May 21, 2010

Book Vs. Movie: The Golden Compass

After seeing J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter receive the silver screen treatment in such admirable fashion, I had high hopes for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy when word broke that The Golden Compass would be adapted into a motion picture. Goodness knows the trailer only amplified my expectations for the movie.

Pullman's story of a young girl's turbulent steps towards adulthood while surrounded by spellbinding events is a modern classic for very good reason. Forget all of the nonsense from uppity bible-thumpers who decry it as nothing more than a surreptitious attempt to propagandize children against Catholicism. Ignorance like that fails to take into account the intelligence and discerning nature of kids with their reading habits. Pullman is about as likely to turn a child into a godless heathen as Rowling is of recruiting a child into a witch's coven--or Tolkein convincing youths a better life is to be had as a garden gnome.

Lyra Silvertongue, as she's dubbed by Iorek Byrneson--the most bad-ass polar bear in literary history--starts out as a tomboyish scamp under the guardianship of Oxford, and matures as her best friend is abducted and she learns her uncle has discovered a mysterious particle known as Dust that is coveted by the Majesterium. Her adventure in the book is engrossing and mysterious, featuring characters and creatures that leap off the page. The Golden Compass seemed picture perfect as movie material.

The movie itself appeared gorgeous. And even what trouble there may have been with a suspension of disbelief towards either the CGI or the storyline, many scenes felt like watching a living portrait. As for the performances by the likes of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and others, they were the fatal flaw to the film. Kidman has been a hit-or-miss actor in my opinion and her role as Ms. Coulter was a swing and a miss. Where the character needed to display some distance and rigidity towards Lyra in their interactions, any display of emotion came off as a prerecorded message with about as much vitality as a glossy magazine cover. As for Daniel Craig, his role was minimal which was its own relief as he appeared as out of place as Megan Fox in a Victorian romance.

The real contrast between book and movie comes in the form of the ending. The book has one, the movie not so much. While Pullman's novel offered a cliffhanger in its own right, it also offered a clear piece of closure following Lyra rescue of her best friend. In the movie, the rescue occurs, but felt as cut off at the knees as the ending to Star Wars, with the villain spiraling off into space while the heroes celebrate a momentary victory.

Winner: The Book. Unfortunately, The Golden Compass was a sad and underwhelming exercise in film making. And thanks to the poor direction afforded to the first movie, there is practically zero chance that there will ever be a second. I recall listening to an interview years ago in which Philip Pullman voiced his pleasure with the movie. After seeing it for myself, I find he and are differ in opinion greatly.


  1. I remember seeing the film and being underwhelmed by the entire thing...until the polar bear fight scene. That's all my brother and I could talk about as we strolled out of the theater. Worth the $10? No. But worth one viewing...

    Also, I agree that the book wins. Hands down.

  2. As one who was tepid about both the film and the book (to my wife's eternal disappointment), I think that Sam Elliot and the polar bear should get their own movie and more than that one itty-bitty chapbook Pullman put out a year or so ago.

    Because dang it, I want to watch a cowboy and a talking polar bear go on adventures!

  3. "Book vs the Movie Version"....
    That's a great idea for a series.

  4. Celia - Yeah, the polar bear fight scene was a slice of awesome pie.

    Josh - If there's a Iorek Byrneson story out there, I want to read it too.

    Andrew - Seemed like a natural fit for this blog, since I review books and movies.