Personally I blame it on a literary tradition that dates back to some guy name Geoffrey Chaucer. They don't even attempt to deny it either, you know. In an interview included on the special features disc of the special edition DVD of The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, the guy who wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy, says he reads Shakespeare and Dostoevsky for pleasure. With attitudes like that is it any wonder that the British keep churning out wonderful books for children that have has as many adult readers as they do younger ones?
From Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, to the latest generation of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, they have inundated us with great books that have been and are being turned into remarkably good movies. The latest of these to be given its celluloid treatment are Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, as book one, The Golden Compass, was released in cinemas in December of 2007 and on DVD Arpil 29, 2008. Going upon the recommendation of the person who has always been my best guide in all things literary, my older brother, I picked up a copy of the two disc special edition release of the movie this past weekend. (I don't know about anywhere else, but in Canada it was only three dollars more than the regular edition at Jumbo Video in Kingston, Ontario)
I have to confess that I went into this movie completely blind, knowing absolutely nothing about the story or the series. I didn't even know it was a trilogy, for goodness' sake; it wasn't until the movie was winding down that I turned to my wife and said, "Do you get the feeling that this is a 'to be continued in the next movie' point we're coming to?" Talk about being out of touch, although in my own defence the books were released between 1995 and 2000 and in those days I wasn't paying attention to much of anything. I didn't even notice Harry Potter until 2002 when I was given a copy of The Philosopher's Stone while recovering from surgery. (It's only known as The Sorcerer's Stone in the States – they changed the title and "translated" the text from British to American for American readers.)
So my first exposure to the world of The Golden Compass came when I slid the DVD into the optical drive on my MiniMac this past Saturday, and I'm now good and hooked. (First thing Monday morning I sent a pleading e-mail to my contact at the Canadian distributor of the books to see if they could get me review copies; there was a new omnibus version released just over a year ago on which I'm placing my hopes.) I can't remember when I've been so instantly captivated by anything as I was by this movie. From the opening sequence with the voice-over supplying the introduction to the world the movie is set in to the final frames in Scoresby's flying machine near the North Pole, the movie had me glued to my monitor.
Now I've not read the books, so I won't be able to tell you how good an adaptation of the actual book this is, but what I saw was as brilliant a piece of storytelling as any that I've ever seen on screen. As both director and screenwriter Chris Weitz has done a masterful job of making sure that the movie succeeds as a stand-alone work, so those of us who haven't read the books never feel like we're missing information. While there are points in the movie where you may wonder, now why is so and so doing this, you're never left hanging and an explanation will eventually be given. In fact one of the things that impressed me most about Mr. Weitz's direction and storytelling was his timing. He doles out the information that the story needs to progress in ways that don't interrupt the flow of the action but that still gives us the opportunity to catch our breath and integrate what he's told us into our understanding of what's going on.
In this way he gives us a slight edge on his main character, Lyra Belacqua, when it comes to knowing what's happening, but only in a general way. For instance we know that the people who run the world, The Magisterium, have nasty plans in store for people – especially children – but we don't find out the details until Lyra does. It's a standard technique for storytelling in movies, but he's done it so well here that it builds the suspense and develops the plot at a rate of speed that strikes the perfect balance between credibility and maintaining tension.
Of course this movie is going to live and die based on the performance delivered by whoever is cast in the central role of the lead character Lyra Belacqua. Once you see Dakota Blue Richards in the role, you won't be able to imagine another person playing her. Culled from a cattle call that saw them audition 10,000 young women across England, Dakota doesn't strike a wrong note ever in her performance. It's hard to believe that she had no professional acting experience prior to this movie considering the range of emotions she's called on to display, and how well she's coped with working with computer generated image (CGI) characters.
Two of the characters Dakota has to spend most of her time on screen with are CGI creations — her personal Daemon, Pantalaimon (the voice of Freddie Highmore) and the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (the voice of Ian McKellen). What look like perfectly natural conversations and interactions in the final product on screen were anything but during the shooting process. At times the young actor would be acting out a scene with a green blob of a puppet, or talking to a blank wall. It doesn't seem to have made the slightest bit of difference to her though, whether she was working with a live person or a puppet as she carries off every scene she is in with equal aplomb.
As far as the rest of the performances go, they were all pretty much wonderful. From Christopher Lee's creepy cameo as a high ranking official in the Magisterium, Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, the airman from Texas, to Daniel Craig as Lyra's Uncle Lord Asriel, everybody not only gives lovely performances, but look like they are having a great time doing so. Even Nicole Kidman, who I've only liked in a very few roles before, seems to be having fun as the very scary Mrs. Coulter. It says a lot for the director that everybody's performance has that extra spark that only happens when an actor remembers what it is to make believe again.
As this was the two disc special edition version of the DVD, the second disc was all special features. While the technical features about how they shot the CGI sequences will probably be of interest to some, I've reached the point where I've 'seen one blue/green screen, seen them all'. The parts I did enjoy were the interviews with both the author Philip Pullman and the director Chris Weitz. I'm always fascinated to listen to somebody discuss their process when it comes to creating, and it was interesting to see the two men talking about the same material from their respective perspectives of creator and adapter.
The Golden Compass is a wonderful movie, full of magic and adventure that will appeal to anyone whose imaginations were ever fired by the great children's literature that has come out of England. I can't speak to how the movie worked as an adaptation of the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, but I can say that this is a great piece of cinematic magic, and I am looking forward to its sequels. Now if I can only get my hands on the books I'll really be happy.