Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Golden Compass

Okay, so it's been out for weeks. But I've only just got around to seeing it.


As you almost certainly know, The Golden Compass is the adaptation of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, which is the first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy. It underperformed at the US box office, but it's done rather better internationally. The studio is apparently still trying to decide whether it's going to bother with films two and three.

The film has problems. It's not as bad as all that. Judged by Hollywood blockbuster standards, it's okay (in an unenthusiastic, "meh" kind of a way). But it's vastly inferior to the book.

The British media coverage has had a slightly condescending tone to it. Ah yes, those dumb Bible-bashing Americans just Don't Get It. Well, mmm, no. Let's be blunt: His Dark Materials is indeed an anti-religious story, and an anti-Christian one in particular. It's broadly anti-religious in the sense that anything pro-atheist is anti-religion by default. And it's specifically and actively anti-religious by casting organised Christianity as the bad guys.

America is the most religious nation in the developed world. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that plenty of reasonable, open-minded, tolerant American Christians were never going to find this film a particularly appealing prospect for a fun evening out with the kids, any more than British liberals would flock to its Christian counterpart. That's perfectly understandable.

His Dark Materials always struck me as deeply unpromising adaptation material - partly for that reason, and partly because it has major structural problems as a film. Book three devotes an inordinate amount of space to a subplot about wheeled elephants that never really connects to anything else; and its climax comes rather earlier than it ideally would. And, without spoiling the plot, it features quite a few things that were never going to fly with a mainstream American audience.

There's been a tendency to blame the studio for cutting out the philosophy, but actually, I don't think that's the problem. Book one was never particularly heavy on the philosophising. The Magisterium is still quite clearly an organised church. (Yes, it's less blatantly Catholic, but it's not like they talked much about God in the books either.) They still think that Dust is something to do with original sin and have warped ideas about protecting kids from corruption. None of this has been removed. In fact, in one respect, the Magisterium/Dust strand is actually given more prominence than in the book, by reversing the final two sequences so that the story ends on Dust, not on the polar bears.

The real problem is that Northern Lights is an incredibly plot-heavy novel, not to mention an episodic one. The writer is struggling manfully to shoehorn it all into the running time. It shows. You can practically see the writer sweating over his plot synopsis, thinking to himself "What can I cut out of this?" The bit with the polar bears? No, it's the climax of the first novel. Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby? No, I need them for the next two movies if they get made. The London-society period? But I've got to establish Lyra's relationship with Mrs Coulter...

The result is a film that feels more like a plot synopsis, as characters race on and off screen, extended sequences are dashed through with unseemly urgency, and it's just one thing after another. This is where the themes got lost; the film is so busy trying to squeeze in all the plot that it barely has time to stop and think about what any of it means. Perhaps they should have gone for a more drastic re-write to streamline the story. Instead, they've tried to be faithful, and it was the wrong call.

His Dark Materials just doesn't want to be a film. It wants to be a TV series, or even anime. It wants to stretch out over a long period. There are events in this film, unavoidably compressed to five or ten minutes, which could have filled a whole hour of TV on their own. But cramming it all into a single film loses too much.