The Golden Compass
Written & Directed by Chris Weitz
Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Freddie Highmore (voice), Sam Elliott, Ian McKellen (voice), Eva Green
New Line Cinema
In a parallel world in which clockwork technology rings more steam-punk than silicon, and each human soul manifests as a talking animal companion with a mind of its own called a daemon (pronounced “demon”), a young girl finds herself cast at the center of her society’s greatest conflict — the struggle between science and religion.
The orphaned girl Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) and her shape-shifting daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), who have thus spent their youth as wards of Jordan college (this world’s equivalent of Oxford) living and learning among the foremost intellects of sciences and metaphysics, are set on a path that could change the nature of life itself on not only their world, but for all worlds in the ‘multiverse.’
This is definitely my kind of story.
I’m sure there are those of you who have the same difficulties as I do forming your own mental visage of characters and environments from a novel when you’re in the unfortunate position of reading it after you’ve seen it on film, so when I caught a whisper some moons ago that film adaptations were planned for Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy, I immediately made it a priority to read the books so that I wouldn’t be cheated of my imagination’s version of them.
It seems that with each additional book-to-film adaptation I see, the more I grow to appreciate the source material and the less I appreciate the movie studio’s version of events. And it’s not only that I feel the Hollywood machine rarely gets stuff like this right — well okay, I kinda do… I mean thank GoD Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code protagonist) was NOT portrayed by Tom Hanks in the theater of Dave3’s mind… am I right people? — but in particular that there are elements of such controversial and complicated natures in the His Dark Materials books that for their own sake, Hollywood can’t try very hard to get them right.
That said, let’s first explore what director Chris Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, and his team got right.
For starters the world of The Golden Compass is stunning. The production design and visual effects are spot on. They’ve captured the very essence of this alternate reality as I had pictured it. Steam-punk dirigibles, cold fusion carriages, malevolent clockwork mosquitoes, armored polar bear warriors, morphing animal daemons — all the elements unique to Lyra’s world are seamlessly woven together to create a believable foundation for her story to unfold in.
Then we have the casting. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards puts forth an amazingly strong-willed and believable performance. According to IMDB trivia, Richards beat out over 10,000 for the part of Lyra Belacqua, and it’s clear why — she’s an excellent actress. Nicole Kidman is effectively captivating and enigmatic. Her presence in each of her scenes demands your attention exactly as her character of Mrs. Coulter would. And though his screen time is limited, the severely spot-on casting choice for me was Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby. I’ll admit that even when reading the books I eventually pictured Elliott as Scoresby. I couldn’t help it. Ever since The Big Lebowski any time there’s a rugged, out-of-place, end-of-the-line, western-type character in my fiction there’s a good chance he’ll slowly morph into Elliott within the confines of my imagination. And on down the list the casting continues to be excellent. Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen (voice), Ian McShane (voice), Kristin Scott Thomas (voice), Kathy Bates (voice)… whew!
Visuals and cast are two indispensable ingredients for a successful film adaptation, but the third element — execution — is where the battle is won in my opinion. I’ll cite League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a perfect example of when only having two out of three IS bad.
After two viewings I’ve come to a few solid conclusions. The first is that The Golden Compass is a clear victim of bad dungeon mastering (thanks, Greg), which the layman can take as meaning blatant contrivance and bad timing. Sure we all go into the theater knowing we’re going to watch a scripted fantasy, but a good adaptation should never allow you feel like that’s exactly what’s taking place. At times I felt the passing impression that I was attending a PowerPoint-esque presentation about The Golden Compass instead of a movie, as if the filmmakers knew there were, let’s say, ten key plot elements that had to make it into this picture by hook or by crook, and how the central characters progressed from one element to the next was deemed immaterial.
A Witch says (paraphrased) ‘When you reach Point X you’re going to meet someone who’ll help you on your quest.‘
So, you reach Point X in a rapid series of cut-scenes, and seconds later (nine, for those counting) said prophesied man has made your acquaintance and you’re just a few cut-scenes away from Point Y. TiVo couldn’t have done it better. Seriously, other than remarks like ‘Boy, we’ve been traveling for hours!‘ there was absolutely no sense of a passage of time. Even though the events in this movie likely took months, for all we’re shown one can easily argue that it all occurred over the course of three or four days.
I have little insight into whether this is due to Weitz’s screenplay and direction or entirely a product of the film’s editorial team of Anne V. Coates, Peter Honess, and Kevin Tent. Since it’s more than just a minor pacing issue, but rather seemingly intentional thematic device, I’m going to have to place it squarely on Weitz’s shoulders.
My final thoughts are thus. The layman fantasy viewer will most likely get lost in the meta-shuffle at some point, and passionate fans of the book will probably be disappointed by the ease at which key information is come upon, the complete absence of the Gyptians royal hierarchy, and the diminished roles of the Witch clan.
While I’m sure the pacing will bother some of you, as it did me, it’s not bad enough for me to tell you to stay away. If you like a special effects-laden fantasy sundae and could care less if they remembered the colored sprinkles and cherry on top, go on ahead.
Does The Golden Compass suffer from bad execution?
My compass points to yes.