I went into The Golden Compass with lowered expectations, having heard in advance that it showed all the usual flaws of novel adaptations:
- Frenzied leaping from place to place and plot point to plot point, since contemporary novels are almost invariably too long to squeeze comfortably into a 2-hour film.
- Undue emphasis on the gee-whiz visual elements (in this case, armored bears) at the expense of dramatic tension and other elements you’d think would justify it as a story performed by actors.
- Dilution of the novel’s spirit and themes; a defanged story crumpled and twisted into the shape of a Hollywood movie.
Any one of these alone would have been easy enough to overlook, but the combination of all three made the film kind of a drag. But the book itself wasn’t perfect; I really had trouble warming to it, and after I finished reading it years ago I didn’t really want to pick up the next two books. And then I read more about Pullman’s story and what he was trying to do, and got interested enough to give the second book a try, which fortunately is so different from the first and third as to seem like part of a different trilogy. So even though the third book is a bit of a mess, overcrowded and rushed, I still feel grateful for a fantasy epic that pits feisty, intelligent children and their allies against the church.
Because, yeah, you’ve heard correctly: the books are, in a superficial sense, about killing God. Milton is the name that usually comes up in connection with the books, but here’s where I admit that I earned a degree in English without reading word one of Paradise Lost. I’ve read Blake, though, and while I never got through much of his longer work I know enough about his theology to see what Pullman’s done. Blake believed, as do the characters in this trilogy, that the being worshipped as God is an impostor, a false and foolish and lesser spirit whose authoritarian pronouncements Blake saw as evil and anathema to life. Those who wish to see God will still find it in His Dark Materials, but most explicitly not in the form of an old white-bearded man who wants us to be born into debt for a sin we did not commit.
None of this is more than hinted at in the film, partly because it’s still the first installment, but also most certainly because in America we are terrified of offending religious groups. That’s why it’s unfortunate that an American studio is making these films; I have to figure a British company would leave the themes explicit and intact. But then they might not have as much money for animating the armored bears and the daemons, which I have to admit look pretty good, even if Pantalaimon does resemble Puss ‘n Boots from Shrek from time to time.
Visually the film is pretty great, and for me that still counts for a lot. The college, the Magisterium (that’s the church, son), Mrs. Coulter’s apartments and zeppelin, and the intercision facility at Bolvangar all had distinctive, gorgeous looks. The gold and brown color schemes and the ornate brass reminded me of another flawed movie adaptation I happen to love deeply, David Lynch’s disowned Dune. There were plenty of places where a little more visual imagination would have helped fill in the background while we rushed through the story, but I was satisfied with what we got.
The acting was pretty solid, including the kids, and the casting is terrific. Dakota Blue Richards does a terrific, knowing job as Lyra; you can see her acting, and not just emoting like most kids her age. Daniel Craig’s a fine Lord Asriel, if he seemed a bit distracted in this first installment. And Nicole Kidman, who’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite actresses, is a fantastic Mrs. Coulter. The best scenes in the movie involve her and Lyra; you can see their shared traits, feel their conflicts with each other and themselves, and you yourself are torn as Kidman shows you Coulter’s cruelty and compassion in equal measures.
I have to say, though, that the armored bear stuff still bored me to tears. I don’t mind them in theory; I just wish they were in a different movie.
So: not a great movie, really, and arguably not even a good one, but an encouraging one, since all of its major flaws are problems you could have predicted before you knew anything about the production, and its virtues are likely to carry over to the next two installments. The shocker with Pullman’s novels is how straightforward they are; having to read between the lines of a story like this, as you still can in the movie, is much more the norm in children’s fantasy. So if this movie draws kids to the books, as in this post-Potter age it just has to, then all will be well.