December 7th came and went, as will the hubub around the release of The Golden Compass. As I expected, the film did not quite capture the magic of Pullman’s book thanks to changes in the story and the length of the film. I saw most of the negative reviews of the film before going and must admit, thankfully, that I was still pleasantly surprised. It certainly is not nearly as bad as the worst reviews make it out to be and definitely makes for good holiday viewing, especially if you have already read the book. For the most part, I feel like the evangelicals won…or Pullman sold out…or both given the absence of overt religious dialogue; however, Catholics, if they have the time and energy, might feel more than a little slighted.
The film basically follows the plot of the novel but speeds it up considerably to account for a two-hour run time. All the good parts are present, though, with wonderful set design and production value. The film’s major flaw is its speedy character development and relationship building. We get a three minute voice-over introduction to Pullman’s magical world, which, of course, feels a tad elementary, and then we’re off on a disjointed tour of this parallel world. The daemons are rather quickly explained, but thankfully do not distract from the actors. Their presence is one of the highlights of the creative team behind the film; however, the director Chris Weitz fails to convey the deep bond between humans and their daemons, and, towards the end, when this bond is put to a deadly test, we have not been emotionally involved enough to care about the characters in danger.
There are, of course, two major changes to the novel. The first, and most publiciczed, is Weitz’s decision to downplay the overt involvement of religious institutions in the story. The Magisterium is no longer the church but some sort of ambiguous political, social rule-maker that humans are, for some untold reason, bound to obey. There are numerous points in the film where it is painfully obvious that the script-writers could not create alternative dialogue to carry the same meaning. As such the Magisterium is more confusing than powerful, and if we try to correlate it to something from our own experience, then it must be akin to a political system that, along with governing in a legal sense, seeks to police the population morally as well. Uh-oh! It now appears that Pullman is out to offend not only conservative religious audiences, but their political affiliations as well.
Of course, even though the filmmakers wanted to downplay the more overt religious dialogue to appease a wider audience, religious trappings still fell through what appear to be very wide cracks. First and foremost, the Magisterium is unashamedly Catholic. The leaders are all clothed in papal garb and revere each other in a hierarchical fashion. Their headquarters resembles a large cathedral, and if you look close enough, you will see that their symbol is centered around a cross. These will obviously jump out at anyone who has read the book. Unfortunately, these not-so-subtle religious hints undermine the secularization of Pullman’s theological dialogue, especially when they are juxtaposed to Mrs. Coulter’s (Nicole Kidman) description of the Magisterium, and life under it, to Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards).
Fans of the series will also lament another major change to the novel. Weitz et al made the decision to lop off the last one hundred pages or so of the book, opting for a happy ending as opposed to the tragic betrayal at the end of the book. I must say that I am not terribly offended by the filmmakers’ decision here. Had they included it, the film would have ran much too long; and, moreover, potentially turned off some audience members to the possibility of a sequel. If a sequel is given the green light, then the filmmakers will have an engrossing first act that will certainly draw viewers further into the story. If they choose, for a second time, to leave out this crucial aspect of the story, then I’ll let the frustrations fly.
In the end, I wish that the filmmakers would have concentrated on not only making the characters’ daemons more life-like but that they would have more effectively emphasized the depth of the connection between humans and their daemons. Without the knowledge from having read the book, the plot might seem a little disjointed and the journey to the arctic without any clear purpose. These shortcomings aside, The Golden Compass contains some wonderful performances, especially from Kidman, Richards, and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby. On top of all this, the fight scene between two humongous polar bears is not to be missed.
The Golden Compass (113 mins) is in theaters everywhere and is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence.