I have a confession to make. I like books. I like books more than I like movies. I like books more than I like television, by a long shot. I suspect that I like books more than I like video games, although since I’ve played so few video games in my life, it may be unfair of me to make that judgment, though I suspect it’s true.
I mention all of this by way of a warning. I don’t think that everyone shares my bias, and I don’t think everyone should, but:
I went to see The Golden Compass over the weekend. I am usually deeply reluctant to see movies made from books I love, and particularly movies made from children’s books. Just the notion that someone would attempt to make a film of The Dark is Rising is enough to provoke in me a profound horror (and I’m not alone there). But Philip Pullman’s books weren’t published until I was in college, and so my connection to them is less primal. I read the Narnia books ten times by the time I was twelve: they are an integral part of the geography of my imagination, and I simply could not bear the thought of seeing someone else’s vision of them.
I had heard encouraging words about The Golden Compass movie on Twitter, though, and the reviews I had read from people whose opinions I respect were mostly good. Claire E. Gross at The Horn Book noted that the translation from book to film was done “with fastidious fidelity”. Monica Edinger and Elizabeth Bird (my two new favorite bloggers) were both suitably impressed. My friend said she’d happily see it again. So yes, my hopes were high, and I was. . . disappointed.
What everyone has said about the visual aspect of the movie is true: it is gorgeous, the effects are extremely well done, and though the daemons occasionally reminded me that they were generated by a computer because of a too-human cast to their features, they were on the whole convincing. The exterior of Bolvanger looked exactly as I pictured it. I always pictured Mrs. Coulter as having much longer hair, and I kept worrying because Nicole Kidman looked so skinny she seemed liable to break. Her golden monkey daemon in the book is described as having a black face, not the golden one he has in the movie, but these are minor quibbles, things I would have happily overlooked. But. . ..
It’s true that the movie stuck fairly well to the plot of the novel. Claire E. Gross says that the reductive nature of the movie adaptations robs the story of “some subtlety.” I am inclined to make that a more emphatic “all its subtlety,” and nearly all of its suspense. It takes days for Lyra to discover what goes on at Bolvanger in the book, and more days for her to plot and execute an escape. In the movie she arrives and is leading the other children out not much more than ten minutes later. The movie ignores such time periods, which are so essential to the building of suspense and the development of character, in order to give more time to battle scenes. And that right there may be my biggest problem, and the one to which my bias is most relevant. I don’t like watching battle scenes. In part that may be becasue I’m a bit queasy about violence, but mostly, I think, I just don’t like watching battles because that’s all they are–battles. People getting smited. Battles in movies don’t tell you much about the characters. They don’t pick up on allusions or expand metaphors. They don’t even really advance the plot, at least not until they’re over. But battle scenes, of course, are what movies are all about. Movies exist in order to create spectacle, and spectacle is what you get from bombs bursting in air.
Of course, a lot of people like that sort of thing. Me, I prefer reading.