REVIEW: The Golden Compass vs. "The Golden Compass"

So the Freethinkers of WWU started a summer book club, and July's title was The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. I had read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy way back in middle school or something, or at least I thought I had---certainly The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, but this re-reading of The Golden Compass felt particularly fresh and new. I suspect much of it came from my being an adult and noticing a lot more about Pullman's writing. In particular, he's a really good writer, somehow laying down prose that's simply structured without being dumbed down in any way. At points I wondered just why anyone thinks this is a "children's" book series.

Having finished that, and having enjoyed it immensely, I decided to watch New Line Cinema's film adaptation. I remembered it being visually excellent but otherwise forgettable. What I hadn't realized watching it as a kid, and what I realized now with such a close juxtaposition of source material and adaptation, was that the film version betrays almost everything about the book.

This isn't entirely new criticism: even when it came out, the film was seen as coming off as somehow more stridently anti-religion than even Pullman's original, by trying to bend over backwards and avoid explicitly calling the Magisterium a religious organization. I'll get to that particular issue later, because the problems go far deeper.


So how does the film betray the message of the book? Let me count the ways...

They tried to make it like The Lord of the Rings. From a purely business standpoint this sort of makes sense, because this was a New Line production and at this point (2007) the Lord of the Rings movies' epic success had worn off. But the biggest issue is that this is not just "not Lord of the Rings in a superficial sense." In fact, Pullman explicitly wanted His Dark Materials to be opposed, in a thematic sense, to C. S. Lewis' Narnia books, and implicitly this means they're opposed to the kind of story that Lord of the Rings is. While Lyra Belacqua is prophesied to do great things, it's not a Chosen One narrative and the alethiometer (i.e., the "golden compass") is not the frickin' One Ring.

Oh, but the movie tries so damn hard to cram in the LotRisms: Eva Green ("Not Galadriel we swear!") does a weird little prologue-narration about how there's only one alethiometer left in the world and "the art of reading them was lost." No it wasn't; in the novel there's explicitly a code-book in Geneva, and it's more that adults in general can't intuitively use it without the book, whereas Lyra (and implicitly any other sufficiently bright child) can do so. Oh, and probably the Dust thing has something to do with it. This thematic switcheroo is part of a larger problem; other LotRisms are merely annoying.

They destroyed Lyra's agency. I don't know how many examples of this I can list, without going incoherent. But I think one scene in particular stands out. When Lyra and the other children escape Bolvangar (the "experimental station" where they experiment with severing children from their daemons), they're confronted by the Tartar guards. (In the film it's a small army of Tartars because of course it is.)

In the books, Lyra saves everyone by starting a snowball fight, so that the Tartars can't see or fight straight. Then the Gyptians and witches and Iorek Byrnison the armored polar bear show up and turn the tide of battle, so Lyra and the children can escape.

In the films Lyra just sort of stares at them, and Roger comes up and takes her hand as they prepare to defeat the Tartars with the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP or something. Then the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala and the Gyptians and Iorek and everyone show up and there's a big battle and the kids get away. But Lyra does nothing, except glare at a Cossack, and Roger's little sign of friendship does nothing to convey how Lyra (at least in the books) has started to grow into a leader.

They ruined much of the symbolism of Part III. Part of this is because they crammed the Svalbard duel between Iorek and his rival Iofur (Ragnar in the film) between the Samoyed raid and Bolvangar---that is, the Samoyeds take her to Svalbard across a hundred miles of frozen ocean because that's totally more plausible I mean because the filmmakers wanted to put that showcase bear-fight scene in the movie and save the rest of Part III for the sequel. They drag her to what's either a glacier version of Petra, or a Gothic representation of the real-world Svalbard seed bank. It's all very, ah, Moria-esque, and King Ragnar (Iofur in the books) is quite regal on his throne, if arrogant and paranoid and power-mad.

Here's the thing: in the book Pullman makes it very clear that Iofur is a degenerate. The bears have no palace traditionally: they're fucking bears, but with opposable thumb-claws and a talent for making badass meteoric-iron plate armor. Moreover, the bears are explicitly not anthropomorphized in the books: more than once Iorek is described as fearsome and somewhat inscrutable; he invites Lyra to play-fence with him to demonstrate that you cannot trick a bear.

Iofur/Ragnar, though, wants to be a human, with a daemon of his own. (By comparison, Iorek and presumably other bears consider the armor to be their "soul.") He orders a palace built, but it's a bird-shit-stained mockery of a human building. He tries to mimic human institutions, but this becomes a sort of Cultural Revolution where none of his bear advisors know what's acceptable and what's not. (This allows Lyra to bluff her way into Iofur's/Ragnar's throne room, through some quick thinking.) It's this desire to be not-a-bear that Lyra exploits, and tricks Iofur/Ragnar. In the film it's waaaay more straightforward and dumb, and again undermines Lyra as a protagonist.

They twisted Pullman's message about religion, authority, and power. In the books, the Magisterium is the successor institution to the Catholic Church. No longer hierarchical, but implied to have even tighter control over every aspect of daily life in Europe, the Magisterium is said to play various sub-factions against each other to devise new and better ways of maintaining order---Mrs. Coulter's General Oblation Board is one such faction. In addition, the Magisterium's influence is so pervasive that science never broke free from the auspices of the church: "experimental theology" is the name for science in Lyra's world. (Though, it should be noted, that science wasn't exactly stifled; they know about particle physics and have digital computers.)

The film botches this horribly. The Magisterium is only called "the ruling power" or "the authority" and never explicitly a church, though their agents do speak of heresy quite a bit. The Master of Jordan College claims that the Magisterium has no power within the college halls, and intones something about freethinkers. Bullshit; in the books Jordan is just as steeped in the culture as everyone else, though also just as embroiled in the subtle politics of the Popeless Magisterium. Lord Asriel is portrayed as a heroic freethinker scientist, openly challenging the Magisterium, where in the books he's something of a megalomaniac, callous and amoral, and is shipped off to Svalbard for heresy. One of the big whammies of the book is how much Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are so similar in their goals and ethics.

Meanwhile the Magisterium is portrayed, literally, as a shadowy cabal who love control for the sake of control. In this scene, they openly explain to themselves and the audience how all they really care about is maintaining authority. Without reference to religion, as in the book, there's simply no other motive other than "they're actually just plain evil." Pullman, meanwhile, leaves open the possibility that many if not most of the Magisterium's clergy simply believe that Dust is the physical manifestation of Original Sin, and want to cleanse it from future generations. (Certainly there are enough power-hungry people involved, but his portrayal is a far more complex thing.) In other words, by trying to avoid religious controversy, the filmmakers managed to advance every sophomoric anti-religious stereotype. Oops.

So, my seven-years-later retrospective review of the film is: 1.5 / 5. Don't bother. The books are so much better.