Sunday, December 9, 2007

So this is what the Catholic League is so Scared of? a Review of the Golden Compass

As regular readers of this blog know, despite my loathing for Philip Pullman, I am a fan of his fantasy series, His Dark Materials. I have been waiting with anticipation for months now for the film adaption of the first part of the trilogy, the Golden Compass. The film of course has drawn its share of controversy with the Catholic League attempting to boycott the film. The mainstream media, true to form, is treating the protests from the religious community as attacks on freedom of expression against a work which only “supposedly is atheistic.” Of course anyone who actually bothered to read the books or to listen to Pullman before he tried to get the books made into films knows that His Dark Materials is not supposedly atheistic, it is straight atheism. Pullman wrote these books as a counter to Narnia and as a way to sell atheism to children. So when religious leaders complain about His Dark Materials they are not making things up or being paranoid. I still believe that a copy of His Dark Materials should be placed in the hands of every boy, girl and adult in this country, but then again I am strange.
So last night, with a friend from my building, who is also a fan of the books, in tow, I went off to see the Golden Compass. To keep things simple, the film was absolutely dreadful. Not even fighting polar bears could save this film. I found that I could not care less about any of the characters. None of them made any sense. Despite the fact that Tom Stoppard helped write it, the screenplay was a mess. It was a serious of tenuously held together events crashing into each other. I admit that the book was quite episodic itself, but you can get away with it much more easily in books than you can on film.
How does one go about taking one of the most original pieces of fantasy literature and reduce it to a pile of clichés? In the books alethiometers are rare and the Magisterium takes an active interest in them. In the movie, I guess feeling that they needed to raise the stakes to make the story more like the common stereotype people have of fantasy, they made Lyra’s alethiometer the last one in existence. In the books the members of the Magisterium maintain at least some semblance of being human. They are not evil per se but bureaucratic. In making the film someone must have decided that, being that is fantasy, the Magisterium needed more like traditional fantasy villains. "Fearing any truth that is not their own," they are out to catch Lyra and destroy her alethiometer. I was reminded a bit too strongly of how the Da Vinci Code film made Opus Dei even more over the top than the book did. One is left to wonder why anyone actually bothers to follower an organization that is as evil and incompetent as the Magisterium. For me the biggest crime against the books was the ending. Those who have read the books know that, at the end of the Golden Compass, Lord Asriel, Lyra’s uncle (really her father), murders her best friend Roger in order to use the energy released by Roger’s dying soul to open a gateway to another world. The movie decided to end before this point. Lyra and Roger are still traveling toward Lord Asriel and we are told that there is a prophecy about Lyra telling how she will decide the coming war.
His Dark Materials were books that purposely defied the traditional fantasy cliché in which the world is divided into neat categories of Good and Evil. Lord Asriel is one of the good guys. Lyra mother Mrs. Coulter is also, in her own way, on the good side, despite the fact that she also does some pretty horrible things. For the life of me I cannot understand why the writers of the film could not keep to this. Could it be that Pullman felt that he needed to simplify his atheistic message to make it more digestible to today’s TV addicted youth? And I thought that atheists were the smart ones.

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