Sunday, December 16, 2007

"The Golden Compass": movie review

A couple of days ago I saw "The Golden Compass", based on Philip Pullman's book by the same title, the first one in "His Dark Materials" trilogy. We read and discussed this book at the Science And Religion In Fiction book club, and I'll write a report sometime soon; in this post I will mention some differences between the movie and the book. Of course, that's not what a proper movie review is supposed to do. But, being artistically challenged, I'm not in a position to judge things like acting or director's skill. To me the most important factor is how good the story is.

The movie sticks very closely to the book. It hits all the key plot points (except one: see later); no major characters were sacrificed for the sake of brevity or simplicity. That's more than one can expect from most movie adaptations. And yet that's not to say the story has not been simplified for the movie. It has been, and the result is a bit disappointing.

The most interesting thing about the book was the world Philip Pullman created. Since his goal was to write rational fantasy, one expects that the magical aspects of his creation -- daemons, Dust, parallel universes -- are all manifestations of an underlying order of his world, rather than memes / cliches an author pulls out of the hat whenever they are handy. In the book, Pullman does not immediately reveal what Dust or daemons are; he gives us a chance to put the puzzle together. For me that was the main intrigue of the book. Doubly so because those mysterious forces are ambiguous; even at the end of the book it's not clear whether they serve more good than bad.

But the movie deprives us of speculation, since it gives a simplified explanation of those things at the beginning, in a form of an infodump. In the same way, the scenes of Lyra reading the aletheiometer were too simplistic. In the book the deeper meanings of aletheiometer symbols came to Lyra gradually and after much thinking, not instantly or magically. The reader is invited to speculate along with her what those symbols mean. In the movie, she takes one look at the device, and the images appear in all their glory among psychedelic swirls of Dust.

I can see, though, how complexities of Pullman's world do not lend themselves easily to a visual format. It makes me wonder if the reason this book appealed to movie producers at all was because armed bear fights provide some majestic cinematic sequences. :-) And the hot air balloon flights don't disappoint in that department either. All that shiny, steampunky brass!

Speaking about the movie not being completely faithful to the book: there is a plot twist at the end of the novel that's missing in the movie. It involves Lyra's parents and it totally makes you reconsider who the good guys and the bad guys are! You have to wonder why they cut off the ending: to fit under a certain time limit, or did they think it made the story unnecessarily complex?

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