by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I pulled out The Golden Compass and ran that for my husband Charles, who had checked out the source books for this film, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (published under different titles in Pullman’s native U.K. than here; his title for book one was Northern Lights but The Golden Compass was the name it went under in the U.S.), from the local library. We'd both read them and I’d been quite impressed except for the depressing ending of book three. Later I read a New Yorker profile of Pullman in which he openly discussed his atheism (which was fairly apparent in the book’s depiction of the “Magisterium,” the head office of a resurgent Roman Catholic church, as among the principal villains), his conscious attempt to write His Dark Materials as an anti-religious (and specifically anti-Christian) answer to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia cycle, and how he thought that depressing ending was crucial to the meaning of the entire cycle and he would not allow it to be changed in a film adaptation. (Indeed, he seems to judge the people who meet him as likable or otherwise depending on how they responded to the ending.)
The film rights to His Dark Materials were bought by New Line Cinema in its glory days following the success of the three films based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the bosses at New Line and its parent company, Warners, were obviously hoping for a similar success — though they weren’t so optimistic as to film all three books consecutively before the first film in the cycle was released, the way they allowed Peter Jackson to do with Rings. Instead they filmed book one, The Golden Compass, and released it last December — whereupon it sank almost immediately into box-office oblivion. Outside the U.S. it did pretty well — apparently well enough to break even — but New Line kept the sequel projects in limbo, never announcing that they wouldn’t be made but never scheduling start dates for them either — and Pullman himself reported that they were in constant touch with him during the preparation for The Golden Compass but they haven’t been in contact with him since, a good indication that plans for future films in the series aren’t going forward. (Perhaps this will end up like Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first novel in Tolkien’s trilogy; it disappeared into movie limbo and wasn’t seen for over two decades, and then Peter Jackson stepped up to the plate and shot the whole trilogy and had one of the biggest hits in movie history.) It probably didn’t help that Entertainment Weekly voted The Golden Compass the worst adaptation of a novel into a movie made during 2007 (the next four were The Da Vinci Code, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Memoirs of a Geisha and Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder).
Actually The Golden Compass is quite a good movie, though hampered by a relatively short running time (113 minutes, 30 to 40 minutes under what Jackson got for the first two Tolkien movies) that forced writer-director Chris Weitz to butcher the books for their film versions even more than usual and leave out quite a lot of detail — the back story of the Panzerbjörne Iorek Byrnison and his battle to regain his self-respect and the kingdom he was unfairly done out of is incredibly poignant in the book and not so in the film because his regeneration and victory in single combat against his usurper happen way too fast to get us to care — and it also suffers from Weitz’s decision (much the way Bob Evans and Francis Ford Coppola caved to Mafia-dominated “Italian-American Defense Associations” and left the M-word out of the script of the first Godfather) to get coy about what the “Magisterium” really was and carefully avoiding it with the Roman Catholic church or any other real-word religion. (Needless to say, this didn’t stop the real-world Magisterium — the one in the Vatican — from launching a campaign urging people not to see the movie and urging New Line to forgo any plans to film the other two books in Pullman’s trilogy.)
The film’s greatest strength is the sheer panoply of digital visual effects needed and expertly deployed to bring Pullman’s fantasy world to life — particularly the “daimons,” the animal companions to all human beings in Pullman’s universe (at least the one depicted in book one; in books two and three his characters discover the “Door” that allows them to move from one universe to another), which in children can change shape but in adults “settle” into one shape as a symbol of the process of growing up. Though when I read Pullman’s novel I’d imagined much more physical contact between the people and their daimons (which I’d envisioned being pronounced “DY-mons” but which Weitz has his actors read as “DEE-mons,” giving them a “hellish” connotation Pullman carefully avoided in his books) — I’d thought that for the most part the daimons had to be in physical contact with their people and could only break contact for short periods, while in the movie the daimons roam around pretty freely and at one point even mass as part of the Samoyeds, one of the armies on the side of evil.
The heavy-duty digitalism at the root of this movie is a problem as well as an opportunity; though it would have been unimaginable to try to make this story in the film world before CGI, the effects do look rather “fake” at times; the fight between the two bears has the ineffable aroma of digital animation about it (for a while it looks like we’re watching a misplaced reel from a Pixar production) and I couldn’t help but think that Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen could have trotted out some of their trusty stop-motion models and made this scene more convincing.
Still, there’s much about The Golden Compass to like besides the virtuoso display of digital special effects: the movie is essentially faithful to Pullman’s vision (it’s not as deep and rich as the book, but show me a movie — aside from the now-lost director’s cut of Greed or maybe Huston’s The Maltese Falcon — that is as deep and rich as its source novel!) and Weitz’s direction achieves a real sense of wonder which we hardly get in big-budget fantasies anymore, a real sense of being in a world different from our own and yet with enough similarities to make it interesting and emotionally compelling. Weitz also lucked out in the casting of Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Bell’acqua, the central character; she is Pullman’s Lyra to the nines — tough, spunky, vulnerable, overwhelmed — and I only wish she could have played the scene in which she correctly intuits how to read the Alethiometer, the titular “golden compass” that’s presented in the movie much more as a straightforward oracle than its somewhat more ambiguous function in the book. It’s one of the best performances by a child I’ve seen (the only recent one that matches it is Kirsten Dunst’s turn in Interview with the Vampire, after which I correctly predicted adult stardom for her), refreshingly unsentimental and utterly convincing.
She actually puts a quite capable cast of adult actors in the shade — including Nicole Kidman, who got first billing as Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother and agent of the Magisterium, who’s organized a scheme to kidnap street children (including two boys who were Lyra’s friends before they were snatched) and subject them to “intercision,” which means severing them from their daimons and is alluded to in the dialogue as “just a little cut” — the rhetoric here is so close to the current propaganda campaign advocating circumcision of Third World adult men as an alleged anti-HIV “prevention” measure the parallels are quite chilling — and Weitz also dramatizes, far better than the book did, the fact that a person and his or her daimon are linked so tightly that when the daimon feels pain, its owner does too: a quirk of this fantasy universe unscrupulously exploited by the villains as a means of torture. The Golden Compass is a quite good film and I can only hope the other two parts of Pullman’s trilogy do get made sometime — and that Weitz or whoever else directs them can use the lessons from the parts of this film that didn’t quite work to make them even better than the first entry — though Charles and I both wondered (as we had with The Da Vinci Code as well) whether anybody who hadn’t read the book could make heads or tails of the often confusing and sometimes wrenching plot twists and elaborate mix of situations and characters.