I Saw The Golden Compass

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There was an advance screening last night. I always forget how awful advance screenings are — a few people who go are fans, but most of the crowd are either college or high school kids who are just after a free movie, and don’t care what they’re seeing, or crazed shut-ins who somehow get on the lists for these events, for whom this is their only pleasure in life, and who bring garbage bags full of home-made food into the theater, and yell at you if you leave before the end of the closing credits.

Anyway, the movie. I had just reread the book for a piece about Philip Pullman that will be out on Friday, and I’d also seen a 20-min. clip reel a few weeks ago that showcased the special effects. I was very, very excited. Perhaps too excited.

I’ll cover the good things first, which is easy, because there were only two of them. One, the casting. Nicole Kidman makes a perfect Mrs. Coulter: she’s hot and she’s cold. Daniel Craig was manly and smart and vaguely amoral as Lord Asriel. Eva Green, sporting a dead-on Marina Sirtis Betazoid accent, was somehow ethereal and badass simultaneously as witch Serafina Pekkala. (Though you kind of kept expecting her to make out with Lord Asriel, since Green was Craig’s Bond girl in Casino Royale.) Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, as Lyra, does what she has to, i.e. stands up straight and looks a lot like Nicole Kidman. Best-in-show goes to the unstoppable Ian McKellen voicing the armored bear Iorek Byrnison.

Good thing number two: the daemons. I had always thought Pullman’s trilogy was basically unfilmable because of them. I mean, every time you have 5 people in a room there’s a herd of animals in there with them? And nobody can touch anybody else’s animal. How’s that supposed to work? But they make it work. All the daemons look alert and interesting, like they belong in the scene. And the actors do a good job of pretending they’re, you know, actually there. There’s a nice, showy moment when Mrs. Coulter slaps her monkey demon across the face, then turns to the camera, so that you see the fading red finger-marks on her own cheek.

And now the bad things, which pretty much includes everything else. The screenplay is appalling: there’s so much plot to be gotten through that nobody has time for anything but exposition. It’s like somebody bent your arm behind your back and angrily frog-marched you through the novel. People are constantly popping up unexpectedly in convenient places for no reason, just because the filmmakers didn’t have time to explain how they got there. The screenwriter — also the director, Chris Weitz — abandons almost all of Pullman’s eloquence in favor of sheer speed. Look, it’s the Gyptians! It’s Farder Coram — hey, there’s Lee Scoresby! You see these people for one incredibly awkward 30-second scene, in which they give a wooden little monologue about who they are and where Lyra’s supposed to go next, then they’re gone.

That means the characters have no time to rest and be people, and the world has no time to feel real and rich. And it means compressing key scenes into movie-drivel shorthand — fans of the book will never stop cringing at the handling of Pullman’s best horror-moment, when we meet a child who’s been the victim of intercision. (He doesn’t even have his fish!) Everything becomes cliché action-movie bombast. It’s not enough for Lyra to escape from Bolvangar, she has to destroy the Oblation Board’s evil machinery in a hilarious Bond-via-Austin Powers explosion. It doesn’t help that Weitz — who did great, tender, funny work adapting Nick Hornby’s About a Boy — has no gift for filming action…

So to sum up: there were some nice things, but mostly I thought it was fairly terrible. I haven’t even gotten into the very worst part, which is the ending, which I won’t mention partly to avoid spoilers, but partly because it’s so bad it’s literally unmentionable. My chief worry going into the movie was that they would soft-pedal the anti-church aspects of the novel. Which they did, but quite tastefully — that didn’t bother me at all.

And it’s not that the movie isn’t worth seeing. Nothing could have stopped me from seeing it — if this post had fallen back through time, and I’d read it yesterday, I would still have gone to see the movie, if only for the daemons and the bears. I just wish it were better. It’s been mentioned in the press that Tom Stoppard wrote a screenplay version of The Golden Compass that the studio discarded. When I interviewed Pullman I tried to get him to talk about it — he said it was more ‘philosophical.’ I’m sure there’s another universe in which the Stoppard version was filmed instead. Oh, for a subtle knife, that I could travel to that happy world.