Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Golden Compass - The Book

Cinema, as a set of all films, contains a rather large, and loud, subset that we call Hollywood films. When we look for examples of great cinematic art, Hollywood has produced many films of profound value. All too often, however, and seemingly more often than not, they fail to produce great art because of economic reasons, including a simple lack of taking risks, which often is the catalyst for great art. Sequels are a good example of the expensive nonsense that too often is the product of Hollywood cinema. Just as incomprehensible are missed opportunities.

Based on the book, the movie version of "The Golden Compass" missed too many opportunities to make an artistically visual, and poignant, cinematic statement. Changes made to the film, and scenes that were left out, created a typical Hollywood thrill ride, when the possibility existed to create a vision of the Fantastic that would make people think and remember.

If you plan to read the book and/or see the movie, be warned - this is a SPOILER ALERT.

Philip Pullman's novel, "The Golden Compass", reads simply and straightforwardly. Written for a young adult audience, credit is still given to the reader's intelligence. The simplicity of the language does not eliminate the visual detail that Pullman infuses in his world. He attempts to use that detail to explore the larger issue of the nature of the soul. The core of this exploration is the beauty of the relationship between Lyra and her daemon, Pan. I suspect the author's view may be that a person grows up when they choose who they want to be. Hopefully they are given every opportunity to allow themselves to choose freely and intelligently. "The Golden Compass" is the first of three books. I would expect the second and third books to fully expound on the author's beliefs. But the first is a satisfying whole, even though it ends in the middle of a tragedy, with earthshaking events taking place around Lyra.

The movie would have done well to attempt relating the author's story in the same visual detail and with the same emphasis on the relation between the girl and her daemon. Unfortunately, the film is strictly Hollywood. It takes no real chance at creating art or memorable ideas, but simply provides standard Hollywood thrills. As my previous post is testament to, it succeeded. It's a visual treat - but it could have been much more.

First, the film makes Iorek the polar bear the most important character after Lyra. The Hollywood choice is obvious - the bear is huge and exciting to see in animated form running through the icy landscape. The trailer is based on that image and creates the feeling of the Hollywood spectacle. If the book had been followed, Lyra's daemon Pan would have been the secondary focus. The story would be drawn down and inwards. The relation between a girl and her soul, as they learn about the world and attempt to come to grips with it, would be the focus of the storyline. By elevating Iorek to a higher status, the thrills become more important than the revelations that cinema can give us about the human condition. Escapism wins out over revelation at much too high a rate in Hollywood.

Second, the film twists the book's events out of order, including leaving off the pivotal and explanatory ending. If Iorek was to be made more important in the film, his battle with the renegade king makes more sense to be positioned in time as it is in the book, the last episode before the actual ending. It seems to me the cinematic bear vs. bear fight was moved to take place before the rescue of the children from Bolvangar simply to allow a sprawling battle to take place at the end of the film. This seems to be the requirement of a large budget, Hollywood fantasy film. "Can't end one of those fantasy films without a big battle at the end," I can hear the producers say as they procure the money needed to finance such a film.

The ending of the film was strange to me, but it is truly puzzling after reading the book. The film has no conclusion to explain all the questions that arose for me while watching it. The book elegantly answers enough questions at the end so that we understand what has gone before and completes a story, while still maintaining our interest in getting further answers if we choose to follow Pullman to the second book. The film does not address or explain major plot points - the Dust, what exactly Lyra's place is in the story and again, why the daemon/human relationship is so important. An opportunity to make a unique film was pushed aside to make a typical film that could be marketed to the "young adult fantasy film audience".

The last difference between the book and movie that I will address refers back to the visual detail of the book. The movie has the great visual effects that money can buy, but the choices of what to show seem amazingly safe. Here is why the art of cinema, which should be perfectly suited to the amazing worlds of the Fantastic, is lacking in many Hollywood productions. I would expect the production teams on films like this to be the best in the business. And I would expect their business to be the ability to push the envelope of what we see on-screen by making visual statements worthy of the imaginative scale of their source materials. And even though the scale, and budget are large, I would expect these artists to be the ones that could successfully pull off telling the smaller story of Lyra and Pan. Somehow, they are not allowed to attempt that lyrical exploration of the soul. The evidence is a character and a scene that is eliminated from the movie.

In the book, the witch Serafina Pekkala has a grey goose for her daemon. We do not see the goose in the film, which I believe to be a major mistake. By showing the actual witch herself, the focus is again taken off the daemon/human relationship. But Pullman describes the goose with such majesty, and anyone who has truly seen the various geese of our world will understand, how it is a shame we do not get this character on the screen.

That may sound silly or unimportant to a viewer, but the scene eliminated from the film is probably my favorite in the book and is Pullman's best work. Lyra and the grey goose free several ghost-like images of animal daemons from cages, where they have been locked up after being forcibly separated from their children. The eloquence, horror and hope of the scene are beautifully described by Pullman, ending with the grey goose coercing all the ghostly forms to take on the shape of small birds and follow him, escaping through the air to some place they can be tended to.

As I read that scene, I wondered how the eloquence of such visuals, as well as their relevance to the deeper themes of the story, could be eliminated from the film. If I were the production design and cinematography teams on that film, I'd sure like to take a crack at bringing that to life.

The day when Hollywood is consistently able to bring eloquent versions of the imaginative stories our authors dream up to the big screen seems to be a day that is very far off.

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