When the Magic goes Missing

The Golden Compass was a trilogy I had wanted to read, especially prior to seeing the movie but time and a growing To Be Read stack prevented it. As a result, when we finally took in the film yesterday, I was going in with no preconceived notions. Deb had read it so I had someone on hand to help, if necessary.

The magic was missing. Yes, there were witches and talking bears and the like but the sense of awe, the sense of discovery was entirely absent from the film. The opening narration did a nice job of setting up the notion of parallel universes and the unique concept of “dust” and then we went right into the story.

Sitting through the Chris Weitz-directed film I was constantly left feeling like we were rushing. A quick scene, some exposition, cut to the next scene, some exposition, cut to the next scene and so on. By the end of the trim 113 minute running time, clearly this film screamed to be opened up and let the characters breath. Given the rushed feeling, we had no chance to really get to know, or care, about anyone with the exception of Lyra. Even so, there’s so much about her we still don’t know.

According to Deb, most events in the movie actually took days, weeks or a month to occur, which makes a lot more dramatic sense. For example, Lyra shows up in the court of Ragnar Sturlusson, King of the Bears. In no time at all, she has offered him that which has most desired, a daemon (or soul); all he had to do was defeat Iorek Byrnison, who was said to be who she was linked with. He accepts it with barely a challenge and risks his throne and control of the bears on her say so. In the book, it took her days to accomplish the goal.

Children are kidnapped for experiments but we’re given the barest explanation of how the end result has anything to do with the “dust” which seems to scare the Magisterium, the power in that universe. Then there’s the Magisterium itself, which rules with an iron fist wrapped in velvet. What do they really want and why on Earth is Christopher Lee there for one scene? It begs explanation as does the leeway they seem to give their agent, Mrs. Coulter, coolly played by Nicole Kidman.

By the time the lame end credits song played, I was left dissatisfied, wanting to know more, wanting more of the lyricism offered up by the better fantasy films. Now, this is not to say I disliked everything about it. Even though Sam Elliott played the same laconic cowboy that has become his trademark, he’s fun to watch in anything (even Ghost Rider). Eva Green was nice to see on screen again (although the role of the witches could have been expanded in that world’s grand scheme of things).

Prior to the film were the trailers and we were offered glimpses of The Spiderwick Chronicles, which looks to do a nice job of bringing the illustrations from the book to life; and, Inkheart, based on a lesser known book and one New Line just yanked from the release schedule. By the time the lights went up, I was left feeling wanting. None of them had the same sense of magic and wonderment, the feeling of discovery and excitement that we felt when the first starfighter streaked across the screen in 1977 or when we first entered Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth.

Given how much genre material is available these days, filmmakers have to take our breath away, make these worlds feel real and make us care to linger a while with their story and characters. It seems now, providing us with brilliant SFX and CGI is considered enough and it’s not. Never has been and if we get to the second installment in Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, I hope we get to understand the world a bit better.

5 comments

  • JosephW

    Bob, I’ve just finished reading “The Golden Compass” but haven’t seen the film yet (and haven’t really made any plans to) but a few of the points you raise in your critique should be touched.
    First, the book doesn’t get all that much into “the role of witches. . . in that world’s scheme of things”. We get some background as to why Serafina Pakkala gets involved in Lyra’s story and a little information is passed along about the nature of how witches fly and their relationship with their daemons, but that’s about it.
    Second, there’s little explanation in the book as to your questions about the Magisterium and Mrs Coulter. (From my reading, until close to the end, it didn’t seem like the two were even working together.)
    Third, the link between the experiment on the children and Dust (for the record, the word’s always capitalized in the book to set it apart from normal dust) is described in the book with a bare minimum–in fact, it seems to be more along the lines of one person’s theory rather than any hardcore fact.
    As to the King of the Bears, he seems to have had a name change from the book, where he’s called Iofur Raknison (not Ragnar Sturlusson). The very fact that the film had an opening narration that informed you about Dust is probably about all you really need to know about it at this point. (I’m just getting into the second story, The Subtle Knife, and I’ll warn you that any straightforward film adaptation of it is going to have your head scratching. The first couple of chapters set up a totally new character on one of the parallel earths; it takes a fair amount of time before the reader is reassured that Lyra’s story is actually continuing. Those first couple of chapters could easily take up 20-30 minutes IF filmed “by the book”.)

  • JosephW

    Just another point, regarding the time periods, almost EVERY fantasy film skips vast chunks of time. You alluded to the first Star Wars film, but consider how much “real time” is supposed to have passed between Leia’s being captured and being rescued, and then compare how much “real time” passes between Leia’s rescue and the blowing up of the Death Star. (Are we really supposed to believe that the rebels have enough time to make such an elaborate plan to blow up that facility when Leia’s only been rescued about 15 minutes–by film run–earlier?)
    Then, consider the time lapse between the second and third films. Just how long is Han Solo encased in the carbonite? He’s flash-frozen about 2/3 of the way into Empire and isn’t rescued until nearly 1/4 of the way into Jedi. According to the timeline, though, Luke has enough time to return from Dagobah to “save” Leia, Chewie, and C3P0, then return to Dagobah to resume his training (enough training to be able to stand up to Vader and the Emperor, largely on his own at the end of the film) with Yoda before going back to help rescue Han and Leia. Now, was that months or was it actually years of time? We don’t know and we’re never told. (One would question the practicality of it being years since Leia would’ve been a fugitive, yet she manages to elude any number of bounty hunters and sneaks into Jabba’s complex in a bounty hunter outfit. Of course, Osama bin Laden has managed to elude capture for more than 6 years, but, somehow, I can’t believe the Empire would’ve been as distracted as our Administration has been.)

  • Rick Keating

    For whatever it’s worth, according to the novelization of Return of the Jedi, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite for six of that planet’s months.

    Rick

  • Rick Keating

    “that (desert) planet” being Tatooine, of course.

    Rick

  • Mike B.risbois

    You know where Dwight Twilley finds the magic, don’t you?