Saturday, December 08, 2007

Reviewing The Golden Compass

I'll start here by noting that this review, while it avoids outright spoilers for either book or movie, has some things in it that will mean more if you've read the book rather than not. Since not reading the book would make you a silly person, go correct that lapse in your cultural education at your earliest convenience. Now, onward...

Chris Weitz's film of Philip Pullman's brilliant fantasy adventure The Golden Compass is a respectable adaptation in a lot of ways, but at the same time exhibits a lot of the problems inherent in trying to compress the plot of a complex novel into a two-hour running time. If I give the book a 5 on a 5 scale (and I do), then the movie is hovering around a 2½-3. Truth be told, Weitz did a better job than I was expecting. He's clearly a huge fan of the book and strives to be as faithful to it as he can within the limitations he has to work under. I respect him for trying to do his best by Pullman and the book's fans.

But what this means cinematically is that we get a movie whose story feels rushed, with Weitz doing everything he can to touch on each major plot point in rapid succession. The script just sails along, at such a pace that very little suspense is actually built. We establish the movie's universe, its heroine, and her quest — and then we're off to the races. Lyra, though extremely well played by a great little newcomer named Dakota Blue Richards (why is Dakota the moniker of choice for preteen actresses?), never really feels like she goes through a character arc in the normal sense of the term. She learns to use the aliethiometer, decoding its arcane symbols with almost supernatural speed, just so the script can get the story going.

Thinking about it, it isn't that the movie is too rapidly paced, so much as that it doesn't really have anything you could call "pacing." Its script just flings you from one scene to the next — boom, boom, boom — without much in the way of the dramatic peaks and valleys stories normally have to draw an audience in and give them a stake in the outcome.

Part of me wonders just how much studio interference Weitz had to endure from New Line. If The Lord of the Rings taught New Line anything, it's that doing epic fantasy that already has a built-in audience faithfully, and putting the project in the hands of a dedicated filmmaker equals a major box office love-happening. On the other hand, with $180 million at stake (each LOTR movie cost right around $100m by comparison), New Line clearly wasn't willing to give Weitz a Peter Jackson level of carte blanche. Three editors are credited, leaving me to wonder just how often the infamous moviemaking mantra "We'll fix it in post" reared its little fuzzy head during dailies. I'm not saying that a three-hour running time would have been for the best, but allowing for, say, 140 minutes would have given the movie a little space to breathe, and bring some moments back from the book that the script either excised or truncated in order to stay focused on Lyra's quest alone.

The cast is quite excellent. As Mrs. Coulter, Nicole Kidman is ideal. I like her as an actress anyway, though for this role I wasn't sure. Physically she's different from the novel, where she's a brunette, for one thing (when I read the book, I was picturing more someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones). But Kidman swans through the part looking about as glamorous as it's possible for a woman to look short of being sculpted out of ivory, and she conveys the character's seductive, fatal attraction to a tee. I also dug Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Craig, after proving himself the second best James Bond of all time (flame shields on), is turning into an actor I'll probably want to see no matter what he's in — wait, scratch that, I still have no desire to see The Invasion. Still, I like him, but of course, the script doesn't give him enough to do.

Sadly, other supporting characters are given short shrift, especially Serafina Pekkala, who's barely in the movie enough to matter. (The script's treatment of the witches is an exemplar of how awkwardly the movie translates ideas from the book. In the movie, we really don't get much of an understanding of who the witches are, why they're involved in this, or anything. They're just there, presumably, because they were in the book.) LOTR veteran Ian McKellan lends his voice to Iorek Byrnison, the disgraced bear prince who becomes Lyra's guardian. And though the movie succeeds in building their relationship (it's really the only relationship in the movie with any substance), the script doesn't give Iorek the sense of tragic pathos he has in the novel. Another LOTR alum, Christopher Lee, is prominently billed (how many octogenarian actors are getting as much work as he is?), but he has exactly one line and about ten seconds of screen time. Sam Elliott made for a very good Lee Scorsby, though I was picturing Billy Bob Thornton when I read the book. Elliott is better suited, I think.

As for the movie's whitewashing of the books' theological themes, well, this was interesting. The Magisterium is played less as a church than as a generic totalitarian governing body. But Weitz manages to keep in enough material about freethought (represented by Asriel and his scientific pursuits) versus dogma that I think fans of the book won't feel like the movie betrays the book's themes too drastically. How exactly any proposed movies of books two and three, though, will manage to slip around the whole "kill God" thing is a mystery to me. Weitz has said that he was willing to compromise certain things about this movie to fit them into more of an acceptable Hollywood blockbuster framework, so that its hoped-for box office success would mean he could take more chances with the sequels. I hope that wish comes true, because I predict that audience word of mouth on this movie will hover around "oh, it was okay, I guess," and TGC won't be looking at LOTR-level returns.

Among fans of the book, the biggest letdown is the movie's decision to end a little early, so that the movie can have a happy ending rather than the somewhat tragic one the book has. I think this is a choice that will backfire, not just because it's a mistake to think audiences only want all happy endings all the time, but because the happy ending we get here is so...well...bland. To have ended the movie the way the book ends (and I know I'm assuming you've read the book here) would have given the movie the one thing it utterly lacks: an edge, a willingness to take risks, to challenge its audience both intellectually and emotionally. You know, the very qualities the book is popular for. As it stands, the movie, while it stays true to the book's words as best it can, lacks its mind and its heart. And it lacks its truth. If only Weitz had had his own aliethiometer.

So yeah, I guess it's 2½. I don't want it to be an Eragon-level megabomb, because it's a worthier effort than that. I'd like it to at least make its money back, so that perhaps Weitz gets to make The Subtle Knife after all and take the risks he says he wants to take. So I'll say TGC is worth a matinee. Fantasy cinema that at least tries ought to get our support, if only so we get a great one now and again.


  1. i just read tome 1. and its ok. it had anti catholic church elements but its not outrightly upfront in the story.

    and those elements are not so far fetched from what is happening in our world.

  2. I really wanted to love the movie, since I love the books. I'd have to agree with your review, though. The movie felt rushed, like it had to hit each plot point within a certain timeframe, not leaving any room inbetween for anything else...such as character development. I still liked it, though. I'd give it around a 3 - 3.5.

    I'll go one further: I think Daniel Craig was the best Bond. :)

  3. I'm wondering if we'll see an extended "director's cut" DVD.

    And certainly Casino Royale was the best Bond movie in about, oh, 40 years.

  4. It will make a refreshing motion picture for a change, I think. After the fiasco of Niarna and it's atrocious series of books I'm more than eager to see something like TGC. The trailer was awesome! I can hardly wait to see it (it's gonna take some time to get the book tho...) No spanish version so far that I know, getting it from amazon seems the faster way to read it in the end.

    And about Casino Royale. It is the BEST bond movie ever (a more credible bond), what I like about that movie, is that they picture Bond as a VERY well trained operative, instead of a machine for whom every lady falls for. A very welcome change if you ask me.

  5. I just watched it with my crew. None of us liked it. Like you, I wanted to like it. In fact I've only read half of the first book, as has Keryn; my mom has read the whole first one and Ginny has read none.

    Ginny thought the plot seemed to be written by a 15 year old. Like you said, just yanking the audience from one scene to the next. Mom described it as a nonstop series of incredibly convenient coincidences; whenever Lyra arrives at one location, she is handily met by someone who knows exactly what she should do next.

    I give the movie some points for having CG FIGHTING BEARS. Because really, no matter how silly the plot is, you can make any geek happy by gratuitously throwing in some CG FIGHTING MUTHAFUCKIN BEARS. But still, when you come right down to it, the whole notion of having armored talking bears is pretty ridiculous in the first place.

    I don't know... I've been wanting to read the rest of TGC and the rest of the books, but frankly this movie made me feel much less interested in the whole series.

    Also -- too much exposition, and too many failed attempts at manipulating audience emotions. The ending felt goofy and useless to me.

    On the same 1-5 scale, I give the movie a 2. And the only reason it was that good was because of CG FIGHTING BEARS.

    Oh, and the daemons looked cool too.

    One last thing: is it just me, or did Sam Elliott play exactly the same character in this movie as he was in The Big Lebowski? I kept expecting him to turn to Lyra and say, very seriously: "Well, just remember that The Dude Abides. I take comfort from that."

  6. The books are brilliant, and have much more depth to them, and really should be read. The script just pared the story down to its barest plot essentials with little thought to the substance of what was going on, or developing its own dramatic rhythm. Remember, no movie based on a book is ever going to be as good as the book, even when the movie's good. So deciding not to read a book because the movie sucked isn't usually the best criterion.

    And I thought the bears, while well done, still, truth be told, looked more like expensive CG than real bears.

  7. I hope this movie turns out to be a useful gauge of the extent to which the US public will continue to allow itself to be told by religions what books it can read, what movies it can see, what ideas it can entertain, and what thoughts it can think. If the film has a good run at the box office despite the pre-release religious outrage, it might provide a small reason to be optimistic for the future of reason and thought in this country.

    Religious organizations are still permitted too much influence over film content. Most films are censored throughout the production process by religious reviewers. From scripts, to locations, costumes, and post-production dialogue editing, religious groups are given influence where they should have none at all. Hollywood still bows without warrant before that vile authoritarian Magisterium.

    Does anyone think that any time soon we will see a movie dealing honestly with Catholic priests sexually abusing children, the church's institutional conspiracy in perpetuating the priestly culture of child sexual abuse, the part played by the current pope in the conspiracy to cover it all up, and the absudity of considering religion a souce of moral guidance? Personally, I don't have much confidence that we will.

    I'm anxious to see reports of the public reception of the movie from the standpoint of its content since I think the movie makers have taken a great risk. I hope it pays off in profits for them and in optimism for the community of human reason.

  8. Religious organizations are still permitted too much influence over film content. Most films are censored throughout the production process by religious reviewers. From scripts, to locations, costumes, and post-production dialogue editing, religious groups are given influence where they should have none at all.

    Well, I actually happen to work in the film industry, and I can tell you it doesn't work this way. I've never worked on any film or TV show, nor has anyone I know, where any religious group was brought in during the production to vet what was going on. It just doesn't happen except for movies where the studio is trying to please a particular religious audience. The Narnia movies are being made with a distinct eye to pleasing a Christian audience, for instance.

    Certainly studios are reluctant to make any movie that might be perceived as an outright attack on religion, because they know that anything that can be construed as flagrantly anti-Jewish/Christian/Muslim whatever will result in a negative backlash that could impact box office. And if Hollywood is conservative about anything, it's not doing anything that will risk box office. Since a huge majority of the American populace who buy movie tickets are Christian, no studio is going to make a movie whose message is, "Oh, and all that Bible crap you believe in and cherish so much? Total dog's bollocks."

    Ultimately, Hollywood is after the easy box office dollar. And you don't get that by making movies that court controversy and risk alienating people. You get that by churning out safe formula entertainment. So it isn't about Christian groups having influence over productions. It's just about studios being highly risk-averse when they're pumping enough money into movies to buy a small country. Stirring up a hornet's nest is a good way to lose your shirt (to mix my metaphors).

  9. Martin,

    Thanks for the feedback and the correction.

    I will query more information from my friends in the film industry to see how I've arrived at such a false impression of the religion industry's influence over film.

    This is not a justification for my having made such an erroneous statement, but I have a brother who is an editor, several friends who are screenwriters, location scouts, actors, publicists, directors and producers, from each of whom I have taken the same impression over many years. That doesn't make me correct, it's just a simple factual statement of my own personal experience. Before I made my claim I should have dug further. Perhaps, what I have taken as a more formal process, has actually been their depictions of their own self-censorship based on the same market forces you note.

    Looks like I need to update my model.

    Thanks for the feedback Martin.

  10. Well, I should clarify that what I said applies more or less as a general rule. However, that doesn't mean there's never been a case where certain religious interests have directly sought to influence a movie that was in production. If any of your friends have worked on a specific project where that has actually taken place, it would be interesting to hear their experience. I look forward to hearing what you find out from them.

  11. In the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated", the undercover guys find out that there's a Catholic priest and a Pentacostal minister on the appeals board making the final decisions on movie ratings. This doesn't mean they have any say in the development of the movie, but a movies rating can make a huge difference in how wide a release it gets and how much it makes in boxoffice (especially if it gets an NC-17 rating)

    Just saying... Now, I don't work in the movie industry, and it's been a while since I saw that documentary, so I don't remember how much influence they get in the appeals board.

  12. "Remember, no movie based on a book is ever going to be as good as the book, even when the movie's good."

    I think one exception to that rule might be Fight Club. The movie was absolutely outstanding but the book was just okay (the author's first and weakest novel), with a lack of depth that will shock people who've seen the film.

    "Does anyone think that any time soon we will see a movie dealing honestly with Catholic priests sexually abusing children..."

    There are several good documentaries and I think a foreign film about a young priest discovering the corruption in his church is coming out soon, if that counts.

    Anyway, I've decided to just skip TGC, at least in theaters. I love the books too much to alter my mental images. Plus it'll be a while before any other movie looks good to me after the artistry of No Country for Old Men and the manly, indulgent fun of Beowulf 3D.

    Though... I'm still going to give I Am Legend a shot. Never got around to reading it but I enjoyed both The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man.

  13. I have to say, it felt like a rushed adaption of the cliff notes. The vehicles, the matte paintings, structures and of course the bears were awesome (except the shots with Lyra riding Iorek, which looked awful).

    Sadly I have to say the movie was a failure. I don't feel they left enough of the book in the movie to make any kid want to read the series, which was the point, right?

    I know there are some that hail the fact that this movie got made as a triumph, but I see it as potentially the opposite. The failure of this movie could mean the suits will become that much more skittish to touch any project that remotely stinks of atheism or anti-religion.


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