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Saturday, December 29, 2007
Golden Compass: it's no Northern Lights
The Golden Compass is a serviceable adaptation, that's about it. The daemons, the actors, the settings/scenery - all quite good. But the plot adaptation was a total hash from start to finish. Now I realise it's no mean task taking what was a ~11 hour unabridged audio book and making it a 2 or 2.5 hour movie. But it seemed to miss the whole point of the plot arcs and character exposition, and pick out minor elements, or in many cases, invent elements entirely out of whole cloth, or change events.
I originally listened to the audio book on the plane - didn't know much about it, was just trying to find something in iTunes that was roughly the right length that might be interesting, had vaguely heard of it.
The audiobook is unabridged with full voice cast, it's really well done, and the story is compelling.
What is the story?
What are the plot themes and arcs?
Well you have morality
- the hard choices of the basically good Master
- Mrs. Coulter and her cruel quest for power
- Lord Azriel and his single-minded quest to destroy the Magisterium
- the basic goodness of the 'gyptians
- the alien, honour-bound goodness of Iorek Byrnison
and you have adventure
- Lyra's escape and recovery by the 'gyptians
- the journey to meet Lord Farr
- the journey to Trollsund
- the journey to Volvanger (Bollvanger?) with the side journey to the haunted town
- capture and learning about Bolvanger
- escape from Bolvanger
and you have mystery
- the mystery of the Gobblers
- the mystery of Dust
- the mystery of Bolvanger
- the mystery of the City in the Sky
Plus there's this whole witch prophecy thing which is a minor element.
Plus probably stuff I have forgotten.
So to me the main arc is getting Lyra first to Trollshund and then to Volvanger, the devastation of the discovery of Volvanger, and the escape and climactic battle.
The secondary arc is getting to Svalbard, tricking the bear king, Lord Asriel, and the climactic ending. I really feel this second arc is quite weak, almost as if Pullman had needed to get Lyra to Lord Asriel, and so wrote the whole first arc kind of as a necessary task, doing an amazing job of it, but then when he gets to his Main Agenda about God and whatnot, it begins to fall apart - the bear king bit just doesn't quite ring right, why is she calling Iorik "my dear" all of a sudden? Goes all lectures about original sin and all. You can tell it's going downhill as soon as she gets in the balloon to go there, and there is page after page (or in my case minute after minute) of blathering about free will and prophecies and Grand Designs.
The ending is shocking and amazing though.
So, how is one to construct a movie out of this?
The opening scene basically sets up the entire book:
- Lyra and Pan, two aspects of one person
- the mystery of Dust
- the lure of the North and the Northern Lights, the city in the sky
- the armoured bears, the panzerbjorn
what else do you need - well you need to see that Lyra is strong-willed, independent, a creative liar, a playful child. And see her friendship with Roger, and hear of the Gobblers.
and finally she has to get the aleitheiometer
(I may be spelling these things wrong, keep in mind I've never actually read the written words of the book)
you also need to early on explain about the whole daemon thing, and the rules of daemons, and the horror of not having a daemon
And I can see in the movie, the pieces are there, but they just don't jell.
In particular the movie totally bludgeons the mystery arc, both with the opening narration that spills all about Dust, as well as ridiculously simple "Here's a page explaining everything, here's a scene where we explain everything" stuff.
So here's my movie:
- open with a professor at Jordan College lecturing about daemons, explaining their properties etc. Just enough to learn the basic facts - every human has one, they disappear when we die, a human without a daemon is an impossibility, a horror beyond imagining, humans don't touch other daemons, the daemon is an external soul, children's daemons can change, adults are fixed.
Maybe Lyra is sitting outside on the roof half-listening, then she runs off to go investigate the Retiring Room
Full scene in Retiring Room basically direct from the book - it is the key setup scene of the entire story.
Then you need a few scenes to set up her life in Jordan, to give you a sense of the years she has been there, to set up the aspects of her personality, establish who she is, and to set up her friendship with Roger.
Gets the aleitheometer, off to Mrs. Coulter's, montage of shopping, etiquette, admiration of Mrs. Coulter. Then party and devastation as she discover's Coulter's true nature. It's important to show the adults, so blandly chatting about evil things. Flee.
1st minor excitement scene: capture and rescue
Long sweep of sequences with Gyptians, hiding, the meeting with Lord Farr, planning. By now we should be at about the 35 minute mark. Sail to Trollsund. Meet Scoresby, help Iorik.
1 major excitement scene: Iorik's armour and the prevented battle
about the 45 minute mark
I would skip the witches entirely at this point, I don't think there's time for that whole aspect of the story.
Do a brief sidebar with Lord Asriel setting up his luxury research station, just so we don't forget he exists.
Preparations for the cold, sledges loaded, sled dogs...
(In the movie, they show people walking with a small amount of gear through some woods... then this magically turns into a giant ridiculously elaborate camp, plus a giant balloon.)
So here you stretch time out a bit. This journey should feel long, and hard, and cold, yet amazing, as the Northern Lights stretches across the sky.
(Incredibly, the movie DOES NOT SHOW THE NORTHERN LIGHTS AT ALL.)
If there is some needed exposition, that wasn't covered in the first leg of the Gyptian sail, it can be added in on this leg of the journey.
So at least 10, maybe 15 minutes to get to: side trip to rescue Billy Costa. At least 5-10 minutes to try to convey the difficulty and horror of this discovery and the pain of his broken return.
So about 60 minutes in we find out what they've been doing at Bolvanger.
Bang after that: the attack, 2nd major excitement.
From attack basically quickly snapshot some scenes, a couple minutes at most to get her to Bolvanger.
Bolvanger is IMPORTANT. It's about the banality of evil. It's about how Lyra works against the system of the adults. You need to spend TIME there, it's THE major element of the plot. Minimum 30 minutes of Lyra meeting the kids, telling her lies, making her plan, exploring...
90 minutes into movie: MRS COULTER
bang the intercision attempt
bang the escape plan in action
Spectacular battle conclusion, as she rescues Roger, and Iorik and the Gyptians triumph.
So we should be about 110 minutes into the movie by then.
Amazing balloon trip - emphasize scenery, arrival at Svalbard, attack of Cliffgasts
115 minutes in: next battle, Cliffgasts
quickly get to the bearfight, maybe 5-10 minutes MAX
125 minutes in: BEARFIGHT
another 10 minutes to get her to: Lord Asriel's research station
5 minutes of chitchat
145 minutes in: The Betrayal
Whole thing wraps in say 155-160 minutes.
Instead we get:
- bunch of gratitutous made-up Magisterium scenes
- no character exposition for anyone - from watching the movie, can you describe anyone's personality to me, other than maybe Mrs. Coulter's? their daemon's personalities?
- this weird glowing orb technology for no reason, including a scene of some orb-powered coach for no reason
- Iorik exiled for being DEFEATED? Are you freaking kidding me?
- no sense of the connection with the daemons and the incredible evil horror of intercision
- no Mystery of the Dust
- no Mystery of the City in the Sky
- no sense that Lyra, and the Gyptians, and Lee Scoresby, and Iorik, they all have a *moral* compass and stand in opposition to the banality of the other adults who have none
- no sense of the horrifying, incredible evil of Bolvanger, where adults torture and destroy chi1dren and call it science
What we get is:
bang a thing happens, bang a thing happens, bang a thing happens, ..., the end
Audience: the movie doesn't seem to know who its audience is. The book, despite all the nattering about "children's book", is actually much more for young adults, say 14+.
The Church Police: The book is not much about religion or the church at all. Basically you have an alternative universe where The Church runs... everything. In the background. This means the church is so gigantically big, it does everything. It had good groups and bad groups. It does science, both for good and ill. It is not really an actor in the foreground in the book at all. No one in the book thinks much about the church, except Lord Asriel, for the rest it's like anyone who lives in a religious society - it's just normal, something in the background. The book itself doesn't really touch much on religion, other than the obvious fact that one arm of the Magisterium is supporting Mrs. Coulter's mad project. It's only at the end when we get back to Lord Asriel that we have to put up with his blatherings about original sin. That being said, the 2nd book has more aspects related to the church, and the third is all religion, all the time, what with being about killing God. (The 2nd and third books, incidentally, suffer greatly from this, to the extent that the 3rd is basically unreadable.)
The movie, rather to my surprise, actually talks a lot more about the Church (in its Magisterial guise) and it wanting to control people, and makes it appear that it is a single monolith with the Bolvanger project being approved and directed right from the top. I honestly don't know why they did that, they'd have been better off sticking more closely to the book on this aspect.
Also the voice of Gandalf coming out of a bear, so distracting that when they came to an ice bridge, I kept thinking "say You Shall Not Pass... say You Shall Not Pass".
This movie, at least for someone who read and loved the book, is only passable.