The Golden Compass

“The great tales never end.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

OK, let me start with fair warning for anyone who actually likes the monstrosity that is The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s extraordinarily metaphysical fantasy novel known in England at least as Northern Lights: WARNING! This is going to be a rant.

But first, the Plot Synopsis. Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua, denizen of Jordan College, in an Oxford that is very like our own, goes on an adventure to the far North to rescue her friend Roger from the child-snatching Gobblers. Before she leaves Oxford, however, she is entrusted with the last remaining alethiometer (the “golden compass” of the title. “Alethiometer” is a much nicer name, I think), a truth-teller, which can answer any question you choose to ask, if you know how to read it.

All of this happens, at least in the original, against a complex metaphysical/scientifical background involving Church control, charged particles called Dust, and a multitude of other worlds. All of which is reduced, in the film, to this:

Dust is flowing into this man through his daemon [a kind of visible soul] from a city in another world.

O Mr Weitz, what have you done to Philip Pullman’s nuanced and elegant worldview? And, pray, what has happened to the alethiometer reading? Why does it need to be animated in gold floaty airy-fairy particles? What happened to the concentration and quiet needed to read the thing in the book? Do audiences really have such a limited attention span that they need to be presented with shiny things every time there is a lull in the action?

And it’s not just as an adaptation that The Golden Compass falls down, but as a film in its own right. Dakota Blue Richards trying to do Lyra’s accent is literally the worst thing I’ve ever heard, and the plot doesn’t really hang together coherently. At one point Lyra ends up on a ship that apparently has no destination but is still sailing, presumably at random, on the open ocean. And the ghost stories about the fish hut? Who tells them, given that the hut is apparently all alone in a vast icy waste?

The ending is inconclusive, partly because Northern Lights is in any case the first novel in a trilogy, but also because for unexplained reasons director Chris Weitz chose to stop before the much more interesting ending of the novel. Instead we get a cliched “Just let them try to stop us!” from Lyra.

To be completely fair, The Golden Compass is a very pretty film. The views of Oxford are delightfully otherworldly, the ice bear Iorek is extraordinarily lifelike, and I love the way that the daemons of dead men burn out in golden sparks. But, as I have remarked before, a film cannot live by CGI alone. This is a pity, because Northern Lights, treated properly, could probably have made a brilliant film, and the other books in the trilogy would have been even better. But, thanks to New Line Cinema, this will never happen now. Thank you, Mr Weitz.

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