Monday, December 17, 2007

Reason #1024 Why America Needs to Read More

So, a friend of mine reviewed The Golden Compass last week, from the perspective of someone who’d never read the book and thus really had no idea what to expect.

I, on the other hand, love Philip Pullman’s trilogy (The Golden Compass, the Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass). The His Dark Materials trilogy commands a top-shelf display in my bookcase.

Run (don't walk) to for these. I beg you.

We both thought the movie sucked. He watched a bad movie. I watched a bad movie AND bemoaned how a great book was whitewashed, dumbed-down and made almost completely nonsensical by Chris Weitz and TPTB who decided that any religious overtones be removed.

Pullman tells a dark, complex story that offers a very clear, critical commentary on piety and the Church. Every person has a “daemon,” a talking animal spirit that can shape-change until their human companion reaches puberty, at which point they stick in one form. These “daemons” (convenient name, no?) are, in a sense, a person’s “soul” and are meant to suggest the potential for sin that exists in every human being. “Dust” is a mysterious, hard-to-see particle that sticks to adults (their daemons are conduits for it) but is absent in children. Not hard to connect the dots here: “dust” is essentially sin, the kind of sin that the free will humans develop as they mature exposes them to. In the story, the all-powerful Magesterium is bent on preventing children from ever being exposed to “dust” by severing their connection to their daemons – turning them into blank-faced, controllable pillars of goodness.

Are we all starting to see how removing all religious overtones and still trying to make a story that makes sense is an endeavor that fails before it even begins? The movie still has armored bears and daemons and dust and even a gun-toting hot air balloon pilot with a Southern drawl…but none of them have a real REASON to do what they’re doing. The Magsterium still wants to rid the world of dust and separate children from their daemons and Lyra is still trying to stop them – but the WHY is never really clear. The neutered story is a mess of characters ambling from Point A to Point B to Point C, but their reasoning for going on this madcap adventure is completely unclear and, thus, completely uninteresting. Nobody cares.

I’m sorry, but cool CGI, a polar bear fight between Ian McKellan and Ian McShane and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even the presence of the riveting Daniel Craig couldn’t calm my indignation. This movie is NOT The Golden Compass. I refuse to accept it. The most egregious travesty? Deciding to end the movie as Iorek, Lyra, Roger and Lee Scoresby heading to see Lord Asriel. All four are happy and accomplished and the uplifting music swells in the background.

When this man can't save your movie, you know you're in trouble.

The book does not end this way. The end of The Golden Compass is jaw-dropping. An insane cliffhanger and definitely not uplifting in the slightest. But it’s beyond amazing. The ending was filmed; ultimately, the filmmakers supposedly decided to “save it for the beginning of the second film, where it would lend more emotional weight.” I believe this is code for “we realized halfway through making this movie that is sucked so badly there’s no way a sequel will ever get made, so best not end it on a cliffhanger.” A $25 million opening weekend appears to have made this a sound decision. Still, to me it was the movie’s last “screw you” to the Pullman fans who came to the movie with high hopes and left wishing they’d just stayed home and re-read the book instead.

I think everyone who paid to see this, whether they were familiar with the material or not, should be issued a refund and an apology. But the hurt is just a little greater to those like me who know what it COULD have been, if only…

Oh well. At least the movie gave us this:

Iorek Byrenson (Ian McKellan) to Lyra: You wish to…ride me?

Oh, I giggle at unintentional keep my tears at bay.

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