I saw The Golden Compass over the weekend, and mostly I enjoyed it. As many of you know, it’s a film rendering of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra Belaqua, the poster child for Victorian naughtiness, is at the center of the battle between those who wish conformity at all costs and those who fight against it. At stake is not just their world, but the entire universe.
What made Pullman’s books so compelling were the Big Ideas about religion and humanity tucked into an entertaining story told in stripped and simplified prose. Daemons–animal manifestations of the human soul–talking bears, and semi-immortal witches weren’t cool ideas the author trotted out to keep the kids reading, they were linchpins in the plot.
Unfortunately, in the movie, they were rendered as set pieces. Don’t get me wrong, the film looked gorgeous, the acting was top-notch, and the pace clipped nicely. The writing was good, too. The Golden Compass is a far better film than the first Harry Potter movie or Narnia. The $9 ticket and the afternoon were well spent.
And yet . . .
As I sat watching one Great Actor after another mouth plot points: “The prophecy speaks about such a child,” or “There’s a battle coming,” I kept thinking, this is why people complain that movies don’t do books any favors. In a book, good writing can disguise a plot point so that the reader doesn’t see the mechanisms moving the story ahead. In a film, the plot points have to be spelled out so the viewer knows what’s going on.
Some film makers are better at this than others, I concede (since I cited fantasy books into films in the examples, I’ll stick to them for the purposes of this post). Peter Jackson and crew did a fantastic job moving the story along in the Lord of the Rings trilogies. The plot unfolded organically, and it didn’t feel like we were being pushed to see the story. Their industry awards were well-deserved.
Still, it’s a rare thing when a film does justice to a book, rarer still for a film to improve upon one. For me, the thing that makes a book special and can never be replicated in film is the author’s voice. Pullman’s spare simplicity was swept aside in a CGI extravaganza.
But I’m still excited to know that good books are being turned into films, even though part of me knows they can never be as good as the experience of reading the book in the first place.