Sunday, 30 December 2007

What Is Wrong With 'The Golden Compass'?

As well as watching DVDs: 'Buongiorno, notte' (2003) and 'Zwartboek' (2007), I actually strayed out to the cinema to see 'The Golden Compass' (2007) which is based on 'The Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman (1995) the first in his His Dark Materials trilogy. I also saw Mark Kermode comment on it in his round-up of movies of 2007 and give it a rather lacklustre review. He prefers 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy (2001-2003) for their darkness and 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (2005) for being more warm-hearted. In fact I think that the Lord of the Rings movies have a similar chumminess about them, the hobbits in particular are there to stand in for the perspective of children and you know they are going to win through despite the odds. Conversely, the first Narnia film has real moments of nastiness such as when the faun is frozen and also when the boy is told that he has betrayed his friends for sweets (something particularly cutting at the time the film is set, the middle of the Second World War). Kermode feels that 'The Golden Compass' lacks the positive elements of these other fantasy films, over-simplifying the novel. This can be said for all of these films, plus the Harry Potter series too. Basically you can make a decent movie out of a novella or a short story. Much of the Philip K. Dick stories turned into movies are not his full length work. In contrast Pullman's work like that of Tolkien and Rowling runs to hundreds of pages; Lewis's work is easier to adapt as his books are the length of the old-fashioned length novel (i.e. say 150 pages) not the doorstops of today. Whole sections of the Lord of the Rings novels are left out from the movies and in the Harry Potter movies there is similar cutting and simplification. That is why movies are adaptations. To come close to a novel you need to do a series.

'The Golden Compass' does make one mistake for younger viewers especially in our illiterate age in that there are a number of instances of foreign languages being used which need sub-titles which it was clear many younger members of the audience around me needed to have read out to them. In the UK the film is rated 'PG' - Parental Guidance which means generally even pre-school children can get in if with a parent; typically children attend movies that are the next rating up from their age, so 12 year olds go to '15' movies and 15-year olds to '18' movies and so on, something few people seem to take into considerationg when making a movie. Sensibly in 'Babe' (1995) the mice read out all the text on screen for the pre-literate members of the audience but I have not seen a similar approach used in other movies.

'The Golden Compass' has done poorly in the USA and there are possibly two reasons for this. I disagree with Kermode that it is because it lacks the passion of these other fantasy blockbusters.I think it is because the agnostic view the movie takes (and it is not atheist despite what people might say as it has angels and a heaven, it is just the structure of these is different to the model set out by Christian churches notably the Roman Catholic Church and this is why the Catholic League in the USA pushed for a boycott of the movie). The USA is a far more religious country than the UK. On a Sunday more people go to DIY stores than churches in the UK. Despite the increased popularity of faith schools this has not increased actual church attendance very much and religion actually remains irrelevant to the bulk of the UK population. The picture is very different in the USA, something the country is well aware of. The second thing is that 'The Golden Compass' is a very British movie. It does not move into an alien fantasy realm like The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia stories which sometimes have parallels with the USA or people can at least draw parallels to the USA. American citizens are generally disinterested and unknowledgeable about things which happen even a short way outside their borders so a movie set in Britain is not going to interest them, especially when there is really only one US character: Lee Scoresby played by Sam Elliott. Neither is it the twee world of Britain as portrayed in the Harry Potter movies. We know US audiences have difficulties with 'alternate worlds', the 'Sliders' (1995-2000) series notwithstanding, just look at the problems they had with 'Fatherland' (novel 1992; movie 1994). 'The Golden Compass' does very well at showing a different UK where not only do people have their souls (yes and they have souls so it is not atheistic) outside them in the form of 'daemons' (maybe this word and the fact that the animals look like familiars also caused problems for Catholic USA), but history has run a different course.

Anyone who knows Oxford and/or London will recognise many buildings shown in the movie but between them are many others that are alien. The style of the country is 1930s fashions mixed with a combination of steampunk and magic as the characters travel in airships and yet there are magical devices too. This is not as easily accessible as a world of orcs, hobbits, dwarfs and wizards which has become so well established in our psyche. In addition, what does come across from Pullman's work is challenging for the average audience member. In Narnia there is a simple message: an allegory of Christianity - sacrifice of the chosen one (i.e. Aslan/Christ) and his rebirth leads to redemption for all who follow him. In the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings, there is a similar good vs. evil, with temptations (especially in terms of power) along the way even for the good at heart, but fellowship and faith will win through and allow the restoration of the correct hierarchy, i.e. the return of the King and there is analogies for the time that it was written in with Mordor representing the Nazis/Soviet Communism, the hobbits as the brave British and the elves as the Americans sailing to a new world. [

In 'The Golden Compass' things are intentionally not so clear. There is a young girl, Lyra (played very capably by Dakota Blue Richards who despite the name seems to be British or certainly can do an excellent British accent. Interestingly Christopher Lee (aged 85) continues his dominance of evil nobles in recent blockbusters, appearing as First High Councillor of the Magisterium (he was Saruman in The Lord of the Rings movies; Count Dooku in Star Wars II and III)), getting involved in adventures just like Lucy in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' and similarly learning new strengths and skills. There is Lord of the Rings/Narnia style redemption for the deposed polar bear king, brought back from alcoholism to overthrow the usurper. However, there is more ambiguity even in the simpler form shown in the movie. Lyra finds out who her parents are and one clearly is devious if not outright evil. Unlike in traditional stories, including Harry Potter which in many ways is not of contemporary Britain but of an earlier age remembered, where being an orphan is seen as legitimate, Lyra turns out to be illegitimate and also the result of what turned into a bitter encounter between her parents; possibly more relevant to many children in the audience today than being orphaned, but again far more challenging and ambiguous than the other routes these epics offer. Above all there is the sense that authority should not tell us all the answers; as one of the witches says (and again this may upset some viewers that witches are heroines, very reminiscent of wartime resistance fighters - Eva Green an actress I admire plays the lead one so I accept I am biased) it is about free will, the ability to choose the wrong as well as the right path, in fact the opportunity to choose at all. 'The Golden Compass' has many of the trappings of other fantasy epics such as full-scale battles and a child heroine but it and its sequels (if they are ever made given the poor reception in the USA) will always challenge the audience's assumptions far more than these others and thus I doubt it will ever do well in the USA where the audience wants easy stories and demands a happy ending not a complex one and consequently without the US box office dollars it will not thrive in the way the more Christian-orientated fantasy epics will. In some ways, in our world, the battle Lyra is fighting in hers, is already lost.

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