The Golden Compass, controversial work of Philip Pullman, adapted for the screen this last December by Chris Weitz, who also directed. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film 41% Fresh, which I think is pretty darn right on.
I realize December was six months ago, but there are certain movies that elicit from me a reaction that explodes into a long rant that emerges every time I think about the film in question. This is one of these movies.
There are a few spoilers but nothing remotely major. Apologies for length.
I found The Golden Compass what I'm going to call "enjoyable". Frankly, I expected worse, possibly explaining why I actually rather enjoyed it. The strength of
Sadly, in the areas where it really counts, The Golden Compass was weak. These areas include writing, directing, adaptive inventiveness/imagination and plot logic, so pretty much the things that make a film really good instead of 59% heading-towards-a-new-life-form. A great cast dressed in great costumes wandering aimlessly around a great set cannot quite carry a film by themselves.
I’m going to discuss writing in detail, because it’s what strikes me most. Interestingly, the writing has an odd story. The script was originally written by Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and, although I haven’t, was allegedly slow and ponderous. I can well believe it. Stoppard is brilliant but as far as my experience with his work goes, far too thoughtful for what boils down to a children’s adventure film.
According to the internet, Chris Weitz wrote a fourty-page treatment of the story and was subsequently hired, despite the script already existing. His passion is admirable. The excitement in his script undeniable. According to a New York Times blog the initial Weitz draft, although long, was much better than the finished product. The blog complains that the movie’s trimming ruined the original Weitz adaptation, but I disagree that shorter necessarily has to get so thin and ludicrously cliché as the final product.
Nobody denies the complexity of the plot and characters of this book. Some simplification and modification is inevitable and necessary. The film managed to somewhat do this, reversing the order of elements to give it a more natural, watchable flow of events. However, within the basic framework, the film finds itself weighed down by explicit (as opposed to implicit) exposition and resorts to cliché dialogue, poor logic and tired plot elements.
Part of the problem is caused by simple lack of inventiveness and imagination. In order to modify a well-loved, complex story in such a way to have it fit onto movie-sized screen, some imagination and thought is required. I think this is especially true of fantasy films, where it is necessary to quickly establish an entirely new world in a few minutes. Although I know many people are not huge fans of the Lord of the Rings adaptations, they are nevertheless a good example of an inventive and imaginative adaptation that beautifully conveys a sense of each people it visits without hitting you over the head with a large club. The LOTR books are much longer and yet even the Theatre Releases were bristling with plot. This was not the case with The Golden Compass.
An inventive adaptation expands the basic story down and up, rather than lengthwise. It layers each scene to provide more information than you think you are getting. This is not only using layered dialogue, this is using setting, body language and action to convey plot, character, mood etc. For example, the movie begins well, with the children’s clay-throwing fights described in the second chapter of the book, and yet almost nothing is revealed about the world in this scene that is useful to us in the coming two hours; there’s plenty of time to build Lyra up and all it takes is a well placed clod of clay to make us like her.
What we really need to see is the world and given the way the movie unfolded, what would have been nice would be to set this clay-fight along the river and the gyptians’ longboats. It would have given us a sense of their importance, their culture, could have introduced us to important characters such as Ma Costa. Her calling ‘Billy’ into the dusk would be enough to establish her as a maternal character, introduce the existence of Billy, and, as her voice fades away as we watch Lyra streak towards Jordan College to the next scene, set up a sense of ominousness that did not require the obligatory dark shadow. (Which, if I remember correctly, was employed in the film).
An inventive, thoughtful screenwriter can turn a thin scene into a fat one. They unravel the story and mine the details to put it back together. They should not only provide a competent play-by-play of the plot, but also provide depth, even if that requires shuffling of dialogue, setting and even plot.
This said, I think that one ‘rule’ to think of when writing an adaptation is to not use a new line or scene when an old one will do, even if it’s patched in from the description or another character. Many of the best adaptations make use of the language of their source material liberally interspersed with the new material.
To some extent, Chris Weitz followed this ‘rule’ that I have just invented. However, there are certain instances where his deviations are bizarrely unnecessary. At one point, the little girl Lyra says to another character after a scary moment, “I thought I lost you”, a line that anyone who has read or seen more than a couple of stories knows is far too overused to be used again. Aside from being tired, does anyone really say that, let alone the character Lyra? Here’s what she says in the book: “Let me help you - I want to make sure you e’nt too badly hurt…” We do not need to be told the line “I thought I’d lost you”; the actress was good enough to show us her fear, the original line truncated is enough to show us her concern and, more than that, it reveals things about her character. Her need to do act, rather than talk, for example.
As it stands “I thought I’d lost you,” conveys exactly one thing, and it not a good one.
In all, I disagree with the assertion that a longer script would have been tons better. If the scenes and dialogue were left as-is, with simply more of them, it would have continued to be thin and cliché, if not quite so illogical as before. What the script lacked most was not length, it was depth. Little more than one thing was occurring at once. Ideas were introduced consecutively rather than concurrently. Exposition was clunky, taking up a vast amount of the early dialogue that could and should have been employed much more efficiently.
An adaptation is a challenge not only to trim and rearrange, but also to imagine, to think and to delve. ("When is he going to start delving? I asked myself." - This one's for you, Mr. Stoppard.)
These same ideas apply to the directing. The director can produce a thin film, or he can produce a fat one. It is up to him or her to look beyond the script and pull out things from the book that are not written there. Perhaps it was a bad idea to let Chris Weitz, however competent and passionate and excited he was, to both write and direct alone. A director can bring new ideas to a writer’s script. A director-writer is only bringing to life what he or she wrote. This can work brilliantly, but I feel that in this instance, with a complex story and world to bring to life, the movie would benefit from two separate minds with two separate imaginations.