Title: The Golden Compass
Novel by Philip Pullman
Movie directed by Chris Weizt; screenplay by Chris Weizt; starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Dakota Blue Richards
This past Tuesday, the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s classic The Golden Compass hit stores nationwide. The His Dark Materials trilogy is one that is close to my heart and one of my top 5 favorite series’ of all time.
The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights UK title) is the first book in the trilogy. The story follows Lyra Belacqua—a young, precocious ‘tween. While this is a Young Adult book, it is anything but simplistic. Mr. Pullman deals with hefty, theological and moral issues in this series, and usually it can be found in both YA and adult SF sections of bookstores. While young adults can read this book (it is an adventure story and compulsively readable), the nuances and core issues that drive this book are more likely to be appreciated by older readers.
Lyra lives at Jordan College in Oxford University, under the careful watch and somewhat muddled instruction of the Professors there. While this sounds like a location in our own world, it is not—Lyra’s world is one where humans are bonded to their own personal “daemons”. Daemons are a physical manifestation of a person’s soul, but external to their bodies. Everyone has a daemon, and as one can imagine, they appear different for each person. Children, like Lyra, have daemons that are constantly shifting form (for example, from a moth to a snow cat), and continue to do so until the child passes through puberty—at which point, their daemon chooses a permanent form.
In the grand tradition of child heroes in these types of stories, Lyra has no father or mother, but she does have an Uncle, Lord Asriel, who comes to visit her occasionally. Lyra is a curious thing, and gets herself into a number of scrapes. As there are no other children at the College, Lyra spends her time playing with the ragtag “Gyptian” kids (the Gyptians are gypsies, but this society lives on boats), especially her best friend Roger. The book opens with Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon (Pan for short), sneaking into the Retiring Room—that is, the room reserved for the professors and their guests, and not for little girls. Curious Lyra just wants a peek, and is forced to hide in a closet when the Master himself enters the room unexpectedly. He asks a servant if everything is prepared for Lord Asriel’s visit—much to Lyra’s (quiet) delight. She watches the Master as he curtly dismisses the servant, and then takes out a decanter of Tokay—a fine, rich wine that happens to be Lord Asriel’s favorite drink—and mixes in a white powder before hastily leaving the room. Lyra, smart girl that she is, realizes that the Master has just tried to set up the poisoning of her only relative…and she now faces a crossroads, and it will change her life forever. When Asriel steps into the room, about to pour himself a glass of the wine, Lyra bursts out of the wardrobe, and tells him what she saw. Asriel, a powerful lion of a man, tells Lyra to hide in the closet and to watch the meeting that is about to take place very carefully—and Lyra, always ready for adventure, readily agrees.
Asriel gives his presentation to the Masters of Jordan College, asking for funding and further support for his research. As it turns out, his studies have found that in the Aurora Borealis (the titled Northern Lights), he has seen a city—a breach that extends into what looks like another world, or a parallel universe if you will. He then postulates about “Dust”—a taboo subject, as deemed by the Magisterium (the religious organization that controls Lyra’s world)—that this much feared substance is falling from the sky, from the northern lights. The Magisterium’s mission is to rid the world of Dust and its evils, whereas Asriel wants to study it; he is driven, convincing, and obsessed.
Lyra hears all of this, and now her curiosity is piqued—as is the reader’s. What exactly is Dust? Why is it so ‘bad’? This encounter and Lyra’s introduction to the scheming, political forces that shape her world are not lessons she will soon be allowed to forget.
Meanwhile, another force is threatening to turn Lyra’s world on its head—children are disappearing. Local kids disappear without a trace, taken by the mysterious “Gobblers”—a few weeks later they will write letters to their families…but something is terribly amiss. Lyra’s best friend, Roger, disappears and both Lyra and Roger’s family fears the worst. At the same time, someone new enters Lyra’s life. Mrs. Coulter, a glamorous, beautiful woman with her golden monkey daemon pays the College a visit. Completely enamored, Lyra becomes Mrs. Coulter’s new assistant (for some reason the woman has a great interest in her), and is whisked away from the drudgery of the College to a life of shopping and parties and looking pretty. Before Lyra leaves, however, one of the professors gives her an Alethiometer (titled Golden Compass): a special tool that tells the truth, but only if read correctly. He gives her strict instructions to hide the Alethiometer, and at all costs to keep it away from Mrs. Coulter, who is not what she seems.
Soon after moving in with Mrs. Coulter, she realizes something sinister is happening, and that she cannot trust her new mentor. Somehow, Mrs. Coulter, Dust and the Gobblers are all related—and Lyra begins her quest for truth. Aided by the Gyptians, she escapes on one of their long boats headed North to find her friend Roger, to stop the Gobblers, and to find Lord Asriel. The journey involves great Armored Bears (terrifying warriors) and Witches, Aeronauts, and a frightening revelation about who exactly the Gobblers are, and what they want with children.
This first book is only the very tip of the iceberg. The His Dark Materials trilogy—the name, you may recognize, is from Milton’s Paradise Lost—is incredibly complex, and challenges notions of science, religion, spirituality, morality, and everything in between. Philip Pullman’s trilogy is on the level of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in terms of literary significance. That is not a comparison I make lightly. On the surface, this may seem a children’s adventure quest, but this is no light, whimsical Harry Potter type tale. As I have said before, this book certainly can be read by Young Adults, but truly only really appreciated by an older audience.
These are must-reads for any reader—not just those who enjoy fantasy or speculative fiction, but fiction and literature in general.
Considering my emphatic endorsement for the book, you can imagine my delight when I heard there was to be a movie. Certainly, I never expected the movie to be as great as the book, and I was prepared for some of the darker materials to be glossed over—after all, it was being marketed as a family film, and as such themes would inevitably be heavily watered. I still, however, expected a fun, Harry Potter or Narnia type of film experience.
I can confidently say that the film adaptation of The Golden Compass is one of the worst I have ever seen.
Mind you, I WANTED so very much to like this movie. I even went to an advanced showing (I live in LA) for it, eager to be swept up in the magic. And really—how hard could it be to turn this into at the very least an entertaining adventure/quest type of deal?
I suppose I’ll start with the good. Some parts of the movie were awesome. I really liked the actor they picked for Lyra, who was very good with the whole sullen young girl thing, but at the same time was relateable and likeable (even if her acting was well…you know, a child’s). The actor for Lee Scoresby and his Hester were perfect, as was the voice for Pantalimon. I also loved some of the visuals—Lee’s aeronaut ship in particular was very cool. Also the fight between Iorek Byrnison and the other bear for King of the Ice Bears was breathtaking, and easily my favorite part of the movie.
But unfortunately, that’s about it.
After watching the film, I learned that the director was changed halfway through filming, but then the second director gave up after more filming, and subsequently the first director came back to finish the job.
Maybe this accounts for the weirdness that is this movie. It was rushed, choppy, and poorly directed.
Despite having a powerful, all-star cast, the performances and general script was horrendous. Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, heck even Christopher Lee (in his ONE scene) were awful, hokey, and just BLAH. These are great actors with considerable talent and I have seen what each of them is capable of—so I have to attribute this to poor direction. They were so over the top in every scene, feeling forced and completely melodramatic. Nicole Kidman was very charming and pretty as Mrs. Coulter, but holy crap was she cheesy! For example, there’s one scene after Lyra escapes from Mrs. Coulter’s clutches, and she is looking longingly at a photo of Lyra. Her monkey daemon comes along and angrily pushes aside the frame. Nicole Kidman SLAPS her monkey, but then croons to it, “I would never hurt you” and they have a cuddle. I kid you not. It was painful and embarrassing to watch.
Similarly, Lord Asriel’s scenes in the northern snow being chased by ridiculous looking north men (who speak a language that sounds like something you make up spur of the moment when you are 5 years old) was gawdawful. Even Lord Faa of the Gyptians was terrible, as was Serrafina Pekkala (head Witch). I understand the need for the studio to cut down on story to fit this into a single movie and keep it in the under 2hr range, but they TOTALLY assed out the witches (no introduction to their story at all besides Serafina hopping on board the ship and in her lame accent asking Lyra about Serrafina’s former lover, who happens to be on the ship). The scene where Lyra finds out what the Gobblers do to the kids is also cringe-worthy. The young actor for Billy Costa was not good. At all. Even a lot of the visuals were off—images of Lyra riding Iorek across the northern snow come to mind…It was as though I was watching a Coca Cola commercial.
The actual scenes involving the Alethiometer and Lyra reading it were cool when the symbols light up, but then the whole Dust showing the truth sequence gets very old, very quickly. There was a lot of emphasis on Dust, just as in the book, but almost nothing on Lyra’s understanding of particle physics (which is to be expected and forgivable). There were also a large number of wasted filler scenes, showing old dudes from the Magisterium sulking around talking about universal domination (laaaaame!!!). The whole corrupt religious power aspect was downplayed (understandable again, as I guess families and their children are the main market here); actually the whole religious aspect was downplayed in general. The Magisterium just looked like grumpy old men that want to rule the universe(s), with no real tie to forcing fealty to The Authority in the fashion of the Vatican. But…again, I was expecting that as religious critique is not really conducive happy PG family movies (certainly not in present day Christian America). Understandable, if somewhat disappointing. I do wonder, however, how the religious issue (which is central to the next two books) will be dealt with in the movie sequels. If they make it to term at all, that is.
The absolute WORST part of the movie is the ending.*** (No spoilers, but inferences, so…be warned)***
If you have read the book, you know the ending isn’t all roses and sugar and ponies. However, the movie ending decided to take a happy, abbreviated route, cutting out the last few chapters of the book (which ends dramatically and in very dark, desperate, heartbreaking fashion). I was in outrage in the theater.
I understand that movies almost always will be abbreviated and simplified from books. There are certain concepts and themes that work in books that just don’t on the big screen. However, The Golden Compass leeches the heart blood of the book and turns it into something soulless to the point of being unrecognizable.
And the worst part is—the movie isn’t even entertaining.
Book: 10 Perfection. This book, and the series in general is a landmark work of literary fiction that should be read by all. It is a modern classic that will be cherished for generations to come.
Movie: 1 One of the worst movie adaptations I have ever seen. I encourage fans of the book to watch the movie and form your own opinions about it, but in this reviewer’s mind, it was a complete train wreck. Had I not read the book and just watched the movie, perhaps I would have given this a 3 or 4 rating, but as it is I cannot in good conscience give it anything above the lowest possible grade.