Monday, January 14, 2008

The Golden Turd: Philip Pullman, Hide Your Face

I try not to rip up movies too often on my blog. For one, it seems like every dime-a-dozen blogger thinks s/he's a film critic. Also, I prefer to read posts which point out and praise admirable creative efforts (like this week's post at Quammy Blog) rather than those that just growl and complain. However, I've been holding this in for weeks so as not to pollute the Christmas spirit, and I have to get it off my chest.

I love Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass series, and everyone knows that the movie is never as good as the book. So when I went into the cinema, I was expecting to be a little bit disappointed. Instead, I was disgusted, enraged, and insulted. I hope Pullman got paid well to let Chris Weitz molest and butcher his beautiful story, because molest and butcher it he did.

Almost everything that makes the book believeable--all the subtle and clever touches, the wonderfully realized characters, the politics, the intrigue, and the philosophy are completely left out. Weitz is an inept writer and a lousy director. He also obviously thinks the average moviegoer is an imbecile.

Take the film's depiction of the Magesterium, for instance. In the book, the master of Jordan College at Oxford tries to poison Lord Asriel because he (Asriel) is a dangerous megalomaniac, and the aleithiometer has indicated that his actions will have dire consequences. In the film, a snivelling representative of the Magesterium tries to poison a far more heroic (and physically dimunitive) Lord Asriel, played by Daniel Craig at his most smug, because he's heroically insubordinate and they're craven and power hungry. Realpolitik has nothing to do with it--instead, we get a simplistic, cooky cutter villain/hero relationship that we've all seen a thousand times.

In the book, Iorek Byrnison's armour is hidden in the basement of a local priest's house. In the movie, it's hidden in the basement of the local office of the Magesterium. This would be splitting hairs if the Magesterium represented the church, the heart and soul of any community, like it does in the book (it doesn't). Rather than contrasting the innate honour of one species (armoured bears) with the opportunism of another (humans), Weitz inexplicably lets the baaaad Magesterium take the moral fall for the townspeople, sparing his audience from having to ask itself any questions about human nature, right or wrong.

The role of the Magesterium in the film is much like that of Snidely Whiplash from Dudley Do-right, or of Shredder and Krang in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon: if it's bad, they're behind it, and they're behind it because they're the bad guys. In the book, the Magesterium are convincing because they honestly think that they're protecting humanity from itself. Their actions are politically and morally complex, unlike in the movie, where they're just greedy and evil. This is essential to the problematizing of authority that forms the backbone of the books' argument, including its critique of organized religion (it's still a little postmodern for my taste, but Pullman is such a good writer that it just works somehow). The movie dumbs all this down until it's unrecognizable, and by making the Magesterium generally responsible for every bad thing that happens in the film, Weitz removes the emphasis on human free will that is so important in a story supposing to be about the Fall of Man.

Another example: Iorek Byrnison is supposed to have been banished from Svalbard (the kingdom of the Panserbjorne, who throughout the movie are annoyingly referred to as "ice bears") for murdering a fellow armoured bear who was drugged by Iofur Rakinson, resulting in his refusal to back down from a fight to the death over a female bear. In the movie, Iorek is banished because he was defeated in single combat by Iofur Rakinson himself (with a different name, more on that in a moment). Not only does this make Iorek out to be a weakling, it doesn't even make sense--a society in which rank were determined by single combat and all the losers were banished would quickly end up with only one member. Would it have been all that hard to take an extra 20 seconds to get the back story right? They could have easily shaved the time off the silly, predictable 10 minute ice bridge crossing scene.

Changing Iofur Rakinson's (the evil bear's) name to "Ragnar Sturlusson" in order to avoid confusion with Iorek Byrnison (the good bear, voiced by an Ian McKellan who sounds like he should be put to sleep) insults the audience's intelligence further. Imagine if the Hollywood developers of Lord of the Rings had changed Sauron's name to "Beastor" in order to avoid confusion with Saruman. Any child who is morally and cognitively able to handle a character's jawbone getting ripped off and sent flying through the air in slow motion can probably manage the task of keeping track of that character's name, even if it does happen to start with the same letter as another character's name.

TGC cost $180 million to make. That's more than The Fellowship of the Ring, which was a far better movie. The two films are at polar opposites of the fantasy adaptation spectrum: the developers of LOTR cut corners by using a director and actors who were talented but (then) relatively unknown, and spent their money instead on state of the art special effects and a fantastic script that was accessible but faithful to its source. New Line spent what looks like their entire budget on an attempt to subdue TGC's viewers with the eminence of its cast, resulting in what may be the most expensive and star-studded B movie in cinematic history. The cheap CGI effects therein make Garfield 2 look like a cinematic masterpiece.

Philip Pullman should be ashamed, and Chris Weitz should be fired. The Golden Compass movie is vapid, tedious, confusing, violent, melodramatic, and dumb. It is poorly scripted, poorly conceived and poorly edited, and its sense of time is so badly out of synch with its sense of space that it feels more like a ride at Universal Studios than a theatrical release. It's the Cutthroat Island of children's fantasy: it misses the mark in every possible way. It mangles a beautiful and serious story to the point where it comes across as a cut-rate Harry Potter knockoff, and it is in no way worth the fuss kicked up by religious groups at the time of its release.

Anyone who decided to boycott this movie did Phillip Pullman a favour.

1 comment:

Quammy said...

Thanks for the shout-out, sorta. I'm often guilty of being a computer-chair critic. It often seems like there are two types of internet movie critics; those who use the self-appointed position as a mouthpiece for their anger and childishness, and those who are always looking for great movies despite the plethora of crap that comes out every year. I try be the latter-type, but I know how fun it can be to be the former.