Pity poor New Line. With the release of the new fantasy film The Golden Compass, they have a shot at a huge blockbuster, à la The Lord of the Rings. But to get there, they’re having to walk an extremely slippery path: simultaneously trying to convince fans of the source material that they’re sticking closely to it, and trying to convince the general audience that they’re not.
As Philip Pullman, author of Compass and its two sequels, wryly pointed out several years ago, if the general public were more aware of what was in his popular children’s novels — such as lines like “Christianity is just a powerful and convincing mistake” and scenes where “God” is revealed to be merely an alias for a wicked, senile, and ill-fated old angel — they’d forget all about any potential dangers from Harry Potter. Now the making of the movie has brought just such awareness — occasionally helped along, in his more mischievous moods, by Pullman himself, who recently quipped that by now New Line would probably be much happier if he were “the late author of The Golden Compass.” His comments that his books “are about killing God” are widely seen, probably rightly, as not being very healthy for the bottom line.
But a Christian backlash against the movie has resulted in a secularist backlash against the backlash, to the amusing extent that some critics are lashing out at Christian parents who refuse to march their children to the theater to hear their own views denigrated. (We’re nearly to the point where a presidential candidate might be able to pick up at least a few votes by supporting a requirement for universal Golden Compass viewing.)
One might gather from this indignation that The Golden Compass must be a very well-made and important film, possibly even a film essential to one’s cultural literacy. If so, one would be incorrect.
The story underneath the hype is about a supposed orphan named Lyra Belacqua (the terrifically talented Dakota Blue Richards), who lives in a “parallel world” to ours where each person has a daemon, or constant animal companion that represents his or her soul. Lyra’s world, like ours, has an Oxford University, where her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), left her as a baby to be raised by the scholars, an upbringing that often chafes her wild and independent spirit. A mysterious visitor to the University, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), invites the young girl to go with her on a trip to the North, where Lord Asriel has already gone on a strange and controversial expedition. Lyra eagerly accepts, but soon finds out that Mrs. Coulter is connected to the “Gobblers,” a gang of kidnappers, and runs away to save two of her young friends who have been taken.
From a capsule description it sounds like a promising plot, but the film itself quickly bogs down in a morass of exposition. For one thing, as much as the story has been simplified, an awful lot of time is taken up by explanations of Pullman’s ideas and concepts. It seems as if everyone who meets Lyra feels the need to shovel large quantities of information at her: about “Dust,” the strange substance that Lord Asriel goes north to investigate; about polar bears and their secret desires; about witches and their extra-long lifespan; about the Magisterium, the evil and authoritarian organization that stands in for the Vatican. (Yes, that goes for the movie as well as the books; for all the prevarication from the studio, the Magisterium’s cathedral-like headquarters, images of saints, priestly representatives, charges of “heresy,” and even its name leave little doubt of that.)
By the time one character expresses a desire to chat with the little girl about — no joke — “particle metaphysics,” devotees of Pullman’s work may be on the edge of their seats, but other viewers may find their eyes glazing over. It’s not that films targeted at young people need to be dumbed down; quite the contrary. It’s simply that there must be a better way to do it than this relentless didacticism.
Another problem is the sheer number of plot strands, characters, and motivations that have to be dealt with — so many that just keeping track of them all begins to feel like a Herculean task. On their quest to find her friends and Lord Asriel, Lyra and her daemon meet up with a witch and also with some “gyptians,” who are also trying to find one of the missing children and who take her to meet the bear Iorek Byrnison, whom she has to help find his missing armor with the help of a balloonist from Texas so that he (the bear) can fight another bear so that he can be king of the bears again, and then help further Lyra’s quest, during which she also has to learn to use the titular “golden compass,” and . . . did I mention something about eyes glazing over? Though Richards brings tremendous charm and energy to her role, she unfortunately can’t transmit it to her increasingly bleak and tedious surroundings.
I asked a companion at the screening who hadn’t read the books if he’d managed to follow the story; he said he did pretty well by going on the assumption that anyone who helped Lyra was good and anyone who hindered her was bad. It’s a safe enough assumption, but only because something besides Pullman’s most blatant anti-religious elements has been left out: his appalling moral relativism.
The book The Golden Compass begins with an attempted murder and ends with an actual murder — and both acts are committed, without remorse or punishment, by “good guys.” In the film, the attempted murder is committed instead by an evil representative of the Magisterium. And the murder at the end — a horrific act of child sacrifice — was left out completely. The scene, as director Chris Weitz explained to disappointed Pullman fans, was filmed, but the decision was made to put it at the beginning of the second film instead. Wise choice. The film is already (justifiably) rated PG-13 for violence, but it’s a given that parents will be taking their younger children to a film like this anyway. If those children were left with the violent killing of a little boy by one of the wise authority figures as almost the final image in the film, the backlash the filmmakers are getting now would look tame in comparison.
Still, if they go ahead with the two sequels, they’re going to have to face the music sooner or later, in terms of both quality and content. If The Golden Compass translated to film this poorly, the third book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass — admitted even by some of Pullman’s admirers to be an anticlimactic mess of a book — should be a filmmaking disaster on the level of the Star Wars prequels. But more to the point, it will eventually be recognized that the whole “anti-God” debate isn’t just a matter of semantics. Pullman’s universe, enchanting as it may seem on the surface, is at bottom a dour and chaotic place where obedience to conventional ideas of authority and morality is perhaps the greatest sin one can commit — with the result that some of his most “heroic” characters are both criminals and hypocrites. By starting with the first and least offensive book in the trilogy, and watering it down as much as possible, the filmmakers have been able to cover this up for now. If they go any further with the trilogy, they won’t be able to for much longer. And then — well, pity poor New Line.
— Gina R. Dalfonzo is editor of The Point and a writer for BreakPoint Radio.