Review of The Golden Compass
So, I’ve seen the movie! I took several students to see it on Tuesday, and we preceded and followed the movie with some excellent discussion as to the merits and dangers of both the book and the film. Before I discuss the movie, let me recommend one absolutely essential post by Jeffrey Overstreet to you. Please read it! And here’s a really good review by Alan Jacobs, and here’s a link to a site where you can download a podcast from Mars Hill, Audition, on which Alan Jacobs in interviewed regarding Pullman’s book and the new film.
OK, first of all I’d like to talk about The Golden Compass as a film only, without reference to the book. Well, I’m not a filmmaker, nor a professional film critic, but I do love movies. And I’d say that as a movie, The Golden Compass was 100% successful. The score was compelling, the pace good, the visual effects beautiful.
The casting was very good. Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) was sexy and dangerous and slimy; Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) hard and fast and sharp and just perfect, really; Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) perhaps a bit smaller and slighter than I pictured him, but with piercing eyes and an intense presence; Gandalf’s (I mean Ian McKellen’s!) voice good for the bear; Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) perfectly gritty and gravelly; Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) extremely mysterious and sultry; and Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney) disgustingly creepy. A stunning cast. Saruman (Christopher Lee) for one of the leaders of the Magisterium is just right; I hope we get to see more of him in the other two films.
And the acting is superb! Each actor had very convincing gestures and unique voices. Their physicality was in each case excellent. Serafina Pekkala’s deep voice, with a rasping edge, accentuates her inhuman sexuality and supernatural power. Lee Scoresby’s habit of talking sideways with a crooked grin (a bit reminiscent of Harrison Ford as Han Solo) expressed his easy-going caution. Lyra is great. That girl is an extremely talented actress. She has a very mobile face, with a crookedy grin of her own and a lopsided way of speaking well adapted to a Liar. She could play innocent, ignorant, fierce, stubborn, and even sexy. She’ll be amazing as the series goes on. She has a powerful independence and attraction that will fit perfectly with the Rousseauian young romantic in the later books, especially the last.
Finally, and very importantly for this story, the CGI surpassed my expectations. I was afraid we’d have a repeat of the sickening pathetic beaver buffoons from LWW. But these computer-generated animals looked very realistic and quite solid. And—best of all—there was no stupid humor associated with them. They were not Disney cute and fuzzy critters; they were not simply anthropomorphized children; they were not (thankfully!) silly. They were animals; rational animals; daemons. My only disappointment with the children’s daemons was that they didn’t shape-shift very often. When they did, the transformations were smooth and convincing. There was a moment when Pantalaimon turned from a brown ermine into a white one; quite nice. There was a lovely moment when he effortlessly slid as a small mammal off of a roof into a bird-shape, so that the fall glided into a flutter. Beautiful! I would have enjoyed many more changes. But my commendation to the CGI artists, and to the director for rejecting the comedic impulse so often gratified with talking animals.
Now, let’s move to the next phase of discussion: The Golden Compassas a film adaptation of the book.
This is definitely one of the most satisfying book-to-movie adaptations I have seen. There was a lot of plot streamlining, some character merging, and a good deal of simplification that happened in the transition process. However, these simplifications are necessary in order to adapt a novel of 350 pages into a 2 hour movie. I would have been happy had the filmmakers decided to go the Lord-of-the-Rings-three-plus-hour-epic route. The book deserved it. But I’m happy that there were no shocking plot changes (like in Frankenstein--the 1931 version, which I saw recently) or character destructions (like Faramir) or ridiculous additions (like the atrocious riding the ice scene in LWW!) or pervasive alterations of tone and emphasis (like in the beautiful new Pride & Prejudice). I have only two criticisms.
First, there was a painful lack of detail. I know most details have to go in the cutting down to a screen play, but there were surprisingly few of those little, careful, meticulous visual or dramatic details that often raise a movie up a notch. The camera didn’t often get close; the writer didn’t often slow down to build up a climax in dialogue. That was a disappointment.
Second, the movie quit at a warm-and-fuzzy moment three chapters before the end of the book, chopping off an extremely important episode that alters the trajectory of the trilogy. This is a huge fault, in my opinion! I understand why this was done, I imagine. It kept the first movie all in one world and didn’t introduce the many-universes theme that dominates the second book. It ended on a happy note, rather than catapulting Lyra into the grand tragedy, as Pullman actually does at the end of his first volume. It made the movie feel a bit more coherent; it can almost stand alone if it doesn’t make enough revenue for the filming of the other two volumes (I’m sure it will, though).
All in all, those criticisms aren’t huge. The ending was a shock; the four of us in the theatre who had read the book raised our arms and voices in protest, shouting and groaning as the credits rolled. A nice moment of literary solidarity.
OK, now let’s turn to the larger discussion: The worldview presented in The Golden Compass as film and book, and in the His Dark Materials trilogy as a whole. I’ve already discussed the book, here. I really don’t have much to add to what I said before, what Jeffrey Overstreet says here, and what Alan Jacobs says here.
Here are the main points of potential danger in The Golden Compass. As Alan Jacobs points out, if a writer of fantasy is skillful enough to make you trust in his secondary world, he is also skillful enough to make you trust his moral judgments. In other words, it’s nearly impossible not to suspend belief while immersed in a really good work of subcreation. That’s the nature of the genre, and of the human imagination. Therefore, if you (or especially your children) see this film, keep your antennae of discernment up and alert at all times! The main reason for such caution comes from a convoluted literary history. William Blake said that in Paradise Lost John Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and many critics have read the great epic from that point of view ever since. An epic must have a hero; Satan seems to many readers to be the most convincing candidate. Now Philip Pullman, as he has said explicitly in many interviews and elsewhere, is of the devil’s party and is fully conscious of that fact. He reveals his allegiance in his opinion of the Narnia Chronicles, which he calls “One of the most ugly and poisonous things I have every read”; “They have no shortage of nauseating drivel.”
If you take your kids to see this movie, or if they read the book, ask them these four questions before and after:
1. Who is good and who is bad in Pullman’s moral universe, as postulated in this story? What are their characteristics?
2. What is the Golden Compass and who wields it?
3. What are daemons?
4. What is Dust?
An understanding of each of these four topics reveals Pullman’s ingenious imagination, but also exposes his anti-religious agenda. Let me expound.
1. In Pullman’s moral universe, as explained by Alan Jacobs, basically anyone who rejects authority (and ultimately the Authority, God, Yahweh) is good. “Good” characters include Lyra, Lord Asriel (who may correspond to Milton’s heroic Satan), and many outsiders such as Gyptians, Witches, and Armored Bears. “Bad” characters are lumped together under the Magisterium (The Church). So it’s a simple binary: reject God, and you’re good; believe in God, and you’re bad.
2. The Golden Compass, or Aletheiometer (“truth-measure”) is essentially a tool of divination. It resembles a crystal ball, tarot cards, or an ouija board. Lyra is able to wield it by instinct, for which she goes into a trance and lets the meanings come into her mind. It was formed through some kind of astrological study. Now, of course Christians do not have to toss their hands in the air and run in fear from astrology and divination in a work of fiction. After all, Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” is fundamentally astrological in its original Medieval understanding. However, teaching children to admire a character who so closely resembles a contemporary fortune-teller or medium may have its potential dangers.
3. The daemons are perhaps the most brilliant creation of Pullman’s fertile, original imagination. They are the external expression, at once bestial and anthropomorphic, of an individual’s soul. Every physical interaction they have with their humans can be read allegorically—such as the shape-shifting abilities of children’s daemons, the limited distance which a daemon and its human can separate, and so on. However, there are at least three potential dangers if they are not pointed out to a young reader/viewer. First, the very name, which is pronounced “demon” in the movie. Pullman chose their name quite cleverly. According to the OED, “daemon” has three definitions. 1: a divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans; 2. an inner or attendant spirit or inspiring force; 3. an evil spirit or devil. Pullman’s daemons are all three, and we must be careful about encouraging children to want to have a personal demon as a constant attendant! Second, Darlin suggested that the external nature of the daemon might have a dualistic connotation, suggesting that our bodies and spirits are separable and independent (although I think that the ultimate purpose is the opposite, since when a human dies, his daemon dies, too, and vice-versa). Third, a daemon is almost always the opposite sex from its human. This suggests that we each are actually both genders—a theory which leads directly into the explicit homosexuality in a later book. Children should be warned about these implications of the otherwise amazing and desirable daemons.
4. Dust is, in a way, the plot of the whole trilogy. How it is viewed by the opposing parties can be seen as a microcosm for Pullman’s entire project. According to the Church (the Magisterium), Dust is original sin. It does not collect on children because children are “innocent”; its accumulation causes temptations, lust, evil thoughts. According to nearly everyone else, everyone we come to love in the course of the series, Dust is consciousness. By extension, it is human creativity, imagination, accomplishment, reason, art, romance… everything that makes the human life worth living. And thus one must embrace and actively practice “sin” in order to be a happy and worthwhile individual. And by golly they do!
These are just a few of the warnings I gave to my students, and I recommend giving them to yourself, your children, and your students. Once these facets of Pullman’s worldview are recognized, go and enjoy the beautiful movie and the brilliant book! But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
One final question, on a related but slightly different topic. Just before the movie began, one of my students (“Darlin”) asked, “Do they ever make movies that are just movies anymore? It seems that all the new movies are adaptations of books.” Indeed, it does. At least, the movies with a grand scope, good effects, epic scale, and a huge box office success. Here’s a list of some new movies I’ve seen in the last year or so:
1. Amazing Grace
2. Anna & The King
3. Becoming Jane
4-6. Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, and The Virgin Queen
7-10. The First 4 Harry Potter films
11. Kingdom of Heaven
12. Les Miserables
13-15. All 3 Lord of the Rings
16. Marie Antoinette
17. Merchant of Venice
18. Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe
19. One Night with a King
20. Phantom of the Opera
21. Pirates of the Caribbean I
22. Pride and Prejudice
23. Romeo + Juliet
24. Shakespeare in Love
25. Star Wars
26. The Nativity Story
27. United 93
28. Million Dollar Baby
Fifteen of them are adaptations of books (counting the Biblical stories); ten others are historical or literary subjects. Maybe this says more about my taste than about current filmmaking trends; what do you think?