Monday, December 10, 2007

The Golden Compass Mini-Review

My wife and I went to see "The Golden Compass" over the weekend. I'm a huge fan of Pullman's novels, so I was eager to see this one translated to film despite the middling reviews that I've seen. It seems to have divided the critics. Some love it, others hate it, and the majority sit somewhere in between. After having the whole weekend to dwell on the movie adaptation, I have to say that there's truth to all the bad reviews that I've read, but also I have to say that the film's well worth a viewing by fans of the books and by lovers of fantasy alike. I'll try to explain without spoiling anything about the movie should you lot decide to go and see it.

One of the chief concerns among the mediocre reviews is that the film feels rushed and that there's not enough explanation of Lyra's (the main protagonist) world. Big hearty agreement here. Had I not read the novels, I can imagine I would feel lost while watching the pic. My wife knew enough of the novels through my own clamoring about them to get by, but someone with no prior knowledge of Jordan College, the Magisterium and Daemons is going to feel lost, and the film never really tries to put enough information to the viewers to get across all the intricacies that are found in the book. This would be fine if you were translating a plain as vanilla setting, but since we're talking a fantasy world in Golden Compass, there deserved to be enough info to explain all the little peculiarities. Instead, a unknowing viewer is going to feel more lost than exciting by the Ice Bears, Witches and Gobblers.

And another issue I had with the film is that the ending of the 1st book is not in the film. For those familiar with the trilogy, the ending of the 1st book was a total shocking cliff-hanger than had you dying to see what happened to poor Lyra next. Yet in the pic, akin to Jackson's ending of The Two Towers, we're left with a more optimistic view of the book's ending with only a little foreshadowing of what's to come. Sure, it gives the film a happy ending that's likely been decided necessary by the studio executives, but in cutting out the last two chapters of the 1st book, the film loses it's main edge: that being a children's novel/film that deals with heavy subject matter in a way that doesn't placate.

I think the reasoning behind this is that the movie doesn't have an automatic sequel coming, like Jackson's films did or the Narnia pictures. TGC needs to do well enough to recoup expenses, or we'll likely never see the 2nd and 3rd book, and I think it would be a horrible shame if that happened really, since the last two books are where Pullman goes very heavily into his anti-Magisterium work, and where his message of free will really takes shape. It's a beautifully crafted philosophical piece of fiction, much more for adults than children, and I'd hate to see less than stellar reviews lead to less than stellar ticket sales... and ultimately no sequels.

My only hope is that the 2nd film is made and begins with the last two chapters of the 1st book, and also lets itself explain more of Lyra's world. For the 1st time in a while, I feel that 2 hours simply wasn't enough time to cram what was needed to be crammed into the film adaptation. Another half hour of exploration and explanation I think would have gone a long way towards making the film less rushed feeling.

Anyway, here's where I'm going with this. The Golden Compass is a good, but hurried adaptation of its source material. Fans of the books will like it, fans of fantasy will like it, but others taking their children to see it might feel lost, and left wondering what the thing was all about. If I can offer any advice, it's to immediately read the last two chapters of the book once the movie's over. It'll make everything a bit more clear. There are other things that are changed and omitted for brevity's sake, but by far the most negligent omission is that of the ending.

Here's hoping it doesn't utterly fail and we see the next two books on screen. It deserves to be completed.


Brenda said...

I have read the first two books, knowing nothing about them or their atheistic leanings, and so I read on with dawning awareness of what Pullman was really talking about in the book. I know from reviews that all that part is gone. What's left? Apparently, mostly special effects.

I wanted to go see the movie anyway, but my son really wanted to see No Country for Old Men instead, and in the end, we probably made the right choice. I won't soon forget No Country. It's one of those films that leaves you nothing to hold on to. A very different way of telling a story.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the movie, but I was confused by thier decisions to change the order things happened, and who did what. They didnt shorten or simplify the story, they just mixed things up.

Another recent movie adaptation of a book that bugged me was Order of the Phoenix. They had opposite problems though. Order of the Phoenix was faithful to the story but left out the good parts, and The Golden Compass had all of the good parts, but the stories timeline and characters were jumbled.

Bildo said...

@ Brenda: "I read on with dawning awareness of what Pullman was really talking about in the book. I know from reviews that all that part is gone. What's left? Apparently, mostly special effects."

I have to disagree here. Whatever reviews said that part is gone are wrong. They actually harp on it quite a bit with the Magisterium and Coulter, and even Serrafina Pekkala at the end puts it bluntly... a war on Free Will is coming.

Don't let the reviews keep you from seeing it, because if we're going to get the next 2, the fans of the books need to see it. It's not great, it does mix some parts up (it reminds me of V for Vendetta in that it shuffles the plot but keeps the meaning in tact), and it is a bit hurried.

BUT despite all those things I found it rather enjoyable. And I will be getting the DVD because it's entertaining enough to watch a good few times I think.

Cameron said...

I've only read the first book of the series, but that at least gave me some idea of what was going on. My fiancee was hopelessly lost throughout the movie, since she hasn't (she hated it as a result).

We both came away with the same opinion: There wasn't enough explanation and the movie was unbearably slow at times.

Sad day. :(