Let’s be clear: translating a book to the screen is hard, really hard and it shouldn’t be underestimated. Things you can get away with in a book you simply can’t on film for a range of reasons. It’s not the same medium, you have less time and, in some cases, things that are palatable in book form just aren’t in the American dominated world of film.
So Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was always going to be a struggle with its open pop at organised religion and its themes around the nature of authority, death, the purpose of existence and even a light sprinkling of teenage sex.
For this, and the curious decision to keep the US title for the UK release, I approached the first instalment with caution. I was surprised. In a good way.
Granted Chris Weitz has, at first glance, bottled the aspects of the story that dealt with religion. Instead he’s opted to turn the anti-authoritarian aspect of the film up to eleven but, to be quite frank, when Kidman is expounding on the magisterium’s views on dust…well I’d be surprised if anyone doesn’t really know what she means.
And that’s a good thing.
Another is the faithful following of the main aspects of the first book including a very graphic, very violent fight between two armoured bears. The attention to detail in bringing alive Pullman’s world is genuinely breathtaking.
Dakota Blue Richards, who plays Lyra, gives a very convincing, faithful portrayal. Kidman is deliciously dark; Daniel Craig basically plays Asriel as Bond but hell that works because Asriel has a large whiff of Bond around him anyway.
So I liked it, right?
No. The film falls down in two crucial elements.
First off it begins with a truly ill advised monologue that dumps a huge amount of exposition on the audience as well as echoing the start of The Lord of The Rings. A huge disservice to a writer with a unique and powerful voice.
The second and far more fatal failure is pace. Or lack there of. Now I’m no stranger to pacing errors, as readers of my Friday Flash Fiction can no doubt attest, but I was quite surprised to see it in a film of that size. The pacing is appalling.
The novel is paced extremely well with a clear arc that belies the relatively unplotted approach Pullman uses but the film takes this arc back to bare bones, passes some of those bones to the second film and rushes through the remains.
The result is a clunky melding of ideas, events and more exposition than you can throw a stick at. Basically it kills the film. This is not the difficulty of translating a book to film; this is Hollywood’s Freudian fixation with length and the filmmaker’s unwillingness to stand up to it.
Jackson got round it with The Lord of The Rings by holding the line a little longer than most and judicious use of DVD extra features. One can only hope that a similar restoration will be performed on the DVD of The Golden Compass but the cinema release really suffers from a lack of rhythm.
For me this one gets a C minus. Close but no cigar.