The Golden Compass

I went to see the aforesaidmentioned film last night.

It was good.

But only good, not excellent. Sadly, the film didn’t pack the punch of the books, have the engrossing, loveable characters, or the careful explanation of the strange world in which the story takes place. Much was missed out from the books, corners were cut, and the plot often inanely advanced, in a film which did not need to do any of these things and which could easily have lasted another thirty or forty minutes.

That said, it was visually stunning. The gorgeous, gothic architecture of the alternative reality’s Oxford and London were thoughtfully, cleverly and beautifully created, and the special effects, not least in the daemons, bears and final battle sequence, looked impressive. Much of the scenery, such as in the Arctic, was great, and places like Trollesund and Bolvangar were just as I had imagined.

The acting, too, was (mostly) excellent, with the previously unknown actress behind the main character, Lyra, doing a good job. Nicole Kidman was also nothing less than perfect as the beautiful but sinister Mrs Coulter. There were many other famous faces and top-drawer actors in the book, but sadly we just didn’t get enough of their characters – Christopher Lee, for instance, appeared to have been hired to deliver one short line in one simple scene.

It’s a real shame that the film came out like this – one defence of trimming down the film, I suppose, was to make it more accessible to children. But then, as I wrote a few days ago, this is not a story for the young, and most teenagers should be able to cope with two and a half to three hours of cinema.

And it was not just the unflowing way in which the narrative jumped, it was the things that were missed out – such as a full description of the effect and influence of the aurora borealis; a full explanation of exactly why the Magsterium were doing what they did; the backgrounds of the witches, gyptians and bears; or more about Lyra’s importance to everyone’s destiny.

So while it was a perfectly enjoyable film, and will probably fit well within the context of the trilogy (once it is completed), the story (and viewer) was never given a chance to linger or be immersed in the strange, wonderful universe in which events unfolded. In short, the film was such a wasted opportunity.

Maybe my disappointment – and the lukewarm reviews – are down to the Tolkien factor: the Lord Of The Rings films were not only acclaimed adaptations, but simply among the best films ever made. For years to come, fantasy films will inevitably stand in the shadow of hobbits.

Or it could just be that the film illustrates the passable mediocrity you get when you take God out of the equation…

3 thoughts on “The Golden Compass

  1. That’s pretty much exactly how I felt about the film.

    One thing I was really disappointed about was that they didn’t explain daemons as well as the book, and didn’t impress upon the viewer jsut how bad it is to touch someone elses daemon. It’s one of the worst things you can ever do, and you just didn’t get that feeling from the film.

    Still, as you say, it’ll fit well with hte other two, should they get made.

  2. I pretty much agree with all your points. It was a solid, if uninspired, adaptation of the novel, keeping a lot of the good stuff but losing most of the brilliant stuff and nearly all of the subtlety.

    Good Stuff
    Acting: generally excellent. Bond was good in his (pretty much) one scene; the Gyptian King was excellent; Scoresby was exactly as I had expected and wanted.
    Polar bears: very well done. I hadn’t ever really thought (unlike you) that the books were too much for children, but the end of the big fight certainly sent a ripple of reaction around the young in the cinema that I was in.
    Plot: surprisingly intact. I expected it to lose much more of its bite than it did.
    Tone: again, surprisingly intact. Darker then the average flick.
    The golden monkey: perfect.

    Indifferent stuff
    Casting: I didn’t think Kidman was spot-on. She just doesn’t seem to cut it as a super-beauty or ice queen. When reading the books, I always had a Cate Blanchett-style ethereal beauty in my head. Christopher Lee seemed a waste of a fine actor. And why cast Bond if he is barely in it?
    Daemons: the actual visual execution was fine, but they just seemed massively underplayed to me. In the book you get how important they are to a person; in the film, when Lyra is about to be ?intercised you just kind of shrug.
    Visualisation: Generally good, but I always saw it as a kind of retro-world with more of a “steam power” look. I know the book is explicit about the electricity, but the “retro-futuristic” look of the vehicles (and London) jarred with me a bit. Oxford was excellent, though.

    Bad stuff
    Acting: the actor playing Roger was beyond terrible. There are good child actors out there: surely after one day on set they could have realised and re-cast?
    Subtlety: They didn’t start off the Harry Potter films with a voiceover summarizing the main thrust of the books, so why did this film need it? One of the joys of the book is gradually working out exactly what a daemon is, and why tell us at the start that Lyra is part of a prophecy?
    Storytelling: seemed to be all over the place. Anybody who had not read the book will have been lost by some of the A to D (missing out B and C) plot points; the focus seemed to jump around randomly (see Asriel’s appearances in the film). The film had been cut so short that there was no time for plot development, so things like Lyra working out how to use the Compass and who the gobblers are seemed contrived.
    Characterisation: almost entirely absent. Would a non-reader of the books care for any of the characters? I’m not sure.

    I did enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, but on balance I think the film was best left un-made. It wasn’t quite good enough to spawn the two sequels, so I can see why they didn’t include the “hanging” ending; they also managed to neatly side-step the God issue, but I really don’t see how they can avoid it in the second and (particularly) third films. How do you de-God angels, the underworld/Hell, battles in Heaven, and the overthrow of religion? And why should you even try? Children didn’t go running to church after Narnia, so why would they run away after Pullman? We seem to constantly underestimate the intelligence of the younger generations.

    Wow, this was a long comment. It’s almost like I am avoiding doing real work…

  3. Thanks for your review Simon, good to get some background from someone who’s read the books. I did a wee post on it too, comparing and contrasting with Narnia 2 years ago.
    I wonder if you’re in NZ just now…
    count me in on your circular email when you’re next down in Glasgae…

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