The Golden Compass

This review contains mild spoilers for the film The Golden Compass and its source novel, Northern Lights, but nothing too serious.

When Joss Whedon adapted _Firefly_ to the big screen in _Serenity_, he walked a delicate line, cramming in tons of exposition, character development, and plot in a very limited amount of time. He knew when to rush, when to slow down for the little moments of humanity, when to tell, when to show. It is a delicate art that very few can pull off, but when trying to translate a rich, pre-established universe in just two hours, it is essential.

_The Golden Compass_, adapted and directed by Chris Weitz from a novel by Philip Pullman, sadly lacks that deft touch, and that makes all the difference. The movie is suitably beautiful and fantastic, given its $180 million budget, but I’d take half of that money away if it could mean a better story and less obsession with effects. To be fair, the book itself is somewhat dry and over-expositive. Lyra is dashed from place to place and coincidentally winds up with the right people, making the right choices, all the time. There is too much exploration of the universe and not enough pay off for the reader’s patience. The business with the witches, the background of the Gyptians, the talk about the folks who put holes in their skulls, where does it all lead? Will there be some great payoff in book three?

But at the same time, Pullman forces the reader to figure out what is going on, what the rules of the universe are, dolling out information only slowly. As we discover more about daemons, about Dust, about the alethiometer, we become Lyra’s co-conspirators. Because the characters in her sphere have unclear motives and backgrounds, we are left to decipher the various shades of gray. And, dare I say, this requisite innocent curiosity plays very neatly into Pullman’s in-novel arguments about the relative goodness of independence and free inquiry over dogma and faith. All of these elements are what make the novel captivating, and they are dispatched of in the first two minutes of the film, with a ridiculous opening narration that sucks all the wonder out of the film. Oh! So *that’s* what Dust is! And the folks in the Magesterian are all uniformly evil!

From there it is just a frantic jump from scene to scene, trying to follow the novel faithfully here, veering wildly off course there, and now back, and now away, and now things are happening oddly out of order, changed after filming, but with some nice and creative editing covering the gaps. There are a lot of people to introduce and then perhaps dispatch of, but no one we really get to have much in the way of feelings for, not even Lyra.

I’m not one of those people who goes into a film adaptation with images of the characters already in my head. I liked seeing everyone on screen. What I didn’t like was seeing cardboard cut-outs of the original characters, so clearly good and evil, really comically so, and I also didn’t like at all the cavalier way in which dozens of red shirts (and their poor daemons) are killed off bloodlessly in various battles that were needlessly scaled up for the screen from the smaller, in many ways more powerful confrontations of the book. There was only one scary bit in the film, taken directly from the novel, where it was terrifying, and even that wasn’t really done properly.

If you haven’t read _Northern Lights_, you’re going to find the movie confusing and not much fun. If you have read it, you’re going to find it disappointing in various ways, but still interesting as an adaptation. If they make the sequels, maybe they’ll do better. If they don’t, I guess its not a huge loss.