18 March 2011

Review: The Golden Compass (Spoilers for Movie and for All the Books)

So, I just got around to seeing the Golden Compass movie. And I'll just get it out of the way: the book was better. A lot better. You should read it instead of renting the movie. All that hyped furor from the religious quarter when this movie came out was justified; it certainly beats the viewer over the head with its big fat anti-Catholic Pope-crook. Unforgivably, in my opinion. The anti-Catholic rhetoric steals the helm of the story more than once, and not to the story's benefit. This theme was present in the book, but not nearly to the degree of shameless theme-stick beating that paints the entire movie. (That doesn't come until at least the second book, and it didn't bug me until the third, when Philip Pullman just gave up on common decency and good storytelling altogether.)

The movie is amazing for the acting -- especially the girl who plays Lyra, who is just perfect -- and a lovely use of color and sweeping crane shots. Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby were exactly as they should be.* The bears moved like humans on all fours, which bugged me. Lyra's alethiometer is by no means the only one, and yes, Father Coram has some idea of how to read one; Lyra's gift is the intuitive ability to understand the alethiometer, instead of requiring weeks of study and a huge reference book.

However, the storytelling choice that in many ways baffles me the most is the point in the story at which they chose to end the movie. (SPOILERS!) Immediately after the point at which credits roll, Lyra's father kills Roger in order to fuel the creation of a doorway to another world. Asriel murders her best friend, whom she has led to the slaughter, and Lyra's character is altered forever. Her parents are murderers, she helped kill her best friend, her shiny newly-found dad wants to give her everything she's ever wanted on a silver, blood-soaked platter. It's the most emotionally charged scene in the book (debatably) and a turning point for Lyra. And they cut it out of the movie. As it stands, the movie operates as a very nice introduction to a story that never gets told. Were they planning to do a Subtle Knife movie and just sneak in the killing-Roger-to-fuel-the-gate part? It doesn't fit into that story; you'd have to recap the first movie too much to make it worthwhile. Skipping it entirely just cuts out the guts of Lyra's hero's journey. And the movie they did make just ends...lamely. Flying off into the sunset, quest unfulfilled, character arc unfinished, the climax retrofitted not with personal tragedy but with a big, dumb fight at Bolvangar. This is an epic quest, people. You know because there's a big fat prophecy (also unfulfilled). Do it some fucking justice and go read the book instead.

*With the exception of a personal pet peeve of mine. I hate when people pronounce characters' names differently than I do in my head when I'm reading a book. To me, Serafina Pekkala is pronounced "seh-rah-FEE-nah peh-KAH-luh."

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