Friday, 21 December 2007

A view of the Golden Compass.

On Friday14th December I went to the UGC cinema in Broad Street, Birmingham to see the film of the Golden Compass for myself, breaking with my usual habits of reserving Saturday evening for the cinema. Even though it has only been screened for a week the auditorium was only a third full, and it clearly has not been a success.

Nevertheless, disregarding the injunctions of the Birmingham Oratory fathers, I was keen to see it as I had read Philip Pullman's Northern Lights several years back, which I enjoyed very much despite some of the content.

However the film clearly did not do the book justice, and it came across as very weak and somewhat crass. Several times during the performance some people left. I suspect that the film may well barely break even, and the sequels will not be made. From what I know of the following two books this is probably a good thing, for they are much worse in their attack on the church.

So where does the film fall down? Firstly, unless one has read the book, it is very hard to follow. Pullman's ideas of Gyptians, Dust, the Magisterium(!?), Daemons, etc. pass by in rapid succession with no real attempt to give them clear explanation in the film itself. A weak attempt is made to explain them at the beginning, but this is very cursory and inadequate. Otherwise questions arise: who exactly are the Gobblers? What is this Magisterium? Characters such as witches and Gyptians appear out of the blue. It seems that the film assumes that everyone has read the books! If that is not the case and the intention has been for people to read the books after the film for the full facts, I doubt they will succeed.

Secondly, although Pullman himself seemed happy with the cast, they were completely the wrong people for the characters portrayed. In the book Mrs Coulter comes across as a charming, beautiful and yet very formidable and powerful woman capable of the greatest cruelties, but Nicole Kidman appears weak and timid in comparison. Daniel Craig as Lord Asreil was somewhat better, but he seems far more effective and convincing as James Bond in Casino Royale. As for Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, she was totally unconvincing. One comment was that her accent could have come from Dick van Dyke! The only one who was truly convincing (as he almost always is) was Christopher Lee, in the sinister 'Magisterium'.

Thirdly, one of Pullman's key ideas, the Daemons, that is human souls who take the form of external animals, was not done justice by the film. They appeared unreal speaking in normal human voices: if they sounded more like animals they might have been more plausable. Also one wonders why in the film Lyra's conversations with her daemon Pan were not clearly overheard by Mrs. Coulter? Perhaps they can't be..

If I were Pullman I would be very disappointed in the treatment by the film of his book. In order to do it justice the film would have to be at least three hours, and the story and action much more paced. One reason why the first Lord of the Rings film worked well as it did not constrict the story too much.

However I do believe that it has to be said that he is a very good story teller. His work is rich and very imaginative, and it would be doing him a great injustice to describe him as second rate author. His books I have found very readable on long train journeys to London. But it clearly seems that the power and strength of his work lies not in ideas he creates, but his ability to form a story from them.

Indeed some of his allusions to our faith in the parallel world he creates are preposterous, such as the practice of preemptive absolution (absolution for sins committed in the future), and his idea of homosexual angels (they are pure spirits!). Some of the other ideas seem pretty obvious in their origin. His 'Magisterium' in the absence of the papacy is clearly a reference to the then Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF, repeating the media myth that Ratzinger really ran the church in the presence of an ailing John Paul II. And he repeats the old platitude that the 'Magisterium', both in his world and ours, is out to prevent 'freedom of thought' to preserve its power!

It is beyond doubt that his work is a deliberate attack on the Catholic faith, even in the film version where the more obvious references have been removed. However I do not think we should be too alarmed. One review on the site Rotten Tomatoes has summed it up well: Unlikely to fill theaters or to empty pews.


Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Great review Oliver. Will show my daughter Katy who loves Pullman books..but she doesn't believe in his atheism!

Oliver McCarthy said...

Where I saw it there were actually quite a few titters at quite how bad some bits of it were, and here and there I felt that everyone (myself included) was rooting for the Magisterium and the Kossacks (or whatever the soldiers were meant to be). I'm also virtually certain that a sequel will be made, even if it ends up being like the Starship Troopers sequel that only the fans have actually heard of. Given how derivative the book itself is (see Kingsley Amis's book The Alteration for most of the sources), I suspect Mr Pullman is not a great suffering artist and will not mind much if his own work has been ill-serverd by Hollywood. Clearly some of Pullman's stuff has a certain charm, such as the squeaky-clean sci-fi version of Oxford where everyone has his or her own cute talking pet to cuddle and play with all the time. But unless the Kingdom of the Ice-Bears and the history of the Gyptians are seriously fleshed out in the books, he very much deserves to be considered a better-than-average hack-writer for kids - a sort of pompous version of Anthony Horowitz, whose books are at least readable. (I started Northern Lights whilst I was at Oxford about seven years ago. I quickly gave up on it and moved on to John Masefield's The Midnight Folk, which was vastly more exciting and enjoyable.)