I've never been the kid humming the Star Wars theme or brandishing Tolkien, but, for one summer, I was the kid with his nose perpetually stuck in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. The three books hooked me, mostly because of the way they tackle such a gigantic, taboo subject under the guise of a fantastical children's page-turner. The Golden Compass, the first of the books, is the story of a world parallel to ours (think 19th century England with technological improvements) where bears speak, witches are good, and one's soul is mirrored in an animal counterpart. A precocious girl named Lyra is on a mission to stop the sinister Magisterium from cutting away the souls of children. I was ambivalent, upon hearing that this story was being adapted into a film; overjoyed that such great work was to be given the attention it deserves and wary that those behind the project might desecrate it. Would that beloved world become another victim of book-to-movie disappointment?
Thankfully,The Golden Compass isn't the next Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The movie comes short of the book's magnitude, but is still very much worth seeing. Pullman is said to have wanted Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter ten years before this film went into production and it's clear why. Kidman's cold, yet alluring demeanor fits the character perfectly. At times throughout the movie, her beauty becomes distracting, but that's part of Mrs. Coulter, a woman whose outer appearance distracts others from what's within. Eva Green does just as well in her role as the witch, Serafina Pekkala. Aided by a slightly Scandinavian accent, she becomes as captivating as Pullman's witches were written to be. As for the part of Lyra, 10,000 girls auditioned, but Dakota Blue Richards won the prized role. For a young girl with no acting experience, Richards rises to the challenge and does a rather convincing job, spitting her lines just as Lyra would.
The movie also delivers in the CGI magic department. The cityscapes and futuristic dirigibles are breathtaking and one scene in particular, a duel between two armored bears, is so precise that the audience erupted into spontaneous applause at its conclusion.
On the flip side, Chris Weitz, the man responsible for the painful American Pie, drops the ball as director and writer of The Golden Compass. Unlike the team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Weitz attempts to condense all the action and intrigue of the book into a time frame that proves too short, even going as far as to cut the last three chapters entirely. As a consequence, the epic events feel rushed and the richness of Pullman's world is lost in a frenzy of exposition. The thinly veiled dialogue comes across as a barrage of easy explanations, answers the viewer could have deciphered given the time.
The most distracting issue with the film is the decision to blur any marks of religion from the malevolent Magisterium, a connection upon which the entire story depends. In interviews, Weitz does his best to talk around the issue, but what it comes down to is potential profit and the fear of ticking off Bible thumping right-wingers (who ended up becoming incensed with the watered down version regardless). This act of surrender isn't a first for Hollywood by any means, but rarely is such a decision this sadly ironic; men in suits buying into the same narrow-mindedness the book urges against.
As is often true of book to movie adaptations, feel free to see the movie, but, if you're looking for a real show, read the book.
The Golden Compass opens nationwide, Friday, December 7, 2007.