The Golden Compass… The Movie

Saw the movie with my daughter, Joy. She loved it, which is great for her. I positively hated it. As much as I found the book to be fairly blah, the movie is positively wretched. A cast loaded with stars could not even begin to save this nightmarishly ill-done movie. The film was quite grainy in parts, and felt like a jarringly disjunct collection of scenes—there was no flow to it at all. The acting was terrible, and since I have a lot of respect for some of the actors within it, I can only assume the directing (as well as the script) are to blame. This conclusion is all the easier to arrive at, as they both originate from the same person (Chris Weitz). I have not seen his other movies (which include American Pie), and after seeing this one, I doubt I’ll be rushing to do so anytime very soon.

There were several parts that were rather poorly explained; at one important part, where the girl Lyra and her daemon (a physical manifestation of her soul) were to be severed, so little information was given as to what was going on, that I doubt I’d have even known what was taking place, if I hadn’t already read the book.

I was also disappointed to find that the few characters in the book that had some small portion of depth to them, were made entirely one-dimensional in this movie. Probably the particulars of this depth would have been difficult to make work for the film, but at any rate it removed much of what small charm the book had. For instance, in the book, an attempt is made to poison Lyra’s “uncle”, Lord Asriel, by the schoolmaster of the scholarly university where Lyra has been raised, and who is something of a father-like figure to Lyra, which causes her some conflicting feelings about him. Later, a hint of the weighty decisions that would conspire to influence him to do such a thing is revealed, and indeed he is somewhat vindicated in the end for having made the attempt. However, in the movie, the schoolmaster is an entirely benevolent character, who righteously refuses to stoop to any such treachery, and so the attempt is made instead by a high-ranking official of the Magisterium (the “church-like” religious order, whose malevolence and self-servingly intolerant views and behaviors are the reason why the trilogy has garnered so much negative publicity from certain religious groups).

I had read that the film’s producers had decided to tone down any anti-religious establishment sentiments from the book, caving in to pressure from religious groups. However, I was surprised to find that, rather than this being the case, if anything it was more direct in its opposition to the story’s “church” than the book ever was (see above, for example). Perhaps they actually increased the “antagonism” against religious views in response to the disproportionate outcry against it.

The script was absolutely lacking in imagination. Most of it flowed from the book… exactly, except that the better parts were removed. One spot which I loved in the book, but was disappointed to find in place and untouched in the movie, was the fight between two anthropomorphic bears. It was a scene which involved a bit of deception on the part of the hero, Iorek, who pretended that his arm was injured so that he could use it in a surprise attack, finishing his enemy, Ragnar, with a strong blow that knocks his lower jaw clean off, to dribble blood from the neck as he dies in agony. The deception is made all the more impactful by the reader’s knowledge that, under normal circumstances, a bear can never be deceived, and so the fact that Ragnar could have fallen prey to it was proof of his demented reason. The fact that the “injured” arm, isn’t really, is completely lost in the movie, and one gets the impression that he simply “managed” to strike a savage blow with an actually severely-injured arm; and since both the deception and its underlying revelation are completely lost, it should have been removed entirely.

As for the jarringly grisly sight of Ragnar sans lower jaw… it was an inappropriately violent one. Shocking, not so much owing to its own violence, as to the fact that there was no other violence in the movie that came even remotely near it. Such a jarring contrast shouldn’t “just appear”, to no purpose other than to follow what was in the book; it should be used to some effect. The only possible resulting effect of this scene would be parents wondering why this image has now been unsanctimoniously slapped into the minds of its younger, more impressionable viewers.

The conclusion? As much as the world might really be able to use a new tale to capture the imagination of young ones, filled not with veiled religious allegories, but with notions intended to promote freethought and question religious ideology, Pullman is certainly no C S Lewis, and the world will, in my opinion, need to continue to wait for such an arrival. And thank God he’s not (hee hee), as a more laudable literary basis for this supremely unremarkable movie could only have made it the more tragic.

Ironically, rather than make good on the “clear threat” to religion and godliness that churches across America seem to believe it poses, this movie is unlikely to do much other than to strengthen the faith of their parishoners, by fulfilling their prayers that God would keep people out of the theaters, and allow the movie to suffer an abysmally disappointing economic defeat.

7 thoughts on “The Golden Compass… The Movie

  1. Rachel

    Well, take heart….maybe in 2010 there will be a decent movie to go see with the kiddos. Peter Jackson has agreed to produce “The Hobbit”.

  2. Micah Post author

    Yeah, well, at least the Spiderwick Chronicles looks good. And Joy (and other members of the family) really loved Bridge to Terabithia.

  3. DagoodS

    Thanks for the movie review.

    The previews did not entice me to see this movie. But after the hubbub, and some Christians indicated their extreme consternation due to the depth of the story, the outstanding acting, and the brilliant production—my interest grew. Perhaps the movie was not as bad as I originally thought?

    This helped. A rental for my kids eventually; just like my initial reaction.

  4. Micah Post author

    Heh. 🙂

    I should temper my comments about acting to say that not all of it was bad; Sam Elliot was a joy to watch (as always), and Ian McKellen (voice only) was great as Iorek. But the two that stuck out to me as quite poor were the ones playing the largest roles: Dakota Blue Richards, who played Lyra, and—disappointingly—Nicole Kidman; particularly when her daemon got its fingers smashed, and she had to pretend (unconvincingly) that her own hand had been hurt.

    Eva Green played the witch Serafina; unfortunately, she went for the “distant and mysterious” thing, which doesn’t really involve acting so much as looking glassy-eyed and reading lines. :-\

    I’m sure Christopher Lee would’ve been great, but he had a very small part, so not much opportunity there.

    The main problem with the movie is, it just didn’t draw me in—even a little bit—to where I felt like I was captivated, or a part of the story. There are reviewers that disagree with me (though only about half, AFAICT from, and obviously my own daughter (part of the movie’s actual target audience) was delighted, so I guess there’s that.

  5. Jim Jordan

    Ironically, rather than make good on the “clear threat” to religion and godliness that churches across America seem to believe it poses, this movie is unlikely to do much other than to strengthen the faith of their parishoners, by fulfilling their prayers that God would keep people out of the theaters, and allow the movie to suffer an abysmally disappointing economic defeat.

    Narnia did $65M in the opening weekend, Golden Compass opened with only $26M. God is worth a solid 150% increase! 🙂

    Thanks for the thorough review. I was going to see it but I think I’ll wait for the DVD.

  6. Micah Post author

    Considering how vastly better the Narnia movie was than the Golden Compass, I’m a bit surprised the difference wasn’t greater.

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