The Golden Compass

Thursday, November 19, 2009
The Golden Compass is a curious film. Based on a not very good novel, it’s neither faithful to the text nor does it try to drastically reinvent it. Instead the filmmakers just fiddle with the chronology of events here and there, omit key scenes and change a couple of the characters a little bit. I can’t imagine the result is satisfying for anyone.

Possibly the most puzzling thing is that the book’s final set piece (a fight between two giant polar bears) is moved to the middle of the film. It’s the most exciting piece of action in the novel and it’s also the emotional climax of the relationship between the young heroine Lyra and her polar bear pal Iorek Byrnison. In the book he travels days and days to rescue her from a rival polar bear King. It takes a while. But in the film he seemingly comes out of nowhere and the fight doesn’t have the high stakes that it should have. The point of travelling days and days to have a scrap with a fierce polar bear King is that he’ll be weak and tired when he finally arrives – he’ll be at a major disadvantage. But in the film you don’t see a journey. Therefore Byrnison just seems pathetic when he can’t put up much of a fight.

Moving the fight to the middle of the film and not showing the journey that Byrnison makes also means that you don’t see the love that he supposedly has for Lyra. In the book his sacrifice is highlighted in a much more successful way – he flirts with death to save her. Here he just risks getting beaten up a little – you never sense that he’s really in serious danger.

I also think that the casting for the voice of Byrnison is all wrong. The filmmakers cast Ian McKellen. Somehow an aged Englishman was not the voice I imagined for a fearsome polar bear. I imagined a coarser, fiercer, more youthful, more unrestrained voice. The filmmakers have obviously tried to hire as many names as they can.

This desire to hire star names extends to having Daniel Craig turn up for a few minutes and for such luminaries as Christopher Lee, Tom Courtenay and Derek Jacobi to play thankless minor roles. As such, the talent on display and the total waste of that talent is another nail in the coffin of this film.

While moving the polar bear fight is the most puzzling decision, changing the ending proves to be the most foolish. In the book, Lord Asriel (played by Daniel Craig), who is obsessed with a material called ‘Dust’, sacrifices a child and moves to a parallel world. It’s kind of silly but at least it packs a punch. In the movie, though, this doesn’t happen at all. The movie ends with Lyra having a conversation with the child who’s going to get sacrificed. It’s incredibly anti-climatic and comes out of the blue. When the screen faded to black, I didn’t quite believe that this was it. Surely there was more. But there wasn’t. Presumably the end of the novel, which is a cliffhanger, was going to form the basis of the beginning of the sequel. But because this film is so bad that sequel may never happen, which makes the ending of the movie version seem even more ridiculous.

I’d be quite interested in hearing what those who have only seen the movie think about the plot. To me, I think the film must be pretty incomprehensible. The concept of ‘Dust’ and daemons aren’t explained particularly well and events seemingly happen at random – the movie doesn’t flow at all; it’s one of the most stilted movies I’ve seen.

But we are given a brief explanation. Dust, this mysterious matter that can be viewed in certain types of photographs, is supposedly original sin. However, this Dust doesn’t form until children hit puberty. Therefore the shadowy religious organisation in the film wants to find a way of preventing Dust from forming so that it can keep people good and pure. To do this, they try and separate children from their ‘daemons’ (every person has an animal daemon/spirit that follows them around). And this daemon is basically a physical embodiment of an individual’s soul. So by separating a child from its daemon, the church is basically trying to perform spiritual castration.

All of this is interesting stuff, but while the idea doesn’t quite work in Pullman’s book, it’s even less successful in the movie. In the book the concepts seem clunky and a little confusing, but here they’re hardly explained at all.

The focus instead, as you can imagine, is on action set-pieces and special effects. And while the action and the effects are fine, they aren’t enough. They certainly can’t hide the clunky writing – none of the dialogue is there to build character; all of it just moves the story along. The script is sterile and exposition filled.

The screenplay also makes Lyra far less heroic. In the book, she’s captured by ‘Gobblers’ (child snatchers who perform daemon-separating experiments for the church) and then pro-actively leads an escape. In the movie, though, she doesn’t start a revolt – she just makes the facility blow up. To me this seems more like Arnold Schwarzenegger shit.

And speaking of Gobblers, they’re handled very poorly in the movie. In the book they’re these scary, faceless monsters that steal children for unknown reasons. But in the movie their true nature is revealed very quickly and they subsequently have none of the creep factor.

But then this goes for the movie entire. Nothing is allowed to develop. Nothing is allowed to build. You just have exposition-heavy scene followed by exposition-heavy scene with some action smattered in-between. It’s a deeply unsatisfying experience.

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  1. Kelly and I had almost precisely the same reaction to the film. Like you, neither of us found the book a terribly worthwhile experience, but the film does even the mediocre book a disservice in stealing what little thunder its relationships and plot developments have with (among other things) the shuffling of chronologies.