As a kid, I was a sucker for fantasy novels. Stick a pot boiler featuring wizards or dragons or stuff like that in front of me and I’d probably devour it within the day. Nowadays, I’m fairly jealous of kids and the type of literature aimed at them. Harry Potter, bless his heart, burst the door open for publishers to flood the children’s section of every Border’s with uninspired, flimsy fantasy epics. I would’ve loved that shit. But I didn’t exit my childhood too deprived. I got The Golden Compass.
How I came across the book is almost the stuff of shitty children’s fantasy writing, itself. I was snooping around my older sister’s room, I can’t remember why (unfortunately, I didn’t have any mysterious hermit great-uncles with English countryside estates), and came across the paperback on her bookshelf. It seemed strange, since I didn’t know her to read anything other than Clive Cussler books. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I thought the book was at first glance, that the compass on the cover was some kind of treasure from an ancient civilization or some stupid thing like that. But it looked pretty enough to read the snippet on the back cover, and I was surprised to see that it was actually a fantasy novel. Being who I was, I instantly decided to give it a whirl. It turned out to be one of the more rewarding literal leaps of faith I’ve made. Later on I learned that my sister had no idea what that book was or why it was in her room.
After Harry Potter broke everything, everywhere, wide open, I had a thought snuggled in the back of my head: “I hope they do something with the His Dark Materials Trilogy!” Eventually, my hopes and dreams were answered! But probably only because New Line Cinema wanted another Lord of the Rings and was bitter about Disney (it was Disney, right?) producing its own stab at the WETA-effects fantasy pot, another beloved, philosophical children’s fantasy series: The Chronicles of Narnia. So it was with great joy that I finally heard that production on the movie was actually going forward. I was elated to see the trailer! If anything from today’s modern children’s fantasy offerings deserved the red carpet treatment (aside from glory-hog Harry Potter), it was the His Dark Materials Trilogy. Nevermind what on earth they were going to do about the series’ controversial theological stance.
The Golden Compass starts with Lyra, an orphan being cared for by her uncle, Lord Asriel, a scientist that allows her to stay at Jordan College, a prestigious institute of higher learning. After helping her uncle avoid a poisoning attempt from a cronie of this alternate world’s version of the Catholic Church, the Magisterium, she’s visited by a glamorous woman, Mrs. Coulter, who takes a liking to her and promises to take her with her to the far North, which Lyra has been fantasizing about. Meanwhile, her orphan friends are being kidnapped by a fiendish organization called the Gobblers. Lyra finds out Mrs. Coulter is in charge of the Gobblers and flees. Soon she finds herself on a mission to save her friends with the aide of some friendly sailing folk, a cowboy aeronaut and an armored polar bear. All the while she must keep an instrument called an alethiometer, a golden compass that can divine the truth, secret from everyone.
Seem like a lot to digest? Tell that to the friggin’ screenwriter. Hell, even I don’t think I did the plot justice just now. The Golden Compass has a ton of complexities and an interesting atmosphere to it, which is a nightmare for someone wanting to adapt a breezy adventure movie. They have to explain that Lyra lives in an alternate world, that people wear their souls on the outside and call them dæmons (animals that can shape-shift until you become an adult) and they have to do it all while still keeping the audience’s MTV-addled attention. It’s all a bit much to chew on if you’re not reading it in a book at a leisurely pace.
Which is really this movie’s biggest flaw. It is too damn fast. We had the same complaint about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix this summer. It feels like the director is trying to race us to the end of the movie rather than take his time to make sure the world is crafted with care. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. The movie’s world is as lushly realized as I could have hoped for. It really is something to see it finally visualized. Kudos to the production designers. But we just don’t get to spend enough TIME in these gorgeous sets, with these complex characters, to make any of it seem weighty. The movie breezes through a mountain of information in its first hour. It almost literally feels like someone is pressing the skip button on the movie and we’re missing crucial character development scenes. The editing is atrocious. Scenes will end and begin at awkward times. Sometimes it’ll just cut into the middle of the movie’s big, generic score to make things feel even sloppier and more abrupt. The movie finally feels a bit at peace when Lyra makes it to the North, but every so often it still will fidget in its seat. The ending is also strangely placed considering where the book ends. The whole thing could have used AT LEAST another half an hour.
The fact that the adaptation and editing choices left the movie a bit troubled is too bad, since almost everything else was top notch. Nicole Kidman is too perfect as the gorgeous Mrs. Coulter, who hides a cruel, domineering side. I like to imagine she acts the same way in real life, complete with that friggin’ golden monkey. Dakota Blue Richards steals almost every scene as Lyra. She’s a fantastic, nuanced child actor that I’m sure we’ll all grow to despise once Hollywood has cast her in every child role available in the next 18 months. Daniel Craig does a great job, too, as Lord Asriel… even if it’s really just James Bond with a beard. The only casualty of the cast would be Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala. She was a decent enough character in the novel, but in the movie all she has time to do is speak portentious things of Lyra and serve as a bit of a deus ex machina. It was hard to put my finger on what bothered me about her until Film Walrus described her as the Liv Tyler of The Golden Compass. That’s exactly it. I expected her to say, “If you want him, COME AND CLAIM HIM!!” Also, I ♥ Ian McKellen.
Magus was extremely worried about the quality of CG in The Golden Compass. In fact, it SEEMED to be the main reason he wasn’t interested in seeing it. Well, just our luck, the CG is fantastic. It’s just other parts of the movie that are lacking. The dæmons are well visualized and rendered. They’re not quite photorealistic, but they’re done well enough that you won’t point at the screen and shout “PHONEY” every time you see them. What is rather phoney, however, are the flying witches. If Superman made us believe a man could fly, The Golden Compass has set us back a few decades on the man/flying believability scale.
Another part of the movie that disappointed me was how watered-down the ambiguity was of the villains. The Magisterium is full of hand-rubbing, malevolent caricatures. I honestly do not believe that these people think they’re doing the right thing. I think they know they are evil and they love every second of it. And that’s ridiculous. Kidman’s Mrs. Coulter is way more believable than Christopher Lee practically salivating at the opportunity to keep people ignorant. Have more respect for your audience, guys. You don’t need to be worried we’ll identify with the Magisterium (unless you’re screening it in Vatican City).
So I guess no one was ready for The Golden Compass, whether the movie was quality or not. It had a miserable opening weekend for a nigh-$200 million movie and continued to fall off the box office every week after. Any hope of an adaptation of The Subtle Knife can probably be kissed goodbye. “But after your grump, that’s probably a good idea, John,” you might say. I have to irrationally disagree. I WANTED to see the entire thing play itself out. Regardless of how crappy the adaptations turned out to be, it could only mean a higher profile for the books. And they deserve it. They deserve it just as much as Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a fantastic, well-written children’s fantasy series, but it’s not exactly original. It’s refreshing in how it rearranges familiar ideas, but it doesn’t bring many NEW things to the table. His Dark Materials does a lot of fantastic things that Harry Potter doesn’t, including tackling the prickly issue of theology. I really hope that The Golden Compass does the trick and sparks a new generation of young readers to pick up Philip Pullman’s opus. If anything good can come out of Hollywood adaptations of popular literature, it’s that. For the mean time, though, we’re stuck with an excellent movie that feels like it was edited to run in a TV time slot.