The Golden Compass: Do It For the Daemons

What the film lacks in subtleties, it makes up for in fighting polar bears. Even trade?

There are polar bears … THAT FIGHT. “The producer of the American Pie movies made a film adaptation of my favorite book.”

The very idea is enough to cause one’s chest to constrict in horror, even as you scramble to get to an advance screening. Even thinking about it now, after I’ve actually seen (and approved) the film makes me shiver a little. Although, if you think about it, it’s actually a win/win situation for someone like me, because if I hate it, even the pain of seeing something I love so much get unflinchingly bastardized and misunderstood won’t be enough to dampen the pleasure of making jokes like “Sorry, director Chris Weitz! No room for teen cliches here! Take your red cup full of Natural Light and go home! MILF! Stifler! Warm apple pie!”

Yikes, as you can see, I’ve lost a little of my zazzle. I never got to come up with any particularly cutting jokes in order to defend the honor of one of my most treasured pieces of literature. Nope, not while these visions of polar bears ripping each other’s faces off dancing in my head. Because the brilliant worlds created by author Philip Pullman are one thing to read about but quite another to see projected onto a giant screen in rich, glowing color. The lights, the costumes, the actors, the music, the sweeping scenery…this movie is a movie among movies. It’s thrilling and startling and above all, as totally and completely creative as all movies with that kind of huge budget ought to be.

But, to be honest, you should really just use it as a visual guide, a series of illustrations maybe, or an accompaniment to the printed page. Not that I’m one of those poor souls who believes every film adaptation should faithfully represent every single bit of its parent book. Different medium, different set of tools, I say. It’s not possible for the complexities of Pullman’s language to come through in a film, much less the full extent of the intelligence he uses to create a world in which humankind and its culture has just progressed a tad differently than ours did. The movie doesn’t have the luxury of going off into tangents or playing with word origins. Its goal is to tell the story of the novel while showing off its bitchin’ effects. And combining those with an almost perfect cast (Dakota Blue Richards is perfect as the untamed, tale-spinning, fiercely courageous Lyra, but somehow the genteel voice of Ian McKellen doesn’t quite fit with a giant, angry armored polar bear), the film more than succeeds at what it sets out to do. Even Nicole Kidman‘s blonde Mrs. Coulter – a seemingly far cry from the curvy, dark-haired villain of the book – was chilly enough to satisfy, and if anyone other than Sam Elliott had been cast as Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby, I might have walked out as fast as the young kids in our theater the minute the polar bears started sparring.*

So with all this glorious big-budget fantasy filmmaking at hand, so what if the story is dumbed down a little? These books aren’t even for kids anyway, not really. I mean I’m positive your particular kids are astonishingly bright, but the average 8-year-old is just not going to understand theological questions about the soul, divinity, and free will. Not to mention that a lot of the brilliance of Pullman’s idea – infinite worlds coexisting in parallel – depends on a fairly classical knowledge of history. Been hearing some of the rumblings from religious quarters about this film? This is no Harry Potter. They actually have something concrete to protest with this one, no doubt about it. Although it seems to me that the book’s message that the organized, magisterial church is distorting religion for its own greed isn’t exactly revolutionary — the battle between the clergy and individual interpretation of one’s faith has been going on for centuries, we all know that. And even if it hadn’t, who cares. I didn’t see anyone protesting the Chronicles of Narnia. It helps the book/film’s overall premise anyway to have an angry religious group telling you to boycott it (“See? SEE how the Church wants to control you??”). The positioning of the Church as the villain is even diluted a bit in the film — the word “Church” is everywhere replaced by the word “Magisterium” — but never fear, it’ll surface. It must, if they plan to make the other two episodes in the series.

But the movie is clearly trying to capture the attention of both a young audience and a mature one, so it hands you a simplified summary of what’s going on straight away. Within the first five minutes of the film, a narrator is telling you things that it takes you chapters to discover in the book, but it just serves to provide a nice knowledge base, so that you can focus on the action without worrying too much about deciphering the scientific delights of the story. And even though the book is certainly a thinkpiece, Weitz (who also wrote the screenplay) still had plenty of material at hand to transform into an action-packed tale. The diminutive Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon (a daemon is the outward representation of your soul that manifests as an animal – kinda like a pet that can read your mind) get into so many scrapes and run into so many amazing characters in so many different places that it’s more than enough to warrant a movie version. Like Star Wars, this trilogy takes advantage of several different types of settings, so if frozen tundra isn’t your bag, look forward to major changes in the future. And like Lord of the Rings, the scenery is stunning. Lyra and friends crunch across an icy landscape that is so convincing as to be almost uncomfortable in its bleakness. Lovely cinematography not just of “the North,” but also the dusky rooftops of Lyra’s Oxford and the academic environs of Jordan College give a promising preview of what is to come. For if you thought Lyra was pretty brilliant in her own world, wait until she bursts into some others. This one, to turn a phrase, is just the tip of the iceberg.

*ARMORED BEARS!! FIGHTING ARMORED BEARS!! May I recommend a pleasant evening at Enchanted if you have young children?

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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