08 December 2007

Not Really a Review, More Like a Short List of Grievances

Last night I saw "The Golden Compass" with Ben and his girlfriend, Robin.

I didn't like the film adaptation of "The Golden Compass." Not at all, really.

I wanted to like it, I really did. Partly because, as an atheist, I want to give the film as much positive publicity as possible. Partly because my brother (also named Ben) thinks I'm the world's biggest film cynic, just because I have standards. But mostly because the "His Dark Materials" trilogy constitutes three of my favorite books ever, and I want to see it well-represented.

This film was very much a disappointment, not only paling in comparison to the books, but also a poor movie on its own. I don't want to go into too many details, lest I get into spoiler territory. But the biggest problem was definitely the pacing. This is really a story that would have taken three movies to tell well. There was no development of anything. In trying to keep as many details from the book as possible, the director threw away any change of giving those details meaning. And everything was incredibly rushed.

For example, no one seems to notice when an important glass of wine has been spilled and shattered. Lyra and Pan spend about thirty seconds with Mrs. Coulter before they start complaining about how they're never going North. The great meeting of all the gyptian nation takes place on a single boat, to save time and space. Out of the blue, a witch asks a question about her former lover, and it comes across as completely ridiculous because we don't know anything about either character to give a damn about their backstories.

But the most tragic victims of the film were the bears. First of all, so help me, I love Sir Ian McKellen, but I did not buy for one minute that he was the bear prince of Scandinavia. And in the movie, they say Iorek is in exile because he lost in single combat with another bear. That's the exact opposite of how it went in the book. Iorek was exiled because he accidentally killed an opponent (an important parallel to Lord Asriel that was also absent from the movie). That's a pretty drastic change in character, if you ask me.

But beyond Iorek, the bears had absolutely no purpose in the film. They had no character, no substance... they weren't even relevant to the plot anymore, because Lord Asriel's circumstances were changed for the film. And that's tragic, because Pullman wrote the bears into an elegant foil for what it means to be human, with our strengths and limitations. There wasn't hide nor hair of that subtext anywhere in the movie. This may be heresy, but I almost wonder whether it would have been worth it to leave the bears of Svalbard out of the movie altogether. They could have given more time and care to developing other elements of the story.

I'll say this for the film, though: Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby was fantastic. I only wish he had had a chance to do more with the character. Also, I wish they had given him a real balloon, as opposed to more of the same rigid ion-propulsion technocrap that everyone else used in the movie. (Notice: it takes more than brass baubles to make something steampunk, damnit!)

And most importantly, the movie is a big ol' advertisement for the books. I wouldn't hold out for any movie sequel, though. You don't dodge the last three chapters of "The Golden Compass" if you're planning to do anything with "The Subtle Knife."

Oh well. Maybe somewhere down the line a visionary will revisit the material and give it the cinema treatment it deserves. (Hopefully that'll be before Sam Elliott retires.)

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