I've read all seven Harry Potter books. I've been up one side of Mount Doom and down the other with Tolkien. I've chased (and finally caught) Stephen King's Dark Tower since prepubescence. And I'm here to tell you that love them all though I do, none of them can hold a candle to Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.
Composed of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, Pullman's books are teenage-appropriate fantasy with an adults-only allegorical kicker. It's a coming-of-age story about coming-of-age. Wondrous, ambitious, original, black, profound — the series exists, as far as I'm concerned, in a hyperbole-free zone.
Which does not mean that the new film adaptation of The Golden Compass is anywhere near as good. Directed and adapted by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Down to Earth), the film is clunky in exposition — a forgivable sin, except it's all exposition.
The missteps begin immediately, with a narrated prologue that spills the beans on some primary mysteries that the book withheld to build tension. It's sickening. Imagine if the opening crawl in Star Wars bluntly stated what the Force was, that it was indisputably real, and that, oh yeah, Darth Vader is Luke's dad: Obi-Wan would come off like a preening know-it-all, Luke like an imbecile, and Han Solo like a recalcitrant asshole. If The Golden Compass doesn't guard its secrets jealously, why should anybody else be invested in it?
Skipping past some of the more frustrating revelations, Pullman's world opens up: Jordan College, Oxford, England, something like the 1800s. Except there are fundamental differences from our own world: Primarily, each person has an animal-like creature companion, called a daemon, that is much more than just a friend — that is analogous, in a way, to the human soul.
At Jordan College lives Lyra Belacqua (the very convincing Dakota Blue Richards), the 11-year-old clever, wild child who is the protagonist of the story. The orphan Lyra rules the roost at Jordan, palling around with Gyptian children (an ethnic group similar to the Roma) and getting into trouble with her daemon, Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore). She encounters her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a kind of English Richard Halliburton who has made a scientific discovery about the mysterious particle "Dust" in the Arctic and wants funding from Jordan College for an expedition.
After Asriel heads north, Lyra meets Mrs. Coulter (the perfectly rotten Nicole Kidman), another dignitary visiting Jordan. Attracted by her ethereal beauty and confidence, Lyra accepts Coulter's invitation to go home with her to London. Before leaving, the college master gives Lyra an alethiometer to safeguard, a small, extremely rare device that is said to be able to tell the truth, but it doesn't come with an instruction booklet. (This is the titular golden compass.)
In London, Lyra learns that Coulter may not be everything she seems, and, soon enough, she escapes to head north on a journey with the Gyptians. Oh, and lurking in the wings is the Magisterium, the ruling authority in this world, who have set themselves in opposition to Lord Asriel, the existence of Dust, the use of the alethiometer, and a laundry list of other things. But Dust, we learn from the prologue, is real. Therefore, the Magisterium, believing otherwise, is set up as the bad guys right away, and not very intelligent ones at that. Does it matter that the Magisterium will turn out to actually be the bad guys much later in the series? Only if you haven't read the books.
And then there are the witches, and the armored bears, and the prophecy, and ... well, I could go on, but it's just too much information — especially when the film tries to cram it all in about 20 minutes of screen time. The Golden Compass doesn't take enough time to establish the ground rules for this familiar but fundamentally alien world. It acts as though it needs to do no work to gain the trust of the audience or to establish any credibility, or, for that matter, that there's any doubt that the audience is going to buy any of this.
The film has garnered a lot of pre-release bother from some religious groups, who accuse it of having an atheist message. Inevitable questions about whether many of these protesters have even seen the film aside, the argument gains no traction. There's no doubt that the Magisterium resembles the Catholic Church, just as there's no doubt that in the books, especially The Amber Spyglass, certain key religious elements come under fire. As a fantasy, it's the anti-Narnia.
But Pullman's books — it remains to be seen how true it is of the films — don't decry religious experience so much as the organization that traps it. If it's atheistic, then I hate college football just because I detest the Bowl Championship Series.
The Golden Compass also struggles almost every minute with editing. This is a three-hour fatty crammed in a two-hour corset. The story is globetrotting in breadth, and there's a lot of plot to put in play, especially since it's based on a book that is all set up for the breathtaking last two installments.
Unfortunately, the big payoff in the book is remaindered by the movie for its presumed sequel. The Golden Compass ends exactly one sequence too soon and loses out on what could have been a saving grace. Herein is yet another basic flaw in the film: trusting that by playing off the audiences' built-in fantasy-film expectations and desire for a happy ending, it will be enough to lure them back for a sequel. Instead, the movie is all empty calories. If my interest in the series weren't rooted in the books, there's no way this film would have me asking for more.
I can't stand the idea that films have to be faithful to their source material, and I won't respect myself in the morning for saying this (but I'll respect Chris Weitz even less): would that The Golden Compass treated the book it's based on like it was the gospel truth.
The Golden Compass
Opening Friday, December 7th