Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (2007) is entertaining and fairly well made. Slightly less than two hours in length, it needs either an additional hour or a different screenplay. It is not that the current screenplay does not do justice to the novel of the same title (the British title for the novel is The Northern Lights). In fact, the screenplay scrupulously follows the events and characters of the novel, with some adjustments, and with some reorganizing of events that occur at the end—the final events of the novel have been saved for the probable sequel. The film ends with Lyra Belacqua and her friends headed off to Count Asriel's research hide-out, in an open-ended, "there is more to come in the sequel" sort of finale. Rather, the problem with this screenplay and with the film as a whole is that it moves too fast. The focus is on action. Events begin to happen as soon as the film starts. There is no time for viewers to adjust to characters or for those characters to develop, no time for viewers to settle into the environment of the narrative. The film simply plunges ahead. One of the attractions of the novel is Lyra, the nonconforming, misbehaving orphan of mysterious parentage who lives with the dons of one of the colleges at Oxford. The power of her personality pulls us in and through the story. Although we gradually do come to know Lyra in the film, we never know her as well as we do in the novel. The three installments of the Lord of the Rings films more or less solved this problem by running an average of an hour longer. This left considerable opportunity for character development. By the time Frodo leaves on his ring quest in The Fellowship of the Rings nearly an hour has passed in the film. But at that point we know Frodo well, we care about him and his quest, and it is not the unreliable attractions of the fantasy that captivate us nearly so much as it is Frodo himself and his companions.

The Golden Compass along with the His Dark Materials trilogy as a whole is burdened by the curse of what the Greeks would have described as the deus ex machina, and what I will term the device of the false rescue. The compass itself—the aletheometer—is at the center of this falsehood. The device uses the power of the mysterious Dust that infuses and vitalizes the universe in the worlds of these novels to allow the user to know the future, to predict with relative certainty the outcome of events. Since Lyra possesses the device and is far better than anyone else at using it, she has an advantage that few protagonists have: she can read the future. Thus in the novels and the film a certain degree of suspense is removed. As problems come up, Lyra consults the aletheometer and knows what is going to happen. Often the interest of the story surrounds the strategies she and others devise to overcome the problems the alethiometer predicts, but after a while this business begins to wear thin. The universe of the film and the novels and the theology of Dust, carefully crafted to serve as a kind of parallel to the Christian notion of Original Sin, is too contrived. I enjoyed reading the novels and watching the film but I never believed in the world they portray in the way I believed in the world of Middle Earth.

Pre-release reports maintained that the makers of The Golden Compass had toned down the anti-Christian/anti-religious bias. Frankly, I barely became aware of any such bias in the first novel, and maybe because I knew what to look for the religious issues in the film seemed more apparent. At any rate, my soul (whatever that may be) was not bruised by either the film or the books.

I think it's disingenuous for advocates of His Dark Materials to suggest that Pullman substitutes reason and science for religion in these books. Instead, he simply substitutes a different kind of religion, one in which there are parallel worlds, where the effects of Dust have a direct impact on human character and experience, where there are angels and an afterlife and even godlike potentates. However, in Pullman's worlds the dividing lines between the earthly and heavenly realms are hazy and permeable, and because of the discoveries of scientists such as Lord Asriel people learn how to move back and forth between these realms and other worlds. It is the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the Christian religion, especially of Catholicism, that Pullman objects to, especially the effects of religious doctrines that suppress normal human instincts such as love and intellectual curiosity.

The discoveries and theories of particle physics and of modern cosmology are in clear evidence in His Dark Materials and in the film. Dust (already akin to Original Sin) is connected with dark matter. As many physicists posit, the universe is not a singular entity but rather a multiverse, composed of an infinite number of universes and worlds therein. Each world is slightly different from the others. Each world has a slightly different term for Dust, and some worlds don't have a term for it at all. Nonetheless, whatever the term, Dust is the animating force everywhere.

The film The Golden Compass and the novel on which it is based construct a fantasy world that manipulates viewers and readers into enjoying the experience offered. It's fine to be manipulated into enjoying what one watches or reads. But it's important to recognize that higher forms of art work on a different plane.

No comments: