Thursday, 17 January 2008


"This is my review of the film of the The Golden Compass. It tells the truth. As for how to read it, you'll have to learn by yourself."

Before we go anywhere else, I first claim my civilian status! I have read precisely nothing from Phillip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, from whose first part this film is based. Consequently, while having had the books recommended to me, I have no opinion whatsoever on whether this adaption is honest or not to the ‘atheism’ of his theme. Instead I’m going to sidestep the question and instead use this ‘review’ as a springboard into the whole question of the contemporary fashion for books adaptions.

Whether it draws its power from the books or not, this film is far from the worst of its type and there are definitely things to commend about it. While it doesn’t have the dizzying sense of being hurled into the numinous you’d get from a Miyazaki film, it fares well enough at world-building. The set design is often elegant and imaginative. But beyond that it understands that it’s not the ‘otherness’ of other worlds that provides the frisson, so much as the sense of distorted familiarity. As in dreams we see familiar items rearranged and thrust into unfamiliar contexts. (Though a transformed Oxford may give a stronger sense of this to UK audience visiting.) Perhaps the appeal of such things lies in demonstrating to us how provisional our ‘reality’ really is, the product of accident piled upon accident.

It must also be said Nicole Kidman also makes a splendid villainess in her portrait of Miss Coulther. She’s glamourous in the original sense of the world as spellbinding. But more than that she manages to convey some maternal twist to paternalism –convincing you she genuinely believes her bad deeds are for the greater good of the little folks, even when she openly admits she doesn’t consider herself bound to the same restrictions. While she’s clearly Lyra’s ‘bad’ parent to Azriel’s ‘good’, the truth is slightly more complicated – she makes it clear where Lyra gets her willfulness from, even as it’s the very stuff she uses it to defy Miss Coulther. She wants Lyra to become independent, just not too much. An argument over Lyra wearing a bag is simultaneously pettily familiar and sinister. (Of Dakota Blue Richard’s Lyra, however, perhaps the best that’s can be said is that she can’t stick to her adopted accent for very long. What’s ‘best’ about this will become obvious when she does remember to use her ghastly ‘urchin’ voice.)

However, at times the film gives you just enough to suggest you’d have done better to stay home and read the book - floating interesting-sounding concepts only to let them drop. One of the central conceits of this parallel world is that everyone is accompanied by an animal ‘daemon’, a cross between an externalised soul and a witch’s familiar. (A very visual notion which might suggest Pullman always had one eye upon the film rights.) But rather than explore the effect of such a conceit upon their world the film quickly makes them mere plot devices - while Miss Coulter is cooingly seductive her daemon is an aggressive monkey. Meanwhile Lyra’s is made timid to emphasise her bravery, forever saying “do you really think you should go in there?” Ironically, the polar bear Iorek might have made a better ‘daemon’ for her than the one she is given. We first meet him chained and pressed into labour by humans, the obedient adult Miss Coulther would have her grow into. Later he comes to represent her defiant bullheadedness, the side of her that needs to hook up with her smarts. (Admittedly, more promising ideas appear later in the film, which I won’t spoil here.)

But the classic example of this is the Golden Compass itself. (NB You have to call the Alethiometer ‘the Golden Compass’ for the same reason you have to talk about ‘sci-fi’ in front of Isaac Asimov fans.) The first time Lyra uses it the hands point to a series of icons, a set of juicy clues to puzzle over. But for subsequent uses it just spells everything out in cheesy ‘dream logic’ scenes, misty-edged excuses for an info-dump.

On a more functional level, however, the film does not suggest such good things of Pullman’s books. There’s too many absurd plot-holes and logic lapses, even for indulgence of genre to allow. When we first come across Lord Asriel the bad guys are indulging in a clumsy plot to poison him, then a later twist reveals their actual plot revolves around keeping him alive. It also becomes tiring the degree to which Lyra gets rescued by the Cavalry – I caught four at least. And when the film ends she embarks on yet another perilous quest, while neglecting to take her last rescuing army with her! Perhaps she’s just figuring another will be along in a minute…

However, don’t these up and downs sound familiar? Isn’t the film/book relationship a strangely mismatched one to start off with? In its early days, cinema almost entirely subsisted from adapting books. At the time this was most likely aimed at reassuring middle class audiences (ie those with the money) that cinema-going was a ‘respectable’ activity, like novel-reading. But of course this literary baggage soon became an impediment to cinema’s growth, a counter-weight to the savage clash of images which the Surrealists saw in early Hollywood. Nowadays film is firmly wedged inside the feedback loop of re-making already existing films but (perhaps with the twin hits of Lord of the Rings and The Da Vinci Code) adapting books has also found some mini resurgence.

There may be many reasons for this. In a parody of its earlier days, punters may flatter themselves that by seeing a film of a book they are doing something semi-literary. In our time-poor present, they may figure they will never get round to reading the source novel and this is their best chance. (Which is, after all, the very reason I saw this film.) There may be some lurking notion that having an external source may be a way to establish a core for a film, and escape the through-line-less ‘death by committee’ so many suffer from. (This film alone suffered two changes of director and script.)

But the upside of the earlier aping of ‘respectability’ was an implicit commitment to see the book honoured. (Klunkers like the ending imposed upon Great Expectations notwithstanding.) It’s as if, after over a hundred years to practice in, film has learnt none of the basic rules of adaption and instead lost the will to really try.

First and foremost, it seems abundantly obvious that whatever your measure the contents of an average-length book will not fit inside an average-length film. Lining one up against the other is like the Dadaist cabaret turn, where a typewriter would be nonsensically ‘raced’ against a sewing machine. As with so many adaptions, this film feels like an assemblage - created from some Cliff Notes summary rather than the book itself. Whole scenes seen to consist of half-explained characters manifesting themselves, telling our heroine Something of Great Plot Importance then saying “anyway, must dash”. (Check out the Witch’s first appearance here for a classic example of cramming.) The effect is like opening an over-packed suitcase and having a whole bunch of stuff flung at you haphazardly.

This of course compounds with a general modern desire for films to be rushed, as if faster always meant better or more exciting. In the same way the trailer’s just tantalysing snippets of info strung together to get you to see the film, the film just plays the same trick at greater duration to get you to buy the Playstation game or spin-off single (or maybe even the book). Each incident crammed shoulder to shoulder with others, none is ever a moment to itself.

A possible solution might seem to merely up the running time. It’s to this film’s credit it doesn’t try this, but keeps itself to a modest 113 minutes. The fad for longer films may partly come from the absurd notion that length is a measure of quality, but more particularly derives from the Lord of the Rings films. Yet a film based on a Tolkien book lasting 178 minutes is one thing, a film based on a JP Rowling book taking up 161 minutes is quite another. Popcorn makes for a poor three-course meal.

But more importantly, it should be understood a book is a different medium to a film and merely upping the number of reels will not compensate for this. Novels, even adventure novels such as this, present what’s ultimately an intangible world. People sometimes say they do or don’t see a particular character as a particular actor, but while we’re reading we don’t have a mini-film playing inside our heads so much as a nebulous fog of concepts and images. Too often a book is merely reduced to a bulleted list, a series of plot points and encounters which are then stuck in front of a camera. If we’re lucky, enough of them make it through editing to leave some semblance of shape. It’s like making a 2D diagram from the contours of a 3D photograph, anything not easily captured in the new medium is simply ignored and left behind. (It would also be interesting to speculate that the novel is itself suffering a kind of backwards contamination, as writers emaciate their own work in order to make them ‘film ready’.)

After over a hundred years of attempts, do we really need to point out that an adaption is not the same thing as a retelling? An adaption cuts to the heart of something, boiling it down to its very essence, then distills it into something new. There was a more-or-less faithful version of 1984 released in (naturally enough) 1984. But no-one remembers it because everyone thinks of Gilliam’s masterful Brazil, which took massive liberties with its source.

About a decade ago, the BBC staged an adaption of Gormenghast. It was dubbed ‘Gormenghastly’ by the Sun in about five minutes flat, and correctly so. But it did provoke me to read Peake’s books, which had previously been lying forlorn on a dusty shelf and proved just as good as people had always told me they were. Would that I had remembered that lesson here…


  1. Having never read the books either, I thought they did a terrible job of setting up the otherworldy scenario, and introducing the central character. Despite being well-versed in fantasy fiction, I didn't really have a clue what was going on or who I should be rooting for in the first half hour.

    That said, I thought Sam Elliot was excellent. But then, he aways is.

  2. I thought Dakota Blue Richards was very good, actually - and her variation in accent I took to be right, in that she's always reacting to the people around her - either being an urchin among the urchins or gypsies, or being posher amongst the college people or Mrs Coulter.

    The character's name is Lyra, by the way, not Liza.

  3. I only called her Liza once! I wonder if I can try and blame that on her accent!

    I think I'd need to see the film again in order to test out your 'chameleon accent' theory. What accent did she use with the polar bear?