A dismal, unsatisfying and confusing adaptation of a great book. Avoid this one like the plague, especially if you have read the book. Or even if you are planning on reading the book.
I should have known. When I originally heard that New Line was planning on adapting all three volumes of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, starting with The Golden Compass, I thought, “Wow, that’s awfully gutsy for a major studio”.
You see, the trilogy covers the epic journey of a young girl on a parallel version of Earth, joined by various friends and opposed by numerous enemies. The action takes place on her own world, and then, after the first volume, on our world and then many other worlds. It culminates ina battle of the forces of good against… well, God and the Catholic Church, basically.
Yes, in His Dark Materials, God is an evil overlord who uses religion (specifically, the Catholic Church on our world, and its corresponding entity on other worlds) to control and enslave mankind. And the little girl Lyra, accompanied at the end by rebel Angels and others, finally succeed in destroying God and freeing the universe from… His Dark Materials.
Well, if that doesn’t have “Studio Blockbuster” written all over it, I don’t know what does!
The book(s) are about a lot more than that, and I’m summarizing it a bit loosely to make the point, but it is very far and away from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. The Golden Compass, the book that starts it off, is downright subversive in its appeal. It’s only after you’re into it for a 100 pages or so that you go, “Hey… wait a minute… what the hell…” as you start to realize that this fantasy story with talking animals, armored polar bears, and flying witches is really about A Lot More Than That.
Just as C.S. Lewis used his Narnia tales to teach a thinly-veiled allegory for Christianity, Pullman uses the three books including The Golden Compass to issue a thinly-veiled allegory for atheism (or really agnosticism, I suppose, since in Pullman’s works God is actually real, he’s just evil). It’s hugely popular in the non-U.S. parts of the western world, mainly in the U.K. and Australia, and reasonably popular among “weird kids” in the U.S.
Now, I personally loved The Golden Compass (the book!), as well as the other two novels that continue and complete the story, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. But I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not suitable for everyone, and it definitely would offend and upset a large percentage of American parents. I mean, the people who protested Harry Potter actually have a solid argument about this series!
I guess New Line thought that if Harry Potter and Narnia were such big hits, they’d pull up another popular Young Adult Fantasy Series and give it a go. That’s what I thought when I heard they were going to adapt the books into big-budget films. I wondered what they would change…
The next thing I heard about the movie was some months later, when Nicole Kidman was cast in the part of the lead villain, Mrs. Coulter. I thought the casting was perfect. In the books, Mrs. Coulter is a beautiful, stylish, and deeply evil woman who actually tortures children. On purpose. And when they die (yes, children actually die in this series), she shrugs her shoulders and moves on. I thought Kidman would eat that part up.
But then Kidman said she would never act in any film that was not respectful of the Catholic Church and all that it stood for, and that “of course” all those elements had been “removed” from the film. I went back and re-read The Golden Compass. It seemed to me that if you just removed “those elements”, the story would not make any sense at all. And as it turns out… I was right.
The Golden Compass (the movie) is an antiseptic, by-the-numbers adaptation. Sure enough, all references to religion in any way, shape, or form have been removed. All tonal references to growing up sexually, or to the concept of a soul (“dust”, as it’s called in the novels) has been removed as well. Unfortunately, they weren’t replaced by anything.
So throughout this movie, we have no idea why anyone is doing anything. Why is Lyra given the golden compass? What is its purpose? Why does it matter that it tells the truth? Why does “The Magisterium” want to separate humans bodily from their animal other halves (daemons)? What are the flying witches? What are the armored bears? What is dust? None of these concepts or actions are explained in the film. Not even in a vague, comic-book-explanation kind of way. They are just… presented. Like someone made a PowerPoint summary of the plot of the novel in bullet points, and then they just filmed it.
Even the special effects look half-hearted and sterile. In this day and age, with CGI art being what it is, it’s not much of a challenge to make a talking polar bear or a flying witch. But to make such things look real and lived-in, especially when you’re supposed to be looking at actions on an entirely different world, takes real care and art. And apparently no one cared.
The whole movie looks like a video game, or, as Frank said while we were watching it, “one of those awful new Star Wars movies”. It never looks like anyone actually lives in it – it just looks… well, clean, crisp, and fake.
And by not explaining why or what anything is, the story just makes no sense. Here is my prime example: A linchpin of The Golden Compass is that on Lyra’s world, human minds (and souls) are split in half, physically. Half is inside your head, the other half resides inside an talking animal companion that is always at your side. This companion is referred to as your “daemon”. Every person has one. The types of animals are different, although usually the type of animal is representative of the overall type of person you are. Up until puberty, your daemon changes from one type of animal to another, as your personality forms. But once puberty hits, you daemon fixes forever on one type of animal. People know who you are, in a sense, by your daemon.
On Lyra’s world, the “internal dialog” that we have inside our heads is held instead with your daemon, all the time. All daemons, of course, talk. And there is a taboo, very strong, that you never, ever touch another person’s daemon. And, if anything happens to your daemon, it happens to you (and vice versa). If your daemon is killed, you die – and vice versa. And if your daemon is physically separated from you somehow, you would both die. After all – how could you live with half of your mind, or half of your soul?
All of that is very, very important to understanding even the basic plot of The Golden Compass. And almost none of that is explained in the movie. One key point about any scenes in the book is that there is always a certain amount of physical distance between people, so that daemons don’t touch when walking down a street, for example. Imagine a crowd scene where everyone is at least three or four feet apart from everyone else, so that their daemon has room to stand as well as not touching anyone else’s daemon. It would look quite cool if done right…
…but all of that is completely ignored in the movie. Daemons are there, of course, but most of the time they’re just thrown in as random CGI critters milling around people. Crowd scenes were obviously shot as normal crowd scenes, and then CGI animals were stuffed in around the edges. Sometimes you see people with their daemons, sometimes you don”t. No one pays any attention to them, and no one makes space for them.
And because none of this is explained or illustrated properly, the horror of what the church is doing to the children in the film – physically removing and killing their daemons while somehow leaving them alive with half of their minds – is also not explained. And so the horror is not felt. All we see is one child saying, “Where’s my rat?” and looking pale. In the book, this same scene is absolutely horrifying – because you realize that what the villains are doing is lobotomizing children so that they will become zombie slaves without free will. In the movie, however, it comes across as if they’ve just hidden a boy’s rat somewhere. Barely “evil” at all.
The whole movie is like that. Concepts from the book are kept intact, but all reasoning and explanation for them is dropped – probably because the filmmakers were afraid they’d offend somebody. As a longtime fan of the book, I was angry, annoyed, and very disappointed.
Frank, however, had never even heard of the book. HIs summation was that the movie was boring, sterile, and made no sense at all. We’d pause it every five minutes when he’d go “What the hell?” I’d try to explain it using the book version as a reference.. which was a losing battle.
Honestly, this film is terrible. Sure, there are some pretty visuals here and there, but that is absolutely all there is. It is so glaringly obvious that no one – not the writers, not the actors, not the producers – cared about the source material of this movie at all. I would be willing to bet that only a very few people involved even bothered to read the book.
Thankfully, this film tanked at the domestic box office. I fervently hope that they never make the rest of the series into movies. What in the name of all that is good would these people do to the climatic battle to overthrow God out of heaven in The Amber Spyglass, I’d love to know.
Don’t watch this movie. Don’t buy this movie. But if you love well-written, challenging fantasy, read The Golden Compass. And see the perfect version in your head, not on the screen.