Friday night we saw The Golden Compass (2007), the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel Northern Lights (released in the US as The Golden Compass). Although it’s been in the shadows of the mega-popular Harry Potter books, Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is smarter, cleverer, and more challenging than Rowling’s series. At times it’s maybe too smart for its own good, but that time is in the third book of the trilogy; Northern Lights is inventive, beguiling and exciting.
I didn’t get around to re-reading the book before seeing the film, so my memories of the book are hazy, but judged strictly as a movie, The Golden Compass is enjoyable but is built on haphazard storytelling. My recollection is that the book spends a great deal of time crafting its setting and the many inventive creatures and cultures the heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) encounters. The film spends a little time at the beginning setting up Lyra’s position as a gutter-rat who happens to be the ward of the scholar Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig, who’s essentially wasted in a role with only one meaty scene), but otherwise thrusts Lyra rapidly from one situation to another with very little transition between events.
While this is a risk in turning any modern novel into a film with a running time under 2 hours (in this case, 113 minutes, including credits), I think the filmmakers just did a poor job here, and since Chris Weitz is both director and screenwriter, I think the blame falls on his shoulders. TGC spends its lingering shots on the special effects, and although the animated bears and giant zeppelins are very impressive, that time would have been much better spent on character moments. The film also wastes precious minutes on scenes that have almost no value, like Lord Azrael’s arrival in the north, or a solitary scene with the nasty Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, who at least gets more to do than Craig) musing about Lyra in the company of her daemon. What was Weitz thinking?
And with all that the film still ends with a cheesy speech and well before the end of the story in the book. While the book does end in a cliffhanger, it’s really no less unfinished than the abrupt ending of the film, and it deliberately sets up the adventure in the second book. The sequel film – assuming this one did well enough for it to finish production – is going to have a weird opening in order to get Lyra where she needs to go.
Oh, and to add insult to injury, the closing credits roll with an amazingly crappy song sung by Kate Bush. Ee-yuck.
So what did the film do right? Well, Richards is terrific as Lyra, effectively conveying the emotion and intensity of the character. The armored polar bear, Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan) looks great, moves great and overall is another triumph of the ever-evolving technology of digital special affects. The daemons – creatures bonded to every person in Lyra’s world, embodying each person’s soul – also look great, and their constant presence really underscores the differences in Lyra’s world. The acting is generally fine, but really no one besides Richards and McKellan really gets much chance to show their stuff; the cast is too large, and the scenes too short.
There are several very effective scenes, too. The scene where Iorek Byrnison gets to redeem himself among his people is an even better battle sequence than the film’s climax. And the scene where Lyra and Iorek strike out across the snow to investigate a lone shack in the next valley is chilling from start to finish.
But overall The Golden Compass really could have benefitted from a longer running time (the first films in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series were each nearly 3 hours long, why wasn’t this? Even the first Narnia film was 25 minutes longer), and a smoother script. It’s not so much a bad film as a lightweight one, and “lightweight” isn’t something the book can easily be accused of being.