This past Saturday, I got a sneak preview showing of The Golden Compass. Based on the first book of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, this film is a pretty clear attempt to launch a young adult fantasy franchise of Potter-ian proportions. Unlike the Potter films, which I kind of like without ever having read the books , I love the source material and entered the theater with that protective attitude that all true geeks have when seeing their favorite stories translated to a new medium. I vastly prefer Pullman’s series to Harry Potter because they are deeper, subtler, and more beautiful. It’s a difficult transition from book to film.
The story is set in a parallel world where technology has advanced only to a steampunk/Victorian level. Zeppelins float through the sky and crystals carry photographic images. There is also a race of flying witches and a tribe of armored polar bears. Its a lot to take in, and movies can’t spend the time filling in the blanks about the intricacies of this fantasy world. Most problematic is the concept of daemons. In the world of The Golden Compass, people’s souls live on the outside of their body anthropomorphized into talking animals that follow them around. It’s an interesting idea, and the movie sets about explaining it in the opening narration but it is so central to the story that a more nuanced explanation of the concept would have been nice. The movie has to kind of throw the viewer into the deep end and let them pick up the subtleties and intricacies of the world as they go along. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but overall the film succeeds in translating the story.
Our hero is Lyra, a young girl with a penchant for mischief who finds herself swept up from her Oxford home and dragged into a grand quest involving kidnapped children, pirate kings, witch prophecies, and royal intrigues in the polar bear court. Generally, I abhor movies with children as protagonists. They annoy me and my annoyance grows exponentially with the precociousness of the lead. But I will make an exception for Lyra. She is tough and resourceful but not over the top about it and never cutesy. Her main strength is that she is a liar, a trickster. All the performances are strong, especially Nicole Kidman oozing evil sex appeal (the best kind) and some relatively brief appearances by Daniel Craig. The two play researcher/adventurers who have an interest in something called Dust and in Lyra. Sam Elliot plays an airship pilot and my strong desire to take him about for a beer increases with every movie I see him in. It started with (the Big Lebowski).
Perhaps the coolest character in the books who I was worried about on film is Iorek Byrnison. He is a panzerbjorn, or armored bear. Which is just as bad-ass as you imagine it would be. I mean polar bears are already death machines, but when you wrap them in metal it makes them unstoppable. There is an extended set peiece of the film where two armored bears battle each other ursino a ursino and it was visceral and awesome.
The Golden Compass deals with questions of faith and spirituality and the conceit of the daemon as soul is important. It’s caused a fair bit of controversy from religious groups because the His Dark Materials trilogy was very much a work against religious authority. The movie has dialed that down a notch, softening the edges of the autocratic Magisterium that rules the world of the Golden Compass by turning them into a more generic Evil Empire and a less explicitly religious Evil Empire of Catholicism and General Religious Dogma. The fact that people are always running around talking about “demons” probably won’t score the film any religious endorsements either.
The Golden Compass ends at a point way before the book does, which is problematic. I guess I understand the need to end a (relatively) upbeat moment and hope for the sequels, but there are some very character-defining plot points in the section of the story that the film-makers chopped out. Presumably, they will pick up where they left off for The Subtle Knife but leaving out the things they did really changes the way people view certain characters. (I’m thinking about Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel here).
Movies are not books. They can’t be. Adaptation creates a different animal. Taken on its merits, I think The Golden Compass is a good film, if not great. The strange world of Lyra’s Oxford and the Arctic wastes is very pretty and director/screenwriter Chris Weitz handled the problem of merging the mundane and the fantastical with a deft hand. Which is impressive, considering he also brought us American Pie. Certain things get lost in the translation and that is to be expected. Certain other things like Pullman’s overt anti-religious overtones are noticeably played down if not completely abandoned. But his story shines through. Lyra’s quest engages the viewer and I think it will encourage them to accept the more outlandish fantasy elements. It probably won’t drive hordes of young people to atheism and it may or may not draw potential new readers in to the world of His Dark Materials. I know it made me want to reread them.