Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” is one of my favorite books, so my review of the movie is duly biased. However, it was an interesting film that showcased some of the difficulties in adapting this kind of book to the screen.
See it. Go on. This isn’t a “best. movie. evar.” type of recommendation, but you should see this movie, despite the bad stuff I’m going to say about it. Pullman’s novel is very cinematic, so much so that it would be difficult not to produce some pretty good movie moments. There are plenty of the exotic locales and wild battles set to cinematic music that we’ve come to expect from fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings. Chris Weitz seems fairly competent as director, and the acting stands out as particularly good, with great performances from Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Madame Coulter, and Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby.
Like any film based on a complex novel, “The Golden Compass” has too much ground to cover. The plot holds together reasonably well, or at least it gets to more or less the same places, sometimes by different routes. As a minor example, the screenwriters invent a pretense for Lyra to be in the Retiring Room at the beginning, whereas book Lyra is simply snooping. The changes work in some places, by simplifying the climactic sequence of events, for instance, but they also leave things out, particularly the pivotal ending. I suspect New Line eliminated the cliffhanger because of their uncertainty about sequels. And some of the changes are just silly: the writers replaced all references to “The Church” with “The Magisterium” in order not to offend religious folks, but the religious symbolism still being present, it’s likely just to make the message seem like subliminal secular propaganda rather than a straightforward parable about the dangers of medieval-style organized religion.
But these complaints are secondary. Here’s the main thing: the storytelling is incomplete, and sometimes lazy. (Lazy storytelling, you say? In movies? Never!) The narrative is what creates the world, more than any number of fancy visuals, and the storytelling in this novel has put it on peoples’ ‘best-of’ lists. The screen adaptation rushes through, rolling out threads but weaving them together artlessly or not at all. The connections between characters and events aren’t always clear, characters’ motivations aren’t fully explored, and some of the themes get lost.
Gimmicks don’t help. There’s a fascinating sequence when Lyra first uses the golden compass and begins to intuit meaning from its symbols: the snake represents cunning, she explains, and so forth. The scene works, and it begins to draw us into the symbolism and mystery that are so crucial to the world of “The Golden Compass”. For some reason, however, that’s all we get. Subsequently, whenever Lyra looks into the compass, we dive into a sort of CG fireworks show in which various images float past. Perhaps it’s trying to show us what Lyra is seeing, but it doesn’t work. It’s stupid, it makes it look like magic when it shouldn’t, and it’s lazy use of CG when Richards is quite a good enough actress to tell the crucial story of her growing connection with the golden compass.
It would have been a lot to expect, but here’s what the makers of this film needed to do: cut out some of the wide shots of landscapes and so on, if necessary. We’ve seen it before. And add some length — there’s no reason to cram this film into 1 hour and 53 minutes when the shortest “Lord of the Rings” was 2 hours, 58 minutes. Then use that extra time for storytelling (it’s show and tell, remember, not just show). Explain how Iorek was able to trick Iofur Raknison (sorry — Ragnar) in the fight, even though bears cannot be tricked, because Iorek knew that Ragnar was behaving like a human and that Lyra had been able to trick him. Reveal some of the witches’ motivations, rather than just having Eva Green float down awkwardly now and then.
I know I’m dissatisfied in part because you can’t read these books without creating your own mental movie. No film adaptation could quite match that experience. “The Golden Compass”, however, needed a more artful storyteller behind the wheel. Instead of becoming a great movie in its own right, it’s fun — but sadly forgettable.