20 December 2007

Golden Compass Review

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?


Darlin said...

It was definatly a well done movie.

I was wondering what you think about the names of the characters??
We've already discussed Lyra's name.

But do you think that 'mrs. Coulter's' name was chosen with any link between the conservative coloumnist and political commentator ann Coulter?

Asriel has the same sort of sound as Azland.....

what are your opinions?

Rosie Perera said...

darlin wrote:

"do you think that 'mrs. Coulter's' name was chosen with any link between the conservative coloumnist and political commentator ann Coulter?"

Nope; just a coincidence. The Golden Compass was written in 1995. Ann Coulter was unknown at that time. "Coulter made her first national media appearance after she was hired in 1996 by MSNBC as a legal correspondent." (Wikipedia)

It would be interesting to explore the other names. Lyra is a near anagram of Liar, so I thought maybe it would be interesting to look for other anagrams:

Marisa Coulter = A liar courts me / Scream out: Liar!
Asriel = Israel (I'm probably on target here. Srafopedia says "The name Lord Asriel could be derived from the Hebrew Asra'el, who, in the Jewish and Muslim tradition is the Angel of Death, who collects the souls of the dead. Also, the name Asriel is an anagram of Israel the son of John. The name Israel means 'struggled with god' in English.") [Actually Israel (Jacob) was the son of Isaac, not John -- rp]

Will's name could have something to do with the will of a person, since he has to learn to control his will (not think about his mother) in using the subtle knife.

The linguistic realm in HDM is fascinating. Lots of names are Nordic/Scandinavian (most of the witches seem to have Finnish sounding names: e.g., Serafina Pekkala [Pullman allegedly looked through a Finnish phone book to make sure her name was a real Finnish one]) Panserbjørne means "armored bears" in Norwegian/Danish (I recognized panser from panzer - the German tanks used in WWII). The word "alethiometer" comes from the Greek word alethia meaning truth. I could go on, but I don't have time right now.

A couple of good HDM fan sites with encyclopedias covering all the characters, place names, etc.:

Bridge to the Stars

Darlin said...

Thank you Rosie!
That was insightful and nice to know.
It is pretty neat to see how much thought was put into the story...
which makes it a little more dangerous perhaps.

Iambic Admonit said...

You're right. If this movie were not well done, and if the book were not brilliantly written, nobody would need to worry. It's when ingenius art attacks faith and morality that we need to think about it and respond to it. I just watched "The Da Vinci Code" for the first time the other night, and found it compelling enough to disturb me. It's not unanswerable -- nothing is -- but a valid imaginative challenge, I believe.

Rosie Perera said...

In the early church, Christians were afraid to read pagan literature, not because it was dangerous in its own right, but because it was too good and beautiful. They feared it would lead them away from their love of the beauty and goodness of God. It wasn't until Petrarch came along and took the position that if good literature (Cicero et al.), pagan though it might be, taught us to be good, then it was salutary to read it. It might not lead us to salvation -- we'd still need Scripture for that -- but it surely wouldn't lead us away.

Actually, Augustine had a hint of this in his On Christian Doctrine when he described using the literature of the pagans for Christian purposes as "plundering the Egyptians."

I have not read or watched The Da Vinci Code, not because of its anti-Christian bias, but because I'd heard that it was actually pretty bad as literature.

[SPOILERS in next paragraph]
Along comes His Dark Materials trilogy (which I've only discovered this year, after the hullabaloo about it in Christian circles), and I really love it. Not the messages behind it, but the craft of it, and the suspense of the story. I've also had fun picking out the places where Pullman couldn't help himself, having had a Christian background and being made in the image of God. All kinds of biblical allusions abound in the books. Like the time in The Golden Compass when Lyra rescues the children from Bolvangar, and they are all trudging through the snow, out in the middle of nowhere, inadequately dressed, and the children start complaining "At least it was warm and we had food back there." (Just like the Israelites when Moses brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness!) Then it happens again in The Amber Spyglass, when Lyra and Will rescue the ghosts from the place of the dead, the ghosts miss the security of the known evil, where at least they had some company in their misery.

I still have a few chapters more to go in AS, so I'll wait to weigh in finally on the whole series, but I can't see it as leading me to doubt the truth and goodness and beauty of God's story (including the ongoing story of his people the church). HDM is a parody of God's story in some places (Metatron and the Ancient of Days), a midrash on it in others (speculating what angels might be like), and something entirely different and inventive in other places (the subtle knife and other worlds). Most of the criticisms Christians level against the series are about things that are laughable, not truly dangerous. Pullman makes the church out to be an evil thing, but it is a parody version of the Church. There's no Pope John Calvin in our historical world. The religion in HDM is something invented.

Anyway, it is legitimate to take umbrage at the Church through the ages, since it has indeed done some awful things. Cutting children's daemons/souls away from them is not one of them, but that could stand allegorically for the reprehensible things that people have done in God's name. Pullman skewers only a caricature of Christianity, not true biblical faith as it is meant to be. However we as believers could consider reading him instead as calling the Church back to her true principles. Even pagan prophets can speak for God, sometimes in spite of themselves (think of Balaam). HDM commends good choices, behaviors, and traits (Lyra learning to tell the truth, the loyalty and foregiveness of the Gyptians). It does not simply turn evil on its head and call it good. The humans who have deceived and enslaved Iorek are made out to be bad people, and they really are. Cliff ghasts are just plain ghastly, no matter who's side you're on.

So I find a lot to praise about The Golden Compass and its companion volumes. Some cautions perhaps, but the trilogy doesn't warrant the mass boycotting and reviling it has been receiving at the hands of some Christians.

Rosie Perera said...

I've got further input on Darlin's question "Do they ever make movies that are just movies anymore? It seems that all the new movies are adaptations of books."

I asked my film class teacher this question, more in the "why" format than a yes-or-no question. He said this phenomenon is because of the breakdown in narrative due to postmodernity. Narrative, or in particular meta-narrative, is suspect. So all the movies being made now tend not to have "story" as their main unifying concept, but rather thrills, special effects, or new attempts at twists on the old outdated story-line idea (e.g., Adaptation). He also suspects that the percentage isn't all that skewed as Admonit's list would suggest, but that her choice of movies is probably self-selecting towards ones that are made from books, since those are the only ones being made these days with a strong sense of story. However, he also suggested that these don't do very well in the box office, as it isn't what most people want now.

I also discovered in the textbook I'm reading for this class, The Story of Film, by Mark Cousins (an excellent book with a dorky cover), that this is not actually a new phenomenon. In the early days of film it was so as well, perhaps at that time because it was such a new medium that people hadn't figured out how to create new stories with it, only to retell existing ones. Cousins writes, "In 1910, it is estimated that one third of all films were based on plays and a further quarter were adapted from novels. Shakespeare's Hamlet was filmed twenty times in Italy, France, Denmark, Britain and the US in [1903-1918]. In the same period there were more than fifty films about the British sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. Producers did not shy away from real-life figures, with scores of films on the lives of Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ and Theodore Roosevelt." (pp. 44-45).

Iambic Admonit said...

Thank you for this addition, Rosie. I agree that my list reflects more my taste than current trends. Your professor's explanation seems to me to be a very good half-explanation, because I'm not convinced that the book-films (the strong narrative ones) do poorly at the box office as compared to the weak-narrative ones. Haven't all the big box-office hits in the past few years been book adaptations? Harry Potter, the Bourne trilogy, LOTR, Narnia, etc??

Rosie Perera said...

I think he was talking predominantly about the classical literary novel movies such as the ones from Merchant Ivory (Room with a View, Howard's End, Remains of the Day), Jane Austen movies, etc.

[USA figures; all-time gross]
Sense & Sensability - $42,993,774
Pride & Prejudice - $38,405,088
Howard's End - $25,966,555
Remains of the day - $22,954,968
Room with a View - $5,647,881
Jane Eyre - $5,173,860

Those are pretty small earnings in comparison with:

Titanic - $600,779,824
The Passion of the Christ - $370,614,210
Harry Potter 1 - $317,557,891
LOTR 1 - $314,776,114
Narnia (LWW) - $291,709,845
Bourne Identity - $121,468,960

These figures are from IMDb, so no guarantee as to their accuracy.

"Haven't all the big box-office hits in the past few years been book adaptations? Harry Potter, the Bourne trilogy, LOTR, Narnia, etc??"

Not really. From, the top 20 in the US box office include only four that come from books (I'm counting The Passion, which comes from the Bible -- mostly):

Release Date, Film Name, Total Box Office
1 1997 Titanic $600,788,188
2 1977 Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope $460,998,007
3 2004 Shrek 2 $436,721,703
4 1982 ET: The Extra-Terrestrial $435,110,554
5 1999 Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace $431,088,297
6 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $423,315,812
7 2002 Spider-Man $403,706,375
8 2005 Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith $380,270,577
9 2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King $377,027,325
10 2004 Spider-Man 2 $373,524,485
11 2004 The Passion of the Christ $370,782,930
12 1993 Jurassic Park $357,067,947
13 2002 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers $341,784,377
14 2003 Finding Nemo $339,714,978
15 2007 Spider-Man 3 $336,530,303
16 1994 Forrest Gump $329,694,499
17 1994 The Lion King $328,539,505
18 2007 Shrek the Third $322,719,944
19 2007 The Transformers $319,246,193
20 2001 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone $317,557,891

Trivia question for you all: It's pretty well known that Titanic is the top grossing movie of all time. But what movie is the top if you account for inflation?

Answer: Gone with the Wind [from Box Office Mojo]

Juanita's Journal said...

I've seen the movie twice and read the novel. Despite some of the changes made to the film adaptation - switching the attack on Bolvanger and Iorek's duel with the false king around; and deleting the tragic ending for THE SUBTLE KNIFE - I thought that film adaptation was equal in quality and spirit to the novel.

If they do decide to adapt the second novel, THE SUBTLE KNIFE, I hope they improve on the story and not allow Will Parry to dominate so strongly.

Juanita's Journal said...

I've got further input on Darlin's question "Do they ever make movies that are just movies anymore? It seems that all the new movies are adaptations of books."

Movie adaptations of novels have been going on since the silent era. It was just as prevalent during the early 20th century as it is now.

Anonymous said...

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.

They did it, because they could not allow the movie to end on a cliffhanger . . . especially with a scene that obviously led to the next story. They could not do this, in the event that the second and third novels DO NOT get adapted for the screen.

Frankly, this decision does not bother me one bit.