Jun 2, 2008

The Golden Compass

Rating: Crappy

When I saw the early trailer for The Golden Compass, I was intrigued by what looked like a steampunk-style adventure with high production values. I decided to read the book before seeing the movie, as I didn't want a bad Hollywood take to ruin an otherwise well-regarded fantasy novel for me. Unfortunately, while the first book in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series was fairly entertaining, I wasn't particularly moved to pick up the subsequent installments.

The novel seemed too eager to cram in a lot of elements that didn't fit particularly well with one another. The witches, in particular, did not seem to fit with the rest of the world they supposedly watched over, and their every appearance was, to me, sort of irritating.

Now that I've seen the movie, I have a somewhat renewed appreciation for the novel, which seems vastly sophisticated, subtle and mature in comparison to the "large type for early readers" version that Chris Weitz managed to bring to the screen.

Now, anyone who even bothered to read the Wikipedia page for the book (much less the book itself) would understand that "The Golden Compass" doesn't refer to the "Aleithiometer" that Lyra carries throughout the story (and which looks a lot more like a big pocket watch than a compass in any case). The book wasn't even originally called The Golden Compass -- outside the U.S., it's known as Northern Lights -- and Lyra, not the Aleithiometer, is not the focal point of the story.

Not in the movie. In the movie, we are constantly bombarded with references to the Aleithiometer as a "Golden Compass" as if we were going to forget the name of the movie. And that really strikes to the heart of the problem with this film: It HAMMERS you with everything. Every plot detail is exhaustively explained, and every nuance is crushed under the weight of these explanations. Virtually all of the tension and power of the novel is utterly absent.

While Mrs. Coulter is clearly a villain in the novel, she is hardly the vampish monster that Nicole Kidman portrays. While in the novel her character lures children away to be abducted by charm and the sheer wonder of her presence, the film has her daemon (an animal-like physical representation of the souls of characters in this world -- everybody has one) brutally grab kids off the street. Almost none of the complexity of her character is on the screen -- or even possible, given the script. She's just a thuggish villain disguised as a sexy member of high society.

The movie even violates the ideas that it does keep from the novel. It is established in both that harm to a person's daemon is felt equally by the person, and yet Kidman's character at one point belts hers across the face and apparently feels nothing. (Ironically, this idiotic scene was apparently suggested by Pullman himself, which removes any lingering interest I might have had in reading the subsequent books.) It is crystal clear in the book that no one would ever do this -- your daemon is you, and you are your daemon.

Apparently, the end of the book was cut from the movie because it isn't exactly "upbeat" and because the studio wanted it to be a more marketable length. That would probably be fine, if they had kept the chapters in order, but Weitz inexplicably reverses two key portions of the book, placing a climactic battle between two armored bears before what is basically a prison break scene. We are then left with what might as well be a "To be Continued" ending that isn't even a cliffhanger. It's just Lyra musing about how she's going to go find her father with her new band of friends.

"Lame" is the only fitting description of the final sequence. Watching it, I was glad to see the movie go, and less interested in a cinematic sequel than I was in a literary one. Thankfully, the film didn't really perform domestically, so a sequel is unlikely.

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