It’s a tricky thing transferring a high-quality fantasy novel to the big screen, even given all the advances in computer technology – and sometimes because of those advances. When we've used our imaginations to give shape to unfamiliar vistas and characters (or even, if we choose, to keep them nebulous, as I do with Tolkien’s The Silmarillion) and they are then given a definite form on screen, the results can be problematic. I know this can be said of any book-to-film adaptation, but personally it affects me most when it’s done in fantasy.
Much as I admired the grand vision of Peter Jackson’s 10-hour filmisation of The Lord of the Rings, there were times when the images in my head simply refused to make peace with what was on the screen. When the Dark Lord Sauron (bereft of corporeal form in the books and all the more menacing for it) was turned into a giant roving flashlight – wistfully scanning Mordor for stray hobbits – in Jackson’s The Return of the King, the Tolkien nerd in me wept. It wasn’t really the filmmakers’ fault – it’s hard to see what else they could have done to visually convey the Eye of Sauron looking out for his (its?) enemies, especially given that the film was reaching out to a mass audience, including people who hadn’t read Tolkien – but that points to the difficulties of bringing a richly imaginative book to the screen. When Christopher Tolkien said his father’s works were "peculiarly resistant to filming", he wasn’t necessarily being over-conservative.
(Sometimes I think the only Lord of the Rings film that would really satisfy me would be a black-and-white one made in the jerky, otherworldly style of movies of the 1920s, like Fritz Lang’s Siegfried. At any rate, this is the only way The Silmarillion could acceptably be filmed.)
I had a similar response to a few scenes in The Golden Compass, the movie version of the first book in Philip Pullman’s celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy. For instance, one of Pullman’s most notable conceptions is that of the “daemons” – physical manifestations of people’s souls, which take the shape of animals, birds or insects. It’s a very effective idea on paper, but when depicted on screen it can occasionally become jarring. In an early scene where children are running about (accompanied, naturally, by their chattering little souls), what I saw was an assorted bunch of kids and small furry animals all apparently in danger of tripping over each other. And when daemons in the film take the shape of talking cats and mice, the special effects used to make the animals’ lips move had me thinking of the cheesier scenes in Stuart Little and Babe. (Note: using technology to anthropomorphise cute animals is just wrong.)
Pullman’s trilogy is a hugely ambitious work about, among other things, the dangers of organised religion and threats to individual freedom. A running theme is that of children (their minds not yet put into boxes, their souls not yet "fixed") in danger of being corrupted; in fact, some of his concerns about youngsters being moulded and stripped of their individuality reminds me of Richard Dawkins’ point in The God Delusion that children shouldn’t be seen as belonging to any religion. (Inevitably, children are also saviours, the chief agents for the creation of a better world.)
In the film, the anti-religion themes have been softened into a more general anti-authority tone. The story is set in a parallel world not too unlike ours and the central character is Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a headstrong young girl who has, in the tradition of Frodo Baggins and other "little people" of the genre, been saddled with momentous responsibilities. She must rescue a friend who has been kidnapped by a vicious group known as the Gobblers, take custody of a truth-telling device called an alethiometer, help an armoured polar bear regain his self-respect and his kingdom, and foil the plans of a powerful, oppressive organisation called the Magisterium. Perhaps most importantly, she must decide whether or not to trust the inscrutable Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who has taken a special interest in her.
The Golden Compass is a brisk film – perhaps too brisk for its own good, given how much it tries to pack into a running time of under two hours. This ensures that there’s nearly always something intriguing going on, but it can also make the sequence of events confusing and the characters emotionally uninvolving, especially for someone who hasn’t read the book. This is a problem when you consider that audiences will have to wait a year for the next instalment in the trilogy. Characters come and go in the blink of an eye, relationships are formed and explanations given too rapidly, no scene is milked for its full dramatic potential (I was especially disappointed by the throwaway handling of one of the darkest, most chilling passages in the book, where Lyra encounters a boy whose daemon has been torn from him) and even the big action setpiece, a bear-fight, is slightly anti-climactic. Perhaps this would have been better as a three-hour movie.
To an extent the film does work as spectacle, consistently providing beautiful scenic visuals, even if you’re never sure where the breathtaking real-world Norwegian landscapes end and computer effects begin. It also shows some imagination in the scenes where Lyra reads the alethiometer and in its depiction of the way different people’s daemons interact with each other depending on the prevalent mood. Richards and Kidman are both good too, though the latter doesn’t really have a sustained role, and there are a few genuinely creepy moments involving Mrs Coulter’s monkey-daemon.
Ultimately a movie must be judged on its own terms, not those of its source book, but I’m not sure how well this film will work for a viewer who isn’t familiar with Pullman. Seen in isolation, it’s just another good-looking but average entry in the Hollywood fantasy canon, a poor cousin to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which is now the standard against which all such films will be judged. Too many scenes in The Golden Compass are reminders of better movies of the past. The prologue, with its solemn voiceover, is very similar to the expository opening of The Fellowship of the Ring; a late scene plays almost like a parody of the famous climax ("I am your father") of The Empire Strikes Back. Also, what’s with the tiny appearance by Christopher Lee? The next time he plays a dark wizard/threatening authority figure in this sort of movie, his character should be named Dejaa Voo.
P.S. In full disclosure, I read His Dark Materials several years ago and enjoyed the books, especially the first one, but I’m not a fevered fan. Also, I liked the trilogy principally as a very skilful, richly imaginative fantasy/adventure – I wasn’t too interested in the deeper, more philosophical subtexts, which may be why I was slightly underwhelmed by the final book, The Amber Spyglass, which deals with nothing less than the death of God as we know Him and the creation of a new republic of heaven.
P.P.S. Discover your own daemon at the film’s official website. Mine is sleek, black, solitary and - surprisingly - "a leader". Meet Xanthia.