Theater artist/writer/editor Kenna Kettrick places The Golden Compass squarely in the “Adaptations that Don’t Impact the Original” camp in our latest re-view.

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I first read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass when I was in sixth grade, and, fueled by my formative years of storytelling, fantasy novels, and expansive imagination, it exploded into a full-blown obsession. I am now 31 years old and no less in love with His Dark Materials. I’ve read The Golden Compass itself more times than I can reasonably count; I’ve listened to the full-cast audio books, and many times to the BBC Radio adaptation too.[1] In 2007, I went to see the Golden Compass movie—wary, as I always am with adaptations, but excited, too: this was New Line Cinema, and the Lord of the Rings movies were great! The trailers made everything look like I’d imagined, or if not that, then another thrilling version! Some of the casting was downright perfect, and the girl playing Lyra looked feisty and smart and adorable!

So I sat down in the movie theater with fangirl high hopes, watched the golden swirls of light begin on the screen—and had those high hopes fall like Milton’s Lucifer when the expositional lump began: obvious, painfully condescending exposition that made it clear this was a Kids Movie (TM) that didn’t trust their audience to follow the story without help.  Disappointed, I let the rest of it wash over me and then filed that movie away in the Adaptations That Don’t Impact The Original At All folder.

Ten years later, we’re back at it. I hadn’t seen the movie since, but my proprietary feelings about the series in general made me jump on the chance to go back and see whether I could approach it any differently. Have my fangirl feelings mellowed enough for me to be more open-minded? (…no.) Have I learned more about adapting stories to different mediums that I could apply here? (Sure!) Will the CGI that New Line leaned on for this movie hold up 10 years later? (Surprisingly, yes.) I armed myself with red wine, chocolate chip cookies, and two friends, Morgan and David, to watch it with me, and dove into it. (Morgan, as the movie starts: “We have to decide what the drinking game is!” Me: “…just drink to forget.”)

We start with an opening volley from Team My Opinion Remains The Same, because the opening exposition from Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala is just as heavy-handed as I remembered: there are parallel worlds! We are in a different world than your own world! In this word daemons are your souls, but in animal form outside your body and also they are important!  Also there are witches and armored bears and Gyptians in this world! There exists something called an alethiometer, which is also called a golden compass! (No, it ISN’T, that’s just the name of the movie, I yelled at the screen more than once.)

A few moments later we’re in Oxford, with spires and universities in the background, airships above us, and screaming playing children running through the streets and fields with their daemons running or flying or hopping along with them, and this, my friends, is where we run into the central disappointment of this movie: The design and visual world-building is so good that it makes me angry that the script doesn’t measure up. The CGI that created the daemons holds up, for the most part, and seeing the daemons flicker from shape to shape and converse with their humans reminded me all over again of a) what a brilliant story concept this is and b) how badly I wanted a daemon when I read this at age 11—and let’s be honest, I still do.[2] The rest of the visual world-building is mostly on point, too: the smooth wood and sleek gold of Jordan College, with the strange instruments that feel old-fashioned in just the right way; the costume design of Lyra’s pinafore and Roger’s ill-fitting vest and Mrs. Coulter’s stylish sleek outfits and more; the halfway industrial look of London; Lee Scoresby and Hester and their airship[3]; the soft creepy sterility of Bolvangar.

If we were given any real time at any of these locations, or, more crucially, any time for relationships to develop between the characters we meet, we might care more about the story unfolding in this gorgeous world. But we aren’t, and so we don’t. The script moves us along with all the pace and grace of a hurried freight train, shoveling plot points and characters into our minds with no time for us to breathe in between, or care about anybody. As David said, “Are they going to show us anything? Or is this is Tell: the Movie?

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Lyra, our protagonist, is established at the very top as a quick-thinking liar, a ragamuffin with important connections and grandiose ideas—this introduction of her is one of the moments the script gets right, actually, and Dakota Blue Richards has a wonderful adorable slyness in her portrayal. Lyra is intelligent and clever, but we only know this because we’re told it—and because the script uses Lyra’s ostensible cleverness to have her blurt out important things we need to know, regardless of whether it makes sense for her to have figured it out by that point. She immediately picks up on the intersection between Dust and the way children’s daemon’s change and adults don’t—so that we’ll know it’s important; in Mrs. Coulter’s study, she realizes the letters GOB mean the “gobblers” that have been stealing children; at the end, after Mrs. Coulter admits that she’s Lyra’s mother, Lyra makes the instant realization that Lord Asriel is her father with no real logical connection. In the book, she learns all these things from other people, along with us, as readers; Lyra’s stubborn, frustrating ignorance is one of her strongest characteristics. And while I’m not against changing characters in an adaptation—or wanting to play up Lyra’s intelligence—it’s wielded here as a blunt tool for plot hustling, rather than a way in for us to understand or empathize with her.

Similarly, the script oversimplifies much of the complicated characters and moral questions that make the book so layered, and make Lyra’s journey so treacherous. In the movie, Fra Pavel of the Magesterium takes the place of the Master of Jordan College as the would-be poisoner of Lord Asriel—which wipes the Master clean of complications and interesting dynamics, and leaves him an ineffectual figurehead when Mrs. Coulter comes calling. Mrs. Coulter—an excellently cold and slithery Nicole Kidman—should clearly be a danger to Lyra from the first moment we see her. The Master should be Lyra’s protector, all while the Master’s attempted murder of Lord Asriel shows Lyra and us how dangerous the rest of these players all are and complicated their game is. But here, Mrs. Coulter arrives to give us another fast-paced exposition-laden enticement of Lyra, the “good guy” Master just stammers a little, and we’re whisked off to a London makeover montage. (I do deeply love the shot of Lyra trying the wine at a fancy dinner and immediately spitting it back into the glass. That is a perfect moment of “show don’t tell” in a movie that otherwise has never heard of that phrase.)

The men of the Magesterium, including a cameo from Christopher Lee as Saruman—sorry, I mean the First High Councilor—do their best to be scary-scary villains in a script that takes away any and all mention of God or organized religion, giving them no real reason to be villainous at all. The sharp bite of critique that Pullman brings to the book is washed away here, with Mrs. Coulter’s banal explanations that the Magesterium “tells people what to do… but in a nice way.” True, I suppose, but hardly the all-encompassing evangelical fervor that scares us in the books.  In an early scene where Lord Asriel (played by Daniel Craig, also inspired casting) showcases his new discoveries about Dust and other worlds, he challenges Fra Pavel with a comment about these other worlds containing “no authority.” This is a juicy moment, if you know that “Authority” is a synonym for “God”—but why would you? The script never says so, and the moment isn’t given the space it needs to land meaningfully.[4]

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This is the real crux of the problem I have with The Golden Compass movie: Because of the terrible pacing and expositional lumps, no reveal or plot point or emotion is ever earned. So much of what captures me about the books is the fierce love that Lyra has for Pantalaimon, for Iorek, for her friends and her allies. It’s what drives the entire story—she needs to rescue Roger, because he’s her friend and she promised; she needs to stop the Gobblers, because intercision is simply wrong—and we know this because we’ve seen the deep necessary bond between human and daemon. This adaptation gives Lyra, and us, no time to establish any relationships, and so even when scenes are close to the book version, such as the violent argument between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter over the shoulder bag hiding the alethiometer, we don’t feel the gut punch of betrayal that we should. When Lyra walks into the fishing hut and sees Billy Costa and says, “That’s what intercision is, they’re cutting away kids’ daemons,” the absolute horror of that act doesn’t land, because we haven’t seen that bond be as desperately important as it is (also, in that case, we’re missing the visual of lots of lost daemons). When Lyra reads the alethiometer perfectly on the first try, the impact of that is lost without the relationship between her and Farder Coram and watching how Lyra struggles to learn. When Lyra proudly walks up to bear-king Iofur Raknison (inexplicably renamed Ragnar for the movie) and tricks him into fighting Iorek in single combat to gain her as a daemon, we don’t feel the weight of how smart and loving an act that is, because we haven’t seen the adoration and sacrifice between Lyra and Iorek that exists in the book. Once or twice the witches are mentioned, but when we meet Serafina— she flies down to the boat, offers more exposition, and leaves again—the magic and mystery of who the witches are simply isn’t there.[5] Ten years ago, I remember feeling deeply unsatisfied by this movie, but the clearest way I could put it was “this script doesn’t trust its audience.” I still stand by that, but this rewatch showed me much more clearly why: none of this is earned, and so none of the stakes are high, even through a life-and-death story. The script doesn’t trust us, and so never earns our hearts.

I was expecting to include a rant in this review banging the drum of my 10-year-old thesis: “Well, this banal mediocrity is what you get when you don’t use Tom Stoppard’s script even though he wrote a treatment, I mean, good lord, who turns down a script by Tom Stoppard?!” However, after actually researching, it looks like director/writer Chris Weitz may have had the right idea after all. Weitz’s original script was much longer than the final movie turned out to be, and according to some sources, more faithful to the book and much stronger—while Stoppard’s, apparently, leaned too heavily on additional philosophical discussions between bearded men and too little on Lyra and her adventures.[6] Given this information I’ll unbend from my previous stance and assign more blame not to Chris Weitz, but to New Line Cinema. Despite the success of longer fantasy films like Lord of the Rings[7], they kept The Golden Compass to 113 minutes, effectively guaranteeing the terrible pacing that ended up ruining it. Someone at New Line put “Show, don’t tell” on one side of the scale and “Make a movie under two hours” on the other, and balanced them very badly. Every important plot point, realization, or interesting world-building moment is told to us flat out, throwing character development and relationship building completely out as we go.

This continues right up ’til the end, which is the biggest change from the books. Where we should see the great betrayal of Lyra saving Roger only to have Lord Asriel kill him, we have the two children flying happily off in Lee’s balloon, snuggled up against Iorek, off to save Lord Asriel from those vaguely terrible captors of his. (They don’t even give me a pretty Northern Lights to fly into, ugh.) However, if you watch the trailer, you can clearly see moments from the original ending—Daniel Craig with a large device under the Aurora, Lyra falling out of the balloon. Weitz shot the ending and at least some of the rest of the movie how he wanted it; New Line shaved off time, layers, and story and lost a potentially good movie in the process.[8]

If I ever got a director’s cut of The Golden Compass, I’d be happy to return to the movie and see whether that opened up a new and better adaptation—I’m willing to bet it would. But until then, this movie isn’t it. Look at screencaps and enjoy the visual design; go listen to the radio play, or the audiobook, or read the National Theatre’s script adaptation. But if you want a screen adaptation of His Dark Materials, set this movie aside. The BBC’s got you covered, in a couple years—my fangirl fingers are crossed with high hopes once again that this time, maybe, they’ll get it right.

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[1]    If you have not heard this adaptation and you like radio plays at all, get at me and I will find it for you. It’s brilliant.

[2]          much like how I will talk about Harry Potter houses with anyone at any time, I will gladly talk about daemons with anyone at any time, and what you think yours is, and why, and whether the narrative promise of what every animal means is borne out in character creation in the books, and whether different cultures in that world have different daemon meanings in the way that different cultures in our world symbolize animals differently, and how you think daemons might get born, and and and. Hit me up.

[3]             Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby is SO clearly the right casting that I kind of don’t buy it, just because it’s so on the nose. Or maybe I just can’t see him as anything but the Stranger from The Big Lebowski.

[4]    Pullman’s newest installment (The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage) brings a whole new level of scary authoritarian organized religion by adding a sub-organization of tattle-tale children that turn in other kids, community members, and even their own parents to branches of the Magesterium. Pullman has never pulled any punches about this, but the movie forgot what punches even are I guess?

[5]    Eva Green: “My name is Serafina Pekkala.” Morgan: “and I was sent to give you more exposition.” Also, Serafina, “Which man on this boat was my lover” is a weird question to ask an eleven-year-old, y’know?

[6]    Listen, I love me some Tom Stoppard and his philosophizing to no end, but the book has enough and doesn’t need more added. Source if you want to dig further: http://www.vulture.com/2007/12/golden_compass_scripts.html

[7]             There are multiple instances in my notes of me just typing “good god this movie wants to be Lord of the Rings so BADLY.” When we got to the Samoyed lands—the wide sweeping shot of mountains in the snow—my notes read: the three of us just started riffing on LotR which turned into a crossover with There Will Be Blood, except Morgan said, “There might be blood,” which means it’s now soundtracked by There Might Be Giants, and this is how much we’re really paying attention now. Ok. Deep breath. Back to the movie.

[8]    New Line also recast Iorek, against Weitz’s wishes. He’d originally cast British stage actor Nonso Anozie, whose voice I’m pretty sure you hear in the trailer, and who sounds fantastic. The President of New Line shoehorned Ian McKellen in instead – another nod to Lord of the Rings, which New Line wanted this movie to be. (http://www.newsweek.com/director-confronts-some-dark-material-96599)