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The Golden Compass - Elf M. Sternberg
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The Golden Compass
Omaha and I took the girls and met lisakit at the cinema this afternoon to go see The Golden Compass, the new movie based on Phillip Pullman's book The Northern Lights.

I was disappointed with the film. It's a beautiful movie with a ton of special effects thrown into it, but ultimately the outcome is less than perfect. Much of what's in the book is missing from the film not because the writers cut it out but because intrinsic aspects of the book do not transport well to other media. The relationship between a person and their daemon is easy to write, but very hard to relate in a film. The very basis of the book, the ideas that knowledge of good and evil and the worthiness of rebellion, are hard to get across in a film without getting talky, and you can't have a talky kids film. It doesn't work.

If you're a steampunk afficiando there's more than enough imagery in the film to keep you happy for days: magic zepplins, horseless carriages, steam and sail, gleaming cities of marble and chrome, the whole 1930s look and feel of the university, the laboratory, the docks. (Indeed, the laboratory is striking because everything in it looks like it comes out of a Doc Savage video except the intercissor, which instead looks like popped out of some postmodern cyberpunk.) The armored bears are very cool indeed, as is the relationship between Lyra and Pan.

Omaha believes that the point of the film is that it's told in Lyra's eyes. But for people watching the film, it's a mishmash of coincidences, deterministic segues from one crisis to another without any real threat to Lyra's will being, and overall a real lack of narrative struggle: Lyra is just carried along from one set piece to the next and you just know, with more surety than a film should allow, that she's going to come through unscathed. I was never in any doubt about this film, and that's a sign of poor filmmaking; I never felt that the main characters were in any real danger. Someone will show up who's just willing to help Lyra-- no reason given, mostly-- and in scene after scene that's exactly what happens.

It's very pretty. If you like Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, they make lovely set pieces in an accelerating collection of gorgeous steampunk settings and post-Victoriana costumes. Derek Jacoby and Christopher Lee are effective villains. Dakota Richards is quite effective as Lyra. Even Sam Elliot looks great. But still, to cut the heart out of the book and make The Magisterium into an organizing body without invoking the authority of God, hurt the story, and it ultimately didn't move me.

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Comments
kenshardik From: kenshardik Date: December 10th, 2007 03:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I went into the film knowing it was very imperfect and basically enjoyed the pretty images and Richards' delightful Lyra. I knew they chopped off the ending, so that didn't surprise me (although it was a little disappointing).

I find it strange that New Line believed they had to make so many drastic changes to the story in order to make an "American" film of it. You'd think that the thousands of fans of the books would be expecting a film without watered-down philosophies and ideas. It reminds me of when Hollywood wanted to make a film of Terry Pratchette's book "Reaper Man" and asked him if he could write a script for it without the Death character.

(Oh, and one final nitpick - If I was an armored bear and some random little girl told me my armor was hidden someplace in town, why in the world should I believe her?)
omahas From: omahas Date: December 10th, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
It reminds me of when Hollywood wanted to make a film of Terry Pratchette's book "Reaper Man" and asked him if he could write a script for it without the Death character.

"Yes, Mr. Yahweh...really like the book. Fascinating set of stories. We can make a series of sequels that will outmatch Rocky, I'm sure. However, we do have one request. Any chance you can get your ghostwriters to rewrite the book without that Christ character in there?"

::chuckle::
omahas From: omahas Date: December 10th, 2007 03:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was never in any doubt about this film, and that's a sign of poor filmmaking; I never felt that the main characters were in any real danger. Someone will show up who's just willing to help Lyra-- no reason given, mostly-- and in scene after scene that's exactly what happens.

As I mentioned to you last night, this film isn't for you. It's made for the kids. And though Kouryou-chan and Yamarrashi-chan had no doubt that Lyra would survive, they did have lot's of doubts that she would survive unscathed (or indeed, that other main characters would). Because they are kids, and kids don't have enough life experience to see the tricks that we do that tell us when things will and won't happen, they honestly believe certain things will occur that we know won't.

So, to paraphrase a favored movie of mine, "[They] didn't make [it] for you!!"

--Rocky Horror Picture Show.

;)
darrelx From: darrelx Date: December 10th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
So, to paraphrase a favored movie of mine, "[They] didn't make [it] for you!!"

heh. With all the bears,I feel like they made it for ME! I can't tell you how long I've been wanting a movie with Polar Bears as actual characters (and the two albino badgers that they passed off as bear cubs in "Balto" simply don't count).

I know the story-telling was weak, but I really had a great time watching the film, and Lorek simply stole the movie!

I picked up "His Dark Materials" a few weeks ago, but didn't want to start reading it until I'd seen the movie. Now I'm looking forward to enjoying the book even more.
blackcoat From: blackcoat Date: December 10th, 2007 05:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I feel mildly dirty that I really want to go see that movie to pant over Daniel Craig and Eric Bana...
lisakit From: lisakit Date: December 11th, 2007 10:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not having read the books I found it to be a nice film. Granted that's kinda damning with faint praise, but it was still an enjoyable couple of hours (give or take). The scenery was worth seeing on a big screen and I'm gratified that we're still seeing movies about standing up to an oppressive regime, but that's about all there is to the movie. I agree the scenes were disjointed and there was very little threat factor. There were a couple of things that were disturbing and managed to engage me more, but I don't think they were nuances that kids would catch. It irritated me that they ended on a clear "to be continued" note. I am however interested in reading the books now.
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