Better Movie

It’s got nothing to do with the decision to tone down the references to religion, but the film of The Golden Compass is pretty bad. It suffers from a number of storytelling failures. It doesn’t allow the viewer, particularly anyone who hasn’t read the book, to identify with or come to know any of the characters well, not even Lyra. The narrative line of the screenplay is a jumbled mess. Nobody seems to have made anything approaching a coherent decision about how to establish the dramatic situation in general, or in any of the specific scenes in particular. The pacing of the story is just wacky at points: no tension is built up or sustained. A bit of that pacing and expositionary problem is even evident in the book, to be honest, but the film version is vastly worse.

Plus the ending is a fucking disaster that all by itself practically guarantees the film’s box office failure once word-of-mouth gets around. The book ends on a cliffhanger too, but a much better, richer, more dramatically interesting conclusion that offers some narrative and developmental closure. As the screen started to go dark at the end, I was thinking to myself, “That’s weird, why are they feinting at a conclusion here? They’ve got at least a few more scenes to go.” Then the credits rolled and I just stared in astonishment for a minute, disbelieving.

Spoilers follow if you want to know the specifics.


The film ends with Lyra and her friends heading aboard Lee Scoresby’s balloon to Lord Asriel’s camp to rescue him from forces of the Magisterium. Lyra says something about setting things right, there’s a brief foreshadowing of Roger’s fate, and then fade to black, fin, that’s all folks. This is partly due to a narrative shift in the film in which Lord Asriel is not being held by Iofur Raknison and thus does not meet Lyra when she is at the ice-bear settlement. (She visits it before going to Bolvanger, and resolves Iorek Byrnison’s situation at that time.)

Why this especially astonishes me is that the trailer shows a shaven Lord Asriel in the north gazing in wonder at something bright and skyward, which I took to be the gateway in the Aurora he opens with the intercission he performs on Roger. They filmed the damn scene and they…didn’t…use…it. Why? I really, really want to see someone put that question to Chris Weitz. It makes no sense to me whatsoever. Did they think that the conclusion was too much of a downer, that revealing that Lyra’s mom AND dad are both amoral was too hard a sell? What, as opposed to Lyra perkily saying, “Stay tuned for the next thrilling episode of The Golden Compass, kids!”

I would say that the chances of The Subtle Knife being made into a film are pretty low. Watch for the box-office on this film to tank badly next week. After this adaptation, I almost hope that’s the way it turns out. This makes the somewhat blah adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe look like an astonishing technical and aesthetic triumph in comparison.

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10 Responses to Better Movie

  1. JonathanGray says:

    Then the credits rolled and I just stared in astonishment for a minute, disbelieving

    In your stunned silence, I take it you didn’t listen to the horrifically awful song in the closing credits, then? Worst. Film song. Ever. Hilariously bad (“Ooooo Lyra, where will you go? Lyra, we’ll protect you. Lyra. And her sooooooul”)

    As for the film, like you I didn’t think they edited or paced it right, but I do feel that it’s a treat for the book readers in terms of the realization of and play with things like the blimps, daemons, panserbjorn, the golden monkey, etc. I thought the aesthetic of the film’s look was quite marvellous at times, and the CGI work was often spectacular, meaning I was often gob-smacked by the framing of shots (Lyra arriving at the ice bear palace, for instance) and the strength of CGI work (Iorek ran exactly like my old Bernese mountain dog used to, making him look very realistic). I even think the casting was right on the money. But, as you say, the direction and characterization was all over the place.

    The ending is indeed lame. Perhaps they felt that since Fellowship of the Ring ended on a fairly ho-hum, “let’s just go over there” kind of note, they could do the same?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    The look was terrific. Yes. Props for that. But holy jebus, millions for the CG men and not a penny for screenwriters, eh? I read Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic article a bit differently now. I think maybe they were so fretful about the religious issues that they didn’t notice rather more banal problems with the basic storytelling they were doing.

  3. JonathanGray says:

    evidence of an early writer’s strike, perhaps? 😉

  4. AndrewSshi says:

    Well, the problem is emotional core of His Dark Materials is the whole, “Hooray for Satan and 13-year old sex!” thing, and since that’s been downplayed as much as possible, it really leaves you with nothing but war Polar Bears. Which are kind of cool, but not enough to give you a compelling film trilogy.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I still think it’s very possible to tell a version of the three books that isn’t as over the top as Pullman himself is about the religious issues. Even the 13-year old sex thing, actually, which you could play as more chaste than what the story implies. You could still very much have Dust as the essence of rationality, freedom and sentience in the film version, and the Magisterium as a bunch of authoritarian no-goodniks afraid of it. And I really don’t think it’s the excision of this material that makes the film as badly paced and directed as it is–that’s a much more elemental, root-level creative failure.

  6. evangoer says:

    Yes, it was really jarring to hear the “stay tuned next week!” recitation of all the unresolved plot threads.

    They still can’t tell the story as it is in the books. The big overarching conflict of the series is the (evil) Authority versus Asriel the Amoral Monster. In a big budget picture, the only viable option is to rewrite Asriel as a more sympathetic, heroic character. I wouldn’t be surprised if they eliminate Roger’s intercission, slightly change the explanation of why Cittagazze got flooded with Spectres, tone down the obvious Sauron imagery when describing Asriel’s war machine, et cetera.

  7. Bob Rehak says:

    Ironically, the filmmakers might have been better off giving us the complete, uncut, warts-and-all version. By trying to reach the widest possible audience, aiming for the mass rather than the niche, they (A) pissed off Pullman’s loyal fan base and (B) made a lousy movie — so, on both counts, little incentive to complete the trilogy. Global receipts might help the film break even, however — European box office was surprisingly good.

  8. dnexon says:

    “The big overarching conflict of the series is the (evil) Authority versus Asriel the Amoral Monster. In a big budget picture, the only viable option is to rewrite Asriel as a more sympathetic, heroic character.”

    I’m not sure I agree. We already have a heroine: Lyra. What’s wrong with having her struggles juxtaposed against a rebellion led by an amoral monster and the authority/magisterium/whatever? We have out “plucky” (if flawed) group, including Lyra, her surrogate father (Lee Scoresby), etc. caught up in the midst of a cosmological struggle that they, ultimately, resolve. And Asriel, like Mrs. Coulter, get some form of redemption at the end. Plus, many of the rebels themselves are less amoral than Asriel. Sounds pretty Hollyood blockbuster friendly to me….

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Exactly–I think that makes a great story for a very marketable film. That’s what burns me so much: I can see a very workable treatment of the book that uses this film’s visuals and cast.

    Some of what would help:

    1. Skim over Oxford even more abruptly, get Lyra to Mrs. Coulter and thence to the gyptians double-time. Dwell mostly on the kidnapping of children by the Gobblers.

    2. Now pause and make Farder Coram our window into the true stakes and nature of Lyra’s world. Make him Mr. Exposition, make him the wise kindly old man. Have him tutor Lyra some in use of the altheiometer. DON’T use the magical-shiny-visions thing for how she reads it: make it harder, more verbal, more dialogic, more expositionary. Introduce the witches and Serafina Pekkala as a character through Farder Coram. Have Farder Coram introduce some foreshadowing by warning her to be careful of who she trusts, and especially to be wary of Lord Asriel. He tells her some about Dust, at least what he knows.

    3. Just before they get to Iorek, Lyra reads the message about her betraying a friend. Maybe she gets a message warning her about Lord Asriel. She frets and worries about this. But then when she finds Iorek’s armor, she starts to forget the darker side of the compass’ messages.

    4. Tighten up the section of the film that takes Lyra to Bolvanger. Ratchet up the tension, work on character connections between her, Lee Scoresby and Iorek. Give her a scene around the fire where they talk about how they see the Magisterium, Lord Asriel, the world in general. Have Lee talk about how the witches see a war coming, and how he doesn’t really know if he’s on anyone’s side. Now you’re setting up the Lyra and Friends against Both Sides storyline. Another warning from the compass about betrayal. Play on the audience’s uncertainties: will she be betrayed by Iorek? Lee? Lord Faa? Farder? Asriel? Who can she trust? Who are these people? Are they telling her the truth?

    5. Big battle at Bolvanger. Iorek and Lee risk everything to help her. The witches seem to be wholly on her side. She learns the secret of her parentage from Mrs. Coulter. She learns more about Dust and about its connection to parallel universes, and of the potential power of intercission. The compass warns her that she will betray Roger and to not trust Asriel. But as she flees from Mrs. Coulter and destroys the horror that is Bolvanger, the notion that she has a loving, secret father is too seductive. She hears that Asriel is at Svalbard, and knowing of Iorek’s story, comes up with her plan to trick the king into single combat with Iorek. Roger is afraid of being left with the gyptians, and Lyra promised to save him. Takes him along.

    6. They go to Svalbard. Big ice-bear battle, Lyra seemingly rescues her father. He’s grateful, but distracted when he sees Roger. Lyra goes to talk with Iorek and Lee about where she should go next, where she and Roger might be safe. Comes back and her father is gone with Roger. Realizes what’s happened.

    7. Movie concludes much as the book does. She finds Roger bereft after intercission. Asriel opens a gate, goes through. Lyra vows to make up for her mistake, to live up to her responsibility as the holder of the compass, wishes Iorek and Lee a tearful farewell as they watch helplessly from a distance, and jumps through herself.

    This has dramatic integrity. There’s a tension set up from the frequent foreshadowing. And don’t tell me that it wouldn’t be fucking HEARTBREAKING at the end: not a dry eye in the house, and a lot of desire to see what happens next.

    I’m just peeved because I can see a commercially successful AND aesthetically coherent version of this film drowning inside of a terrible screenplay and bad direction.

  10. dnexon says:


    You’re making me tear up. We can only hope, I suppose, that someone tackles the movies again at some point in the future….

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