25 January 2008

The Golden Compass : A review of the movie

In the book upon which this movie is based, there is scene in which the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison, explains to the heroine, Lyra, that armoured bears cannot be fooled. He demonstrates this to her by asking her to hit him. She tries to trick him. First she finds that when she feints, he does not respond. Only when she really means to hit him does he bother to block her blow. He can't be fooled.

This scenes demonstrates what a totally cool character Iorek Byrnison is. In fact, this character, the armoured polar bear Iorek Byrnison, was the reason that the movie was made. Readers of the book have been struck by the image of him; a powerful person in a powerful armour. The movie producer understood this when he was looking for funding. However, the movie leaves this scene out.

That this scene was left out of the film is important not just because it truncates Iorek's character. The loss of this scene demonstrates what is wrong with the whole movie. The heart has been cut out.

It is an important scene. It is important to the themes of the book, and it is important because if you were going to film this book and had to pick just one thread to follow, in order to make the story filmable, and you had chosen that of Iorek Byrnison, this scene would be pivotal.

This scene takes place after a time in which Iorek has, in fact, been tricked. He has been tricked by his fellow bears, he has let himself become angry enough to murder a fellow bear and had his wealth, rank and armour taken from him. He made a second armour of sky-metal, but then the people of the local village had got him drunk and hid this armour so that he would have to stay and work for them. In fact, he was working for booze. It is the most miserable, low point of his life. That is how Lyra first sees him.

He is, at this point, a bear who has not been true to his code and who has let people manipulate and deceive him.

When she reminds of this, they have to think. Lyra concludes that armoured bears cannot be tricked provided they are true to themselves. This is a crucial point both as a philosophy and because Iorek's climactic fight with the usurping bear king hinges on it. Because the usurper is trying to masquerade as a human, because he is not true to himself, Lyra can trick him into a fight with Iorek. Because Iorek also understands Lyra's point, he is able to fool the usurper during their fight, and so regain his crown. Yes, Iorek rules.

The movie is not true to itself. It is not true to anything really. For instance, it doesn't explain the importance the bears' armour. A bear's armour, Iorek tells Lyra in the book, is the bear's soul. That is why losing his was such a terrible thing. However, marvellously, he can make another armour. Bears, Lyra realises, can remake their souls.

The idea of remaking a soul is an important one. It signifies that people can recover from mistakes, however bad they may be. It is the sort of message that saves lives. But it is left out of the film.

Nor does the film take advantage of conflicts inherent in a relationship between a bear who must be true to himself, and a heroine who relies on lies and deceit to survive. Lyra is a trickster character.

What is left in the film is a lot pretty scenery and famous faces. The kids got excited when they saw Christopher Lee in one of the shots. "Look! It's Saruman, Mum. There's Saruman!"

Philip Pullman says that he drew on many tales and fairy stories when he was writing the book. That might be why the image of a girl and a bear moving across an icy plain under a brilliant sky of Northern Lights is so easy to call to mind. At times, Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen springs to mind. There are also, of course, Russian fairy tales, although I don't recall any one of them in particular, but just an overall impression. This background of fairy tale images, though, might be the reason that a character like Iorek Byrnison is so readily visualised.

There are other elements left out of the film. For instance, Lyra, prowling through the college dungeons, comes across the notion of dead people having a token inscribed with the name of their demon placed in their mouths. This chapter is difficult to place in the film, taking, as it does, some time involving not just the dungeon exploration, but the nightmares when Lyra steals one of the tokens, and her return to the dungeons to put it back. It doesn't contribute, really, to the overall plot, and so it is left out. The trouble is, it has relevance to the growth of Lyra's character. Later, in the story, when a child has died, she is moved to make a token for him and place it in his mouth. It is a moment in which she can be felt to be growing up, that she is truly and honestly concerned for another person. Without the earlier scene, though, her action would lack meaning.

It is difficult to believe that such a beautiful looking film could be so boring. It is hard to believe that a film that is based on a book that is basically one life threatening situation after another could turn out so tedious. It is hard to imagine what it was like for people who had not read the book but who tried to watch the film with no idea of the characters' motivations. I spent some time wondering if I should just take the kids and go.

This movie's failure at the box office should be a lesson to the producers who did not realise that the heart of their story was in the book. They should have been true to it.

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