before being horribly burned to death. But as the lights are dimming in his eyes, &c., he sees a glowing shape coalesce before him. It's glowy Billie Piper! "Am I going to die?" he croaks. She suffuses the billion-degree inferno with the warm light of her psychic vision love, or whatever, and I guess we're supposed to think that maybe his death isn't one of excruciating pain? Whatever. It is some seriously hokey shit.
Ah, but we're not finished with the hokey shit yet. Sally tries to blow herself and the villain up at the film's climax and, before she does, asks a vision of Fred - who has appeared behind the villain - for, like, permission to kill herself. He smiles at her adoringly, as one does when the person one loves is about to commit murder-suicide. Also, because the post-production team ran out of time or money or interest, Fred's ghost doesn't get the warm-suffusion-of-glowing-devotion special effects that Sally's did when he was dying. So it looks like the character's back from the dead, or never died at all, and is just sort of hanging out in the background. Maybe the whole horrible-death-by-conflagration was an elaborate ruse and he's still alive? Alas, no. He's really dead. He just doesn't get any FX.
And then Fred's non-FX ghost shows up again, at the film's denouement. Sally is standing in an empty house, staring out the window. Suddenly, Fred appears and gives her a hug. Again, there are no special effects to suggest that Fred's anything other than real. But he's not! He's still dead! It's impossible to say who dropped the ball on the ghostly-Fred thing, but the fact remains: it's unclear that Fred's really dead because he keeps reappearing in totally normal, corporeal form and interacting with Sally. Not that I was happy about the glowing-Billie-thing, but at least her magical blue light of vision-questing made it obvious that she wasn't real. Dead Fred is just confusing.
Anyway. The film ends as Sally runs outside to tell her friends her secret: she's pregnant! With Fred's baby!
Which brings us to Shadow's last and greatest failure: women. Shadow takes place some time after Ruby (six years, according to Wikipedia, but the film never makes the timeline clear) and Sally is now living on her own and is in business as a financial consultant. She and Fred still partner up to solve mysteries, but (the film hammers into us), Fred's now maaaaaaadly in love with her. But Sally won't marry him! Feild played Fred with a sweet flirtatiousness in Ruby. In Shadow, however, he has nothing to do but sulk and scowl and complain about how Sally refuses to get hitched. But then some bad guy kills Sally's dog and she moves back in with Fred, and they have a moment and then they sleep together and then she agrees to marry him. Everyone is happy for approximately 23 seconds. Until someone sets fire to Fred's house and it burns to the ground and he dies. Yes, the same night they admit their love, have sex and agree to marry. If Shadow were a bad horror movie, this would be the part where we talk about how horror movies tend to punish sexually-active women.
But Shadow isn't a bad horror movie. Shadow is nominally a film about a smart, independent woman trying to make the world a better place. Which must be why Sally eventually faces down the villain, agrees to marry him in exchange for the exact amount he bilked a client of hers out of, and then tries to kill both him and herself by blowing up the "steam gun" he's invented. (But don't you worry; Fred's ghost essentially grants her permission to commit murder-suicide.) Sally opened the film by promising to get back the money her client lost. And we know Sally isn't the kind of girl to marry for money, when she could hardly even imagine marrying for love. So it's clear that Sally doesn't expect to survive the evening. This is incredibly problematic. Having Sally decide to off herself because her boyfriend died totally undercuts everything positive about the character. Ultimately, Sally's survival is a matter of pure luck and her last-minute rescue by some guy.* Awesome.
Oh, yeah. Another thing about Shadow in the North? It has this bizarre "everyone wants to shtup Sally" thing going on. Seriously. Fred's in love with her, the villain crushes on her, dudes walking down the street stare at her, workmen wink at her. Piper plays Sally's reactions to the constant oogling with something between surprise and dread. The way almost every man in the film sexualizes Sally comes across as threatening and invasive, but the film doesn't do anything with it. The creeping sexual unease of the film is never resolved.
Unless, of course, you count the fact that Sally ends the film pregnant. This is the thing that most infuriated me - more than the psychic visions, more than the ghosts, even more than the icky way Sally is sexualized and victimized throughout the film. While, yes, it's not unheard of for a woman to get pregnant the first time she has sex, it's not a statistical certainty. But it sure is a novelistic certainty! Want to punish a girl for having sex? Have her lover die horribly! Want to give a girl-with-dead-partner a Reason to Keep Going? Give her a baby! I'm not sure what the baby is supposed to represent for Sally - a reward, or possibly a reason to keep living after she was so set on dying? But the film makes it really clear that we're supposed to be super happy for Sally and ghost-daddy that she's going to be an unwed mother in late Victorian England.
The Great Psychic Vision is dumb and, worse, lazy. The ghostly visits are stupid and infuriating and emotionally insincere and drag the film down. But The Shadow in the North's worst sin, by far, is that it takes a strong and capable heroine and reduces her to a sexualized victim with no agency, a woman looking forward to a future as a single mother because babies are what make life worth living if you're a woman, or something. Ugh.
The actors do their best, but whatever the novel's messages about women being used as property (assuming they exist) are wholly lost in its translation to film.
* Even if that guy is Matt Smith.