Shiny Shelf

The Golden Compass

By Lance Parkin on 07 December 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The behind-the-scenes story of the ‘Golden Compass’ movie is a fascinating one – a studio looking for a franchise not really understanding what they’d bought, a slow gestation under the aegis of a director who flat out stated he wasn’t up to the job and whose first act was to throw away a script by Tom Stoppard so he could write it himself, a studio that needed star power, and rumours of last minute panic and frantic re-editing. The end result is a movie that’s far better at articulating that behind-the-scenes story than anything Philip Pullman actually wrote.

So, we see exactly what happens when a studio recuts a movie at the last minute, worries about offending people, loses the ending altogether and reorders events so that they make no sense (one character now takes control of a fearsome army, then leaves it at home when he goes off to battle). The book ends on an amazing might-be-a cliffhanger that works as an epiphany for Lyra, the lead character and leads her onto a far bigger stage. The film stops a few chapters before that in an attempt to create suspense – and to make sure Daniel Craig has a role in the second one. It’s a hamfisted attempt to set up a sequel, and is so dissatisfying it genuinely risks having the opposite effect.

Keen-eyed fans of movies who buy novelisations and comics adaptations, which have to be ready months in advance, occasionally get glimpses of a movie that’s not been released. Jabba the Hutt is in the book and comic of the first Star Wars movie. The ‘Storybook of The Movie of The Golden Compass’ has the same ending as the book. There are photos in the ‘Storybook’ that don’t appear on screen, proving that it was all filmed and got ditched at the last minute.

But this was clearly not a film that was working beforehand, and the problem is the script. Philip Pullman’s book is subtle, with beautifully developed themes, ironic narration that undercuts what’s said, and characters with opaque motivations and relationships that gradually reveal themselves. There’s a clockwork device that can tell the truth which is basically a metaphor for the story, which spins complex stuff from quite simple incidents, and encourages readers to question and interpret what’s told. A world like and unlike our own is gradually,
thoughtfully, presented to us. Chris Weitz’s script doesn’t bother with any of that, it’s choppy and episodic, and manages to combine absurdly on-the-nose dialogue (tellingly, while it retains the literal meaning, very little of it is directly quoting Pullman) with almost textbook examples of telling instead of showing. For all the talk of ‘following Lyra’s journey’, the key character point with Lyra – that she’s a brilliant liar, gradually learning how to use this gift for good, but placing herself in more and more jeopardy as she does so – is lost. It’s literally about her ‘journey’: where she travels, and she becomes an oddly passive figure for great swathes of the movie. The script of the stage play demonstrates that this could be avoided, that you could dramatize the story and retain the meat, and it did it in less time. The reviews that say the film is ‘too short’ aren’t quite right – the film doesn’t develop the story enough, but it needs quality more than it needs quantity to do that.

The Magisterium in the books was a totalitarian theocracy. Explicitly not the Catholic church, despite the controversy – anyone who has read as far as the first fifteen pages of the first novel would know it’s actually a globalised version of what Calvin did in Geneva – the great irony is that Pullman’s depicting an extreme version of Protestantism, although it’s fair to say that its criticisms of religion apply more broadly. The term ‘Magisterium’ is used by the Catholic church – but Pullman took it from Stephen Jay Gould, who felt the roles of science and religion could be expressed as a Venn diagram with two sets and no overlapping. The science/religion divide and the battle for ‘truth’ is the point of the books, but is missing from the movie. In the movie, the Magisterium are generic bad guys. There’s a line that vaguely alludes to the Fall, if you have eyes to see it. Their ‘M’ logo looks vaguely Masonic. But their evil seems to involve dressing in black, looking sinister and being run by Derek Jacobi (in full Professor Yana mode, although it’s undermined a little if you’ve been watching as much ‘In The Night Garden’ recently as I’ve been doing) and also Christopher Lee, who’s literally just sitting there radiating evil.

When it was announced that ‘religion’ would be left out of the movie, the outcry wasn’t because people were keen to advance their atheist ideological agendas. It wasn’t because, as the book is about religious groups growing in power by crushing dissent, no sentient being ought to have been able to bow to pressure from religions without dying of Irony Overload. It’s not even the religion, per se… although no-one’s ever brought out a movie called ‘The Passion of Some Bloke’. The problem is purely one of storytelling: if ‘His Dark Materials’ is not about science and religion, the Fall, belief, priests abusing kids, churchmen using politics and accumulating wealth… what is about instead? The movie never really answers that, and does feel a little like they made ‘Jaws’ but left out the shark. All the pretty beach stuff and characters and acting and spooky lighting and everything, but you do wonder where the bite went, why those people are going on that boat and what happened to the ending. If you want to be nice to the shark demographic, you might want to avoid adapting one of perhaps only half a dozen novels in the history of literature that are about giant sharks that go around eating people.

However, Chris Weitz and the studio, thankfully, aren’t quite able to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. The casting is superb. Pullman has said he based Mrs Coulter on Nicole Kidman’s character in ‘To Die For’. Now he hands Kidman back the role, and it’s her best performance in years, a sort of multilayered Disney wicked stepmother. This is a great movie for strong female roles. Eva Green manages to make something out of a part that’s essentially nothing. Both are strong, powerful, beautiful, poised, independent women in leadership roles, and girls are going to grow up wanting to be them and good luck. Dakota Blue Richards is a great find, too. Casting Lyra was one of the great problems with the movie. Tellingly, she was cast in the brief window Anand Tucker was directing the movie. The scene where she meets Iorek the bear is a showcase of her talents, and points to the slightly grubbier, darker movie this could have been. Daniel Craig does a great job with Asriel, but the character isn’t the extraordinary ‘absent presence’ who looms over the story that he is in the book.

The design work is great, although everywhere looks a little too clean and not-lived-in. The world retains touches of ours (the Gherkin is visible on the London skyline). The CG used for the daemons is a little cartoony, but this actually works well enough that we can pretend it was an artistic choice, and the opening scene, with a gang of kids chasing each other around, pursued by a flock of animals is lovely. There are some playful touches as daemons react to what we’re told – although it’s more ‘mood ring’ than subtle. There’s only one moment where the idea that they’re a window on the soul is really exploited – again, it’s Kidman, as she hugs her daemon, a truly ugly, snarling ape that’s the skull under her beautiful skin – and you can see they don’t really trust each other. Iorek is another great CG character, and Ian McKellan (imposed on the film by the studio so late that a different actor does the voice in the trailer that came out in October) plays the part in a suitably sombre way. Thankfully, the movie was in the can before teddy bears became the new battleground of religious controversy. Iorek is
fantastically brutal and murderous, drinks buckets of whiskey (literally) and hasn’t been toned down. For those moments, you see the un-frightened movie this should have been.

This is not a bad film, and the terrible reviews it’s getting seem to be because people were disappointed that one of the greatest, boldest books of recent years has been watered down and become a so-so film. Well – perhaps. I’m keeping my stock of that powder dry for ‘Watchmen’. I hope a lot of children see it, because I suspect they’ll love it. The new ‘Doctor Who’ stories I like least seem to be the ones kids love the most. Any child who loves ‘Doctor Who’ will like the movie of ‘The Golden Compass’, and then they’ll try the book and they’ll love that. As ever, it’s better in every way than any ‘Harry Potter’. It’s most like the ‘Narnia’ film, and probably just edges that one out.

The other reason is selfish – if they make ‘The Amber Spyglass’, and do it properly, we’ll get to see Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in a fist fight with an angel. That’s got to be worth supporting, hasn’t it?

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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