A few weeks ago I went to see The Golden Compass, which is based on the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I’d read the trilogy a while back and thought it was pretty good, in part because it didn’t try to be Tolkienesque epic fantasy, unlike so many multivolume fantasy works these days. Pullman wrote it in part because he didn’t like the religious message in The Chronicles of Narnia, so it is often compared to the Narnia series, or labeled as the “anti-Narnia”, but I don’t think this comparison is particularly apt either. If you want a real anti-Narnia story, read “The Problem of Susan” by Neil Gaiman. His Dark Materials is really quite different and unique, which is a big part of its appeal for me.
The filmmakers have diligently scrubbed every bit of Pullman’s anti-religion message from The Golden Compass, though this hasn’t prevented religious groups from slamming the film. While I don’t agree with the religious criticisms, I still can’t recommend this movie. Even though His Dark Materials definitely isn’t Tolkienesque epic fantasy, it’s pretty clear that was what New Line Cinema was looking for when they bought the rights. They made fortune from The Lord of the Rings and they were clearly looking to replicate that success here. Despite His Dark Materials non-Tolkienesque origins, the filmmakers try quite hard to turn The Golden Compass into a Jacksonesque epic fantasy movie. Unfortunately Writer/Director Chris Weitz isn’t up to Peter Jackson’s standard.
The fundamental problem with the movie is its relentless pace. Scenes proceed only long enough to advance the plot, cramming in as much expository dialog as possible. Characters are shuffled on and off stage so quickly that only the primary protagonist Lyra Belacqua gets any real character development. Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot and Eva Green play characters who had major roles in the novel, but are reduced to little more than extended cameos in the film. The special effects team creates some stunning visuals that are a match for Weta Digital’s work on the Lord of the Rings, but we are rarely given enough time to appreciate these fantastic sights.
The Golden Compass is a very plot-heavy book, and virtually every plot point makes it into the movie. Some scenes have been reordered, but only one significant plot point was cut. In contrast, when Peter Jackson adapted the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the screen, he cut significant portions of the story. Tolkien fans howled at the omission of Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire, but the movies were the better for it. These cuts, combined with the Lord of the Rings films’ greater length, and the fact that Tolkien’s work was less plot heavy in the first place give the films of the Rings trilogy a very different pace. Fantastic scenes and creatures remain on the screen long enough for the audience to appreciate them. Secondary characters are well developed and not every line of dialog is dedicated to advancing the plot. The Golden Compass desperately needed similar treatment. Cutting some of the plot points, adding another hour to the running time, or some combination thereof would have made this a much better movie.
The one major plot point the filmmakers did leave out is the book’s ending. Since I want to avoid spoiling the book, I’ll just say that the book’s unexpected and fairly brutal conclusion plays a big part in setting the tone for the entire trilogy. Omitting it fundamentally changes the story in a way that cutting some of the intermediate plot points would not have. This is one plot point I would rather they hadn’t cut.
The Golden Compass had the potentially to be a good movie, but the relentless pacing and poor decisions on how to adapt the book for the screen have turned it into yet another disappointing fantasy film.