Alas, poor Iorek

Saturday, 8 December 2007 — 2:58am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

Pay attention, because I’m about to coin a new word: amberpunk. It refers specifically to the aesthetic of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, much of which carries on in the steampunk spirit, but in the absence of steam.

Thanks to the promotional stills and trailers for the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the visualization of amberpunk was the least of my concerns going into the film. The moment I saw that New Line had commissioned a cinematic adaptation, a list of Reasons to Worry flickered into being, and the visual design was the first item I crossed off the list.

Among the other, more pressing items: 1) In the novels, shapeshifting daemons like Pantalaimon retain a coherent identity before the reader because they are identified by name. How might one adapt that visually? 2) Lyra Belacqua is a role so ludicrously challenging that casting her appropriately could make or break the movie. Could Dakota Blue Richards convincingly fill her shoes? 3) Pullman’s writing consistently appeals to non-visual senses—touch, for example, as in the highly tactile experience of using the Subtle Knife. How might this work on film? 4) Will Pullman’s stridently anti-dogmatic message (which is finally poking the church in the eye with as sharp a stick as he intended, albeit twelve years late) survive commercial pressures for the filmmakers to self-censor? 5) Who is Chris Weitz, and should I be as worried as I am about his very limited directorial experience (About a Boy, Down to Earth and a co-credit on American Pie), or will he surprise me like Mike Newell did with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? 6) Are the angels in The Amber Spyglass still going to be naked?

Now, I regret to say I’ve only read Pullman’s marvelous trilogy once and therefore don’t know it backwards, forwards and upside down the way I (used to) know The Lord of the Rings, but my initial impression after seeing the film tonight is a very positive one. The adaptation adhered to its source with the utmost respect, but not slavishly or religiously (how ironic would that be?) to a fault. Devoted readers need not worry. In fact, I had myself a jolly old time right up until the credits rolled.

Unfortunately, the end credits are precisely where a very serious problem with the film appears. (Spoilers follow for both the book and the film.)

Remember the end of The Two Towers (the film), when Frodo, Sam and Gollum didn’t get anywhere near Shelob’s Lair, where Tolkien staged an absolute monster of a cliffhanger in The Two Towers (the book)?

Peter Jackson got away with that for three major reasons. a) He warned us all well in advance that Shelob was getting bumped to the third film. b) The Lord of the Rings was simultaneously planned and shot as a single picture, so it was fairly flexible as far as editing choices were concerned. 3) He ends the film with one of the best conversations in the entirety of Tolkien’s work (and one of the most poignant scenes in the combined running time of all three movies), where Frodo and Sam discuss whether their adventure will ever be the retold in books and stories—and tops it off with a moment with Gollum that foreshadows what is to come.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, the end of The Golden Compass (the film) doesn’t take Lyra and Roger anywhere near the end of The Golden Compass (the book), which—like the last chapter of The Two Towers—is one of the great open-ended climaxes in serial literature.

I’m not impressed, and to illustrate this, I’m going to draw a parallel (which is what the film didn’t do): a) I didn’t get the memo. Strictly speaking, this is my fault—Weitz explained his decision in an open letter months ago, claiming to have Pullman’s full support—and none of you will run into this problem, if you consider this post your memo. b) Production hasn’t started on The Subtle Knife; unlike The Lord of the Rings, New Line isn’t gambling on the whole trilogy at once. Although recent reports indicate that a script is ready to go, production of the rest of the trilogy is still (as far as I know) contingent on the success of the first film. 3) Chris Weitz doesn’t have the screenwriting mojo to make the dialogue in the airship journey to Svalbard deliver a satisfying conclusion that promises more to come.

In other words: what was Weitz thinking, leaving out the end of the book when the running time left plenty of room to spare? Did he go over budget? Was he not going to make the deadline? Did he not think the audience could deal with what happens to Roger, though now, they’ll just have to face it later? Was he intentionally trying to screw over the writer hired for The Subtle Knife, Hossein Amini (i.e. not Chris Weitz)? Did he envision Lord Asriel in a tuxedo, which he can’t depict until the expiry of Daniel Craig’s contract as James Bond?

Or did he simply not feel up to the task, which was why he left the director’s chair the first time to be replaced by Anand Tucker before subsequently returning in Tucker’s stead?

From a 2 December article in The New York Times:

Fans of Mr. Pullman’s version may be surprised to learn that the movie stops before the book does, leaving out Lyra’s long-anticipated meeting with her father, who plans to wage war on the Almighty himself. Instead the movie ends in stirring fashion, with Lyra saving the kidnapped kids from what amounts to spiritual lobotomy and heading off in an airship with Iorek, an armored bear who has become her friend and protector. “There was tremendous marketing pressure for that,” Mr. Weitz said. “Everyone really wanted an upbeat ending.”

He added, “They’re looking for a franchise here,” meaning that if “The Golden Compass” does well, the studio will go ahead with films based on the two remaining volumes of the trilogy.

Well screw you too, Mr. Weitz (and I say that gently, of course, as his film was great while it lasted). I’m not a stickler for films adhering to books at all costs, as longtime readers and personal acquaintances are no doubt aware after hearing me repeatedly assert and defend at length the opinion that The Prisoner of Azkaban is unquestionably the best Potter film—but this is just ridiculous. I believe in good filmmaking—read: filmmaking that isn’t afraid to take a few risks.

Philip Pullman says:

The ending makes every kind of narrative sense. The National Theatre production ended the first part plumb in the middle of The Subtle Knife, and nobody minded that because in the only terms that mattered it worked brilliantly. Every film has to make changes to the story that the original book tells – not to change the outcome, but to make it fit the dimensions and the medium of film. I’m very happy with the work the filmmakers have done, and no-one wants this film to succeed more, or believes in it more firmly, than I do.

That’s an admirable statement, and I’m glad Pullman respects the liberties of film as much as I (usually) do, but there’s something grossly arbitrary about Weitz’s decision that does not, in my mind, do anything to make the structure of the story more amenable to cinema. It reeks of a business decision manhandling a creative decision. I’m always one of the first to defend a film’s liberties if it makes for better visual-sequential storytelling, and I’m at a loss to understand how anyone could possibly think the ending in the film is better suited for the task than a sparkling starlight bridge to another universe.

Look, you just can’t beat the experience of having an eye-level encounter with a sky-level aurora. I should know. I’ve done it. I didn’t see any cities in alternate realities, but it still counts.

In Weitz’s defence, the creative dissonance in the production of The Golden Compass remained largely invisible to me until the end credits kicked me in the pants and cast off Pullman’s magnificent ending as if it were a daemon forcibly severed from an innocent child. Apart from that gripe, the film is actually as comparable to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as I thought it would be. The visuals and effects work were congruous and dynamic enough to draw my attention to the subtleties in what they depicted. I accepted implicitly that armoured bears and nefarious golden monkeys ran amok in the world, and turned my eye to how they behaved. The technical aspects of filmmaking, at the very least, proved themselves ready to embrace Pullman’s imagination.

Most of my concerns were in this way assuaged. There was occasionally a bit of confusion as to when Pan was speaking, and whether his interior conversations with Lyra could be overheard by anybody else, but apart from that, the daemons figured in beautifully as an external manifestation of how characters felt and interacted. And it certainly helped that Dakota Blue Richards became one and the same as her enormously challenging character: she is the first and best argument for the New Line to go ahead with the next two films straightaway.

Visually, I actually have few concerns at all apart from the suffusion of blue that took a lot of colour out of the night shots near the end, a cinematographic issue that also detracted slightly from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The musical score by Alexandre Desplat (Oscar-nominated for The Queen) definitely had its moments, but there were more than a few scenes in which it should have backed off. It suffices, but I was hoping it would more than suffice.

In a film adaptation of this sort, there is inevitably a certain loss of exposition. As a minor case, Lyra’s endeavour to set up a duel between Iorek and the usurper king of the bears (in the book, Iofur; in the film, Ragnar) doesn’t feel nearly as risky when we’re not given the disclaimer that typically, bears can’t be tricked. But we still receive a very concise sense of more important elements, like the Magisterium’s perceived connection between Dust and sin (and all of the hermeneutic consequences for myth-readers familiar with metaphors for menstruation and circumcision), which are necessary if the motives behind their daemon-cutting experiments are to be at all coherent.

Pullman’s anti-dogmatic message is in the film, and it’s explicit to the point of almost overcompensating for the initial suspicions that Weitz would be handling the Magisterium with kid gloves. I can see why Weitz isn’t writing The Subtle Knife, though: there’s a lot of “filler” dialogue, fully interchangeable with that of any other story where the hopes and fears of adventure-seeking children are involved.

All in all, though, I admire what’s in the film, and I’m going to see it again to see if it sticks. But the ending just kills it. And I don’t think this is just a matter of being suddenly let down after 113 minutes of highly satisfying development. (And Lyra is the one who’s supposed to be let down, not me.)

The ending’s absence doesn’t take away from the quality of what’s there, but consider this model of causation: a) Someone who hasn’t read the book smacks into the ending, thinks to himself, “How drab,” and doesn’t recommend it; ticket sales drop. b) Someone who has read the book smacks into the ending, thinks to himself, “Movies have violated the memory of one of my favourite novels once again!” (not my opinion, but I’m aware of how many devoted readers overwhelmingly harbour a prejudice against movies that dare to deviate from their sources, as if they were some kind of parasite to be exterminated) and doesn’t recommend it; ticket sales drop.

In either case, the decision to lop off the ending of The Golden Compass damages the possibility that The Subtle Knife will take a pocketful of New Line’s funding and come to the rescue. And even if they do go ahead with the next film, working in the climax of Pullman’s novel is going to be a considerable challenge. Pullman’s structure is abundantly clear: the first book is set in Lyra’s world, the second book begins in our world, and the third book offers a pan-universal tour of existence itself. Are we now going to have the crossing of the worlds at the beginning of the next film, without the benefit of two hours of solid buildup, followed by a massive gap in which Will Parry runs around and does his thing while we wonder what in the blazes happened to Lyra? Colour me a concerned citizen.

With that in mind, I hope the next two films go ahead, and that the incorporation of the first book’s ending makes sense. The Golden Compass was so close to hitting the mark, and we deserve to see the story completed. They have the right designers on the project, and more importantly, the right actress. Apart from the ending, I’m very happy with the film and I want to see more. Closure would be nice.

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2 rejoinders to “Alas, poor Iorek”

  1. Nick, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. As soon as the credits came up, I felt like I was kicked in the face – but everything to that point was as good as it could be.

    I speculated that they didn’t complete the ending because people can’t handle sad movies – and really, you don’t feel good about the end of the Golden Compass.

    Sunday, 9 December 2007 at 9:22am

  2. I’ve done a bit of further research, and it appears that they filmed the ending and even completed some effects work; I’m told that snippets of the climax appear in the trailers. They only cut it after test audiences didn’t respond well. Some interviews suggest that the ending might end up on the DVD if New Line does not, in fact, finance the second film (which would be a tragedy, but a conceivable one, because although the film opened at #1, it was nowhere near blockbuster territory).

    While I maintain that the film would have been far superior if it had the guts to deliver the ending in the book, I just watched it a second time, and it’s actually even better if you know in advance where it ends. The pacing choices make more sense, and the last scene does lay out a lot of what is to come. I’m satisfied with the movie on the whole, but they’d better make the other two, or else.

    Tuesday, 11 December 2007 at 11:42pm

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