Philip Pullman is one of the greats of modern fantasy, not just for his exuberant imagination, but because he is one of the few fantasists prepared to confront serious matters. It is impossible to dismiss his work simply as escapism. As a writer with something to say, he can compete in the wider arena of ‘literature’ and that makes him an important figure for all those interested in imaginative fiction.
This movie adaptation of his book Northern Lights crushes the best of Pullman beneath the weight of spineless, bone-headed, superficial and incompetent direction. The sheer scale of its ability to suck the magic out of a book so brimming with a powerful sense of wonder is almost breathtaking. American Pie director Chris Weitz lumbers from disconnected scene to disconnected scene with no sense of how to build character, develop drama or menace, or draw out any of the magic that is inherent in Pullman’s inventions. Instead, every frame shouts out that it is a monument to the producer’s vision that only thick people watch these kinds of films, people who would throw their popcorn at the screen if time was wasted on developing character or mood, or who would walk out in anger at the travesty of character interaction when they simply want to gorge on fast-food spectacle – which Weitz also manages to ham-fistedly destroy. The final battle on the northern ice field is so poorly framed it looks like a dust-up in a provincial shopping precinct on a Saturday night.
Weitz was involved in a little fantasy invention of his own when he said in the film’s pre-publicity that for all the changes he made, he stayed true to Pullman’s original vision. He didn’t. Cut through all the Gyptians and warrior polar bears and dust and golden compasses, and this story is about one thing: the ability of organised religion to control people and their thoughts. The brooding, monolithic presence of Pullman’s Magisterium is barely evident in the film. The book’s great theme – the thing that raises it far above a simple children’s story – is diluted to such a degree that it is barely evident, and in the end only contributes to the incoherence that corrupts the entire movie. (And as an aside, Christian journalist Peter Hitchens wants parents to know that, ‘If you buy this book for your children, don’t imagine for a moment that you are handing over a neutral story; this author has a purpose’. As if a neutral story is a good thing. You know what: parents should be warned The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not a neutral story; the author has a purpose…)
The really depressing thing about The Golden Compass is that it is blessed with such an excellent cast, all of whom are operating at the top of their game. Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra does a good job portraying a charismatic heroine, even though she occasionally stumbles over Weitz’s lead-footed dialogue. Sam Elliot as flying cowboy Lee Scorsby burns up the screen with the power of his presence, even though he too has dialogue which is cliche heaped on cliche. But the real revelation is Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter who does great work. In one scene she carries a huge weight of emotion, presence and back story in a simple glance that is quite electric (and the one point where Weitz shows he can actually direct).
The weight of the actors and Pullman’s imagination takes The Golden Compass above the screen adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its wooden leads and ineffectual set-pieces. But it remains a crushing disappointment, stolen from us by people aiming for the lowest common denominator.