Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Golden Compass Movie: A Brief Review


So, I finally saw it. Really, it was only the second day the movie was out, but it felt like "finally" as so many folks seem to have seen it in previews, and the reviews and the "controversy about religion" stories have been out for a while.

And, meh.

Well, not quite "meh." It's visually quite stunning. I spent the first few minutes saying to Nick and Mariah, "do you remember that place? Look, there's the Bodleian Library! There's Christ Church Meadow! Look, look!" As Mark said, it made Oxford lovelier than it seemed when we were there, all the while also making it quite familiar.

And the unfamiliar was striking as well. The CGI didn't bother me--I believed in Stelmaria and Pan, and most especially in Iorek. I loved seeing witches fly, and bears fight, and zeppelins and airships and daemons and dust. I didn't find the music intrusive (which for me is about as good as it gets) and I thought the casting--especially Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby--was inspired. (Oh, yes, I liked Tom Courtenay, too.)

But it was less than I'd hoped, and many of the changes, to my great surprise, seem to me to increase rather than decrease the possibility of religious controversy. The movie seems much, much more clear-cut in its depiction of "villains" and "heroes," and locates almost all guilt quite squarely in The Magisterium from the beginning. One of the things I most liked about the novel, particularly on first reading, was the ambiguity. Was Asriel heroic, or demonic? Were Lyra and Pan right about Dust, or were they wrong? Where did the Master of Jordan's loyalties lie?

By making Fra Pavel, rather than the Master of Jordan, Asriel's intended assassin, and by having Asriel focus on Dust with no mention of intercission or trepanning, the movie makes Asriel far more heroic than he is in the book. (I don't mind leaving off the end of the novel; that makes narrative sense for the film, but it does contribute to this sense of Asriel as potential hero.) And making Asriel heroic makes the Magisterium the only villain. Now, it's never called the Church, as in Pullman, so perhaps the movie seems less overtly anti-Christian, but I still think that the novel complicates things fruitfully by suggesting that the Church is not the only source of corruption in the world. That seems to me lost in the movie.

My other objection is to the frequent discussion of free will and doing what one wants. The conversation between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra at the High Table, for example, suggests that the big problem with the Magisterium is that it tells you what to do. (Never mind that Mrs. C. is actually working for them anyway.) But in fact the question of free will is far more vexed in the novel, as a conversation between Serafina and Lee towards the end of the tale makes clear.

Mariah, I think, said it best: she thought they got the characters right, but not the story.

It has given me a lot to chew on over the last twenty-four hours, and will probably continue to. But I think I realized something this evening when I compared my reaction to this film to my reaction to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I absolutely loved despite my strong reservations about the book. Much of what I love about His Dark Materials is the language, the beauty of the prose, the clarity of description, the absolute refusal to talk down to the audience. The film loses all of that, and in so doing magnifies the occasional incoherencies and contradictions that are present in the book, but which I can overlook in favor of the inventiveness of the language and plotting. I don't find much to admire in Lewis's language, and his theology seems incoherent to me. But the film built in some narrative coherence that I quite liked (the emphasis on World War II, which is completely lacking in the book), changed some of the most distasteful parts of the story (the sexism is reduced, if not reversed), and completely omits Lewis's often-annoying narrative voice--leaving behind a ripping good adventure yarn.

I've more often than not been disappointed in film adaptations of much-loved movies, starting with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which (for me) was a sad come-down from a novel I'd loved. As a kid, I was all about faithfulness to the text. As an adult, I'm perfectly happy to see adaptations as interpretations, and to enjoy a film for its daring departures from a book as much as (or more than!) for its fidelity. But there all interpretations are not equal, and alas, this one falls far short.


  1. Right on, Libby. I totally agree with you. So much about this movie was good: the characters, the mood (though it was darker than the book, oddly enough), the music, the look. But, the complexity was missing.

    The dust discussions were just odd. The discussion about the "little cut" reminded more of circumcision than anything else. Asirel strolled about the film--a hero, instead of a complex Satan figure.

    I was disappointed, but I have to say I thought that overall this was a better adaptation than many of the Harry Potters.

  2. Kelly, I stopped watching the Harry Potter adaptations after #2 (and everyone says #3 is the best...). So, yes, this was better than HP I or II, but they were absymal while this was merely disappointing.