By Nathanael Griffis
If a book does well enough that it becomes known by a sizeable amount of people, there starts to be talks of a movie, because fans of the book will see the movie almost without any discernment. I know I did with The Golden Compass. A book’s success peaks the curiosity of a reader. Will it make a good movie? The script is basically half written, and if you’re lucky you might have the author on hand to write it anyway. This is the basic adaptation. People like the book; why not tell the story on the screen. Things will have to be changed for sure, but who cares? It’s not like movie audiences complain.
In recent years there has been a binge of turning young adult fiction into movies, so much so that not everything even makes it to the theaters. (For example, see Rob Reiner’s Flipped, which is a decent movie based on a decent book.) Sometimes this gives us wonderful tales that translate well to the screen, surprisingly so, like Holes; and other times we’re left bitterly disappointed with The Golden Compass.
Sigourney Weaver as the Warden, Jon Voight as Mr. Sir, and Shia LeBeouf as Stanley Yelnats.
As I rewatched this movie, and reread the book, which is an easy read for anyone who has two days to kill, I was amazed that this movie was done so well. The cast is definitely part of it, but to rest the movie on the young, mostly untested shoulders of Shia LaBeouf was daring. Of course, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, and Tim Blake Nelson help out greatly. They also get top billing, and are the main cast draws of the film. Strangely enough, director Andrew Davis broke out of the action-thriller genre (he made The Fugitive and a few Steven Seagal movies) to make a mature family mystery movie. The true genius here is that they hired Loius Sachar, who stretched his writing muscles and adapted his own novel into a screenplay.
Hiring the author probably helped in numerous ways, but the greatest is probably that the adaptation could remain in the same vein and spirit as the book, but change it to best fit a visual style. There are numerous changes made, but it would be hard to notice them if, say, you hadn’t just finished reading the book a day ago. Sachar actually adds more visually humorous scenes and a few jokes are more played up. The beginning is smartly different and shows that Sachar understands film as a visual medium. In the book the first three chapters are basically exposition, but are told with such a whimsical style that they’re engaging. The movie opens on an image of a boy willing being bitten by a rattlesnake to escape Camp Green Lake. The opening three chapters do get included later on in the movie, but Sachar recognized that he had to engage his audience visually first, and a rattlesnake bite does this.
Don't dig and drive, kids.
With three interweaving narratives, numerous characters with complex back stories, and a strange mystery like few others that deals with racism, selfishness, and society’s response to crime, it’s amazing that this film is so compact and successful. No shot is wasted, no line of dialogue unnecessary. The first scene with Jon Voight’s “Mr. Sir,” (one of the best names ever, by the way) is a perfect example. Stanley (LeBeouf) learns that Mr. Sir has a frozen scowl on his face, used to drink, and considers Stanley worthless. We also learn of the Warden. We don’t see her till about the middle of the film, but her presence lingers in every scene as the threat that controls the boys. As a film, it has enough depth for parents, enough mystery and action for teenagers, enough thematic depth for the pretentious filmophile, and plenty of fart jokes for the wee little ones–a perfect example of a basic adaptation done right.
The Golden Compass
Holes is a beloved Newberry Award-winning classic. The Golden Compass is also a widely beloved classic. More dense than Holes to be certain, The Golden Compass is a lofty book to adapt, but they accomplished a similar feat with The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, so why not? What is frequently so frustrating about a bad adaptation is that while you’re watching you’re saying to yourself, why’d they change that? Why not do it this way? For the majority of this film, with the only exception being the polar bear fight near the end, I was shaking my head with those exact questions. Gone is all the mystery, the grandeur, and even the controversial themes. There was no reason to get mad about the atheistic world view of the book when this movie was released, because it’s all but whitewashed out here. Dust might as well be dust, because there’s no real examination of original sin or free will involved in the mystical concept. Dust is just pretty CGI stuff, and you can cut or something with a pretty CGI laser thingy.
This is Nicole Kidman: She can stare with menace, touch railings seductively, and has breasts.
The main problems seems to be twofold. The movie tries to cram everything in and moves at such a breakneck pace that the mystery never has time to settle and intrigue us. If you hadn’t read the book, you’d wonder every 15 minutes who this new character is and why you should care. They also take the Hollywood way out and think action means story. The action is mundane at best, too choreographed and constrained to be exciting.
The movie is well cast but poorly acted. Sam Elliot seems to be just abusing his awesome accent. Nicole Kidman is showing off her bosom. Eva Green wants to do something more, but showing off her bosom as well seems to work. Ian McKellen as a voice actor imbues little might into Iorek the fearsome polar bear warrior. It’s as if he did the entire script in a few takes. Only Daniel Craig comes out unscathed, mostly because he’s not in the film much. As for the child actors–if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
For all the controversy this film stirred up, it fell flat and incapable of delivering any substance to back it up. There is no sense of pace or transition. They took the bare bones of the story and presented it thinking that would do, but that’s not enough. You have to understand that film is very different from the page, and the two art forms require reshaping. They should have changed more, rearranged more, and focused in on character and presentation with more strength. Don’t ditch the complex theology and themes, or you’ll lose what captivated readers in the first place. And finally, when you have an astounding cliffhanger that changes your perception of everything in a book, and you choose to cut it out of the movie, your film deserves to fail. The ending of The Golden Compass was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever read. I literally had to pick up The Subtle Knife immediately and start to read it. So naturally it makes sense to ignore this and end on a boring fade into the sunset that is disgustingly pedestrian.
Next I’ll tell you why Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is amazing, and why The Count of Monte Cristo would be good if only it weren’t based on a book, when I discuss classic period piece adaptations.