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Book Vs. Film: The Golden Compass

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

Book: The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, 1995

Film: The Golden Compass, adapted and directed by Chris Weitz, 2007


The first thing Keith Phipps said to me after the critics' screening of The Golden Compass was "But… where's the rest of the film?" Presumably a lot of Philip Pullman fans have already had the same experience. There are so many alterations between the book and the film that I could go on about them all day without actually getting anywhere, but the two most likely to annoy hardcore Pullman readers come at the very beginning and end of the film. And they both typify the way in which the film version has been dumbed down and softened up for younger kids and slower or more sensitive adults; the film version bevels off a lot of the story's edges, intellectually and emotionally. Which isn't terribly surprising; the film was a $180 million gamble for New Line, and of course the studio was going to insist on a final product that was palatable for as broad a family audience as possible.

Still, for those who've read the book, it can be difficult not to wince at some of the bowdlerization. Like the beginning: Pullman opens his book without explanation, with young protagonist Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards in the movie) exploring a forbidden room at Jordan College, where she lives. She's accompanied by her daemon, Pantalaimon, "currently in the form of a moth." Pullman offers no explanation whatsoever of what a daemon is, what it can do, or what's going on: He cuts straight to the action, wherein Lyra spies on an attempt to poison her "uncle," Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig in the film). After warning him, she watches from inside a wardrobe as he gives a presentation about a mysterious substance called Dust. Throughout the book, the nature of daemons only gradually becomes clear; when events warrant it, Pullman will drop tantalizing hints, explaining for instance that servants' daemons are always dogs, or that it's hugely taboo to touch another person's daemon. And he shows rather than tells how much people's daemons mean to them, largely through Lyra's relationship with Pantalaimon. Dust, meanwhile, remains the vast mystery of the series: What it really is, what it does, what it means. While Pullman offers a big explanation of Dust at the very end of The Golden Compass, its full nature still isn't clear; he saves some revelations for the other two books of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.


The movie, on the other hand, starts with some flat narration explaining in a bare sentence or two the exact nature of daemons, Dust, and the key tenets of the whole series–including one that doesn't even become relevant in this film, because the ending scenes that would have made that idea meaningful have been cut. So much for mystery.

And the ending… well, we'll get to that later.

For what it's worth, I liked the film version of The Golden Compass better than Keith did. While it's flawed and clumsy in places, it's still dynamic and absorbing onscreen, particularly in its all-action second half. But it's still practically a textbook example of a really common book-to-film adaptation mistake. By failing to trust viewers to stick with a story and pick up on things as they become relevant, it winds up overexplaining, oversimplifying, and dropping into klutzy exposition mode.


So The Golden Compass the film tells you baldly up front everything that the novel is trying to get you to wonder about and to explore slowly. That sets the scene for a film version that blurs past most of the in-depth exploration of any one given place, character, event, or situation. In large part, the film is a thrill ride that bounces from one locale to the next at breakneck speed, where the book spends weeks or months in each of those locales, as Pullman sums up the environment and the action with long descriptive passages:

In many ways, Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars, or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war. Just as she was unaware of the hidden currents of politics running below the surface of College affairs, so the Scholars, for their part, would have been unable to see the rich, seething stew of alliances and enmities and feuds and treaties which was a child's life in Oxford. Children playing together: how pleasant to see! What could be more innocent and charming?


In fact, of course, Lyra and her peers were engaged in deadly warfare. There were several wars running at once. The children (young servants, and the children of servants, and Lyra) of one College waged war on those of another. Lyra had once been captured by the children of Gabriel College, and Roger and their friends Hugh Lovat and Simon Parslow had raided the place to rescue her, creeping through the Precentors' garden and gathering armfuls of small, stone-hard plums to throw at the kidnappers. There were twenty-four colleges, which allowed for endless permutations of alliance and betrayal. But the enmity between the colleges was forgotten in a moment when the town children attacked a colleger: then all the collegers banded together and went into battle against the townies. This rivalry was hundreds of years old, and very deep and satisfying…

That was Lyra's world and her delight. She was a coarse and greedy little savage, for the most part. But she always had a dim sense that it wasn't her whole world; that part of her also belonged in the grandeur and ritual of Jordan College; and that somewhere in her life there was a connection with the high world of politics represented by Lord Asriel. All she did with that knowledge was to give herself airs and lord it over the other urchins. It had never occurred to her to find out more.


So she had passed her childhood, like a half-wild cat.

There's no good way to get that kind of density into a film, except through more narration (which I'm happy enough without, thanks) or through illustration by example, which the film generally uses instead. For instance, the whole scene with Lyra and Roger playing Gobblers with the gyptian kids, whom she foists off with an abrupt, invented story about a poison dress, isn't in the book; it's an invention that specifically illustrates what a crafty liar and leader she is, and that reduces book descriptions like the above down to a form that plays well onscreen.


Which, I think, is one reason why I have a lot of tolerance for the film version of The Golden Compass, even though it was intermittently disappointing and overall alarming in terms of what it portends for the film versions of the next two books. Like J.K. Rowling would later do with the Harry Potter novels, Pullman started comparatively gently by easing his readers into a dense, vivid, relatively bright fantasy world, then progressively getting darker and bleaker as the story continued. If Golden Compass has to be this bowdlerized to make it to the screen, it's a fair bet that its sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, are going to be increasingly unrecognizable onscreen. (Then again, considering Compass's disappointing box office so far, it's looking pretty unlikely that they'll ever get made.) I feel like writer-director Chris Weitz means well. He's actually trying to respect the book by capturing some of its expansive tones in specific invented scenes, rather than glossing over them altogether. At the same time, from what I've read about the adaptation process, it seems like he was operating under a strict studio hand, one that certainly wasn't going to let him threaten New Line's profit margins with a depressing film that killed off children and God with equal abandon.

Golden Compass has drawn a lot of flak from church groups over the killing-God thing, incidentally, and I can only presume that, as usual, most of the people protesting haven't actually read the books, since Golden Compass not only doesn't deal with killing God, it doesn't even start touching on theology. It's a gateway book, a high adventure without a whole lot of controversy. The God-killing stuff comes at the end of the third book in the series. And it isn't likely to make it into the film version anyway.


But that gets into some of the specific altered elements of the middle bit of the film, so we might as well cover some of those. Here's the main one: In the book, the Magisterium is barely mentioned. In the film, it's a front-and-center fascist organization that's trying to run everyone's lives. It's responsible for all the evil done in the film, and it has specific agents who appear onscreen to deliver ominous, heavy-handed lines like "[We] keep things working by telling people what to do. In a kindly way, to keep them out of danger." And "We will produce a generation at peace with themselves. One that will never question our authority again." Thank you, clumsy, exaggerated sense of drama. It's pretty clear that the Magisterium is being set up as the Big Bad of the theoretical film trilogy; presumably instead of killing God at the end of the third film, Lyra and her allies are meant to break the Magisterium's power and call it good. Because fighting an über-fascist theocratic oligarchy that combines elements of the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church is much less controversial than killing God, apparently.

(Can I just mention one thing here? The Catholic League has denounced Golden Compass as anti-Catholic. Supporters of the film have jeered at this because the film doesn't ever use the word "Catholic." Uh-huh. That's one of the most ludicrously disingenuous arguments I've ever heard. The Magisterium is a hierarchical organization of formally robed, iconography-heavy priests who dictate and define morality for their followers, are based out of cathedrals, and decry teachings counter to theirs as "heresy." If you want to get really crude about it, they're also doing ugly things to children under cover of secrecy. Who are most people going to think of besides the Catholic Church? Granted, they're likely to think of the Catholic Church circa the 1600s, but then, I think a lot of non-Catholics today have a vague image of the Church that's closer to what it was in the 1600s than what it is today. And no, I'm not Catholic.)


That aside. The Magisterium is clearly being set up as a straw enemy, and it's done pretty clumsily, with a child's sense of morality: The bad guys wear black, lurk around smiling evilly, and repeatedly talk about how everyone has to do what they say, just because, or else. (Also, it's a Magisterium agent who tries to poison Lord Asriel at the beginning of the film, whereas in the book, it was the Master of Jordan College, who seems to be mostly a good guy, but was doing it for complicated political reasons.)

As I said, I could go on about the alterations between the book and the film all day without getting anywhere meaningful, so I'm not going to try to be comprehensive. But here are a few of the more significant ones:

• The book rarely strays from Lyra; it's her story first and foremost. There are a very few exceptions, where we get an important conversation between Jordan College Scholars privately explaining politics that would go over Lyra's head, or where we see how Mrs. Coulter (played by Nicole Kidman in the film) seduces and cozens children into coming with her and getting shipped north for creepy Dust-related experiments. (In the movie, it's more a violent snatch-and-grab operation.) Oddly, while the movie tries harder to emphasize Lyra as important and special and unique–for instance, she's often depicted as alone and off by herself, even when she's on the deck of a manned ship or somewhere else that should be full of people–it also leaves her perspective more often, for extra sequences that show the Magisterium plotting and being evil behind the scenes, or extra action, like the scene where Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) fights his would-be captors in the north.


• At the same time, the film unfortunately omits some potentially cool action scenes, like the one where Lyra falls out of the sky-balloon and winds up in the bears' kingdom because the balloon is assaulted by "cliff-ghasts." The film mixes up the chronology a bit–for instance, in the book, she's kidnapped by Tartars and sold to Bolvanger, whereas in the film, she heads there with her polar-bear ally Iorek Byrnison, but they're separated when she walks along an ice bridge that collapses under her weight. The ice-bridge scene does appear in the book, but it's part of the dramatic conclusion that the film omits. There are many, many places like that where the film messes with chronology or elides over a bunch of plot or character development in order to get people someplace faster or more dramatically. But I was sorry to see the cliff-ghasts eliminated, along with most of the other weird fairy-tale creatures distinguishing Lyra's world from our own.

• The book comes out with Lyra's true parentage fairly early; the film holds onto it until near the end, for dramatic impact. And yet the actual story is much more dramatic in the book, due to all the history between Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and the revelation that Lord Asriel killed Mr. Coulter to protect Lyra from his wrath once he learned about the adultery that produced her.


• In the book, Lyra's alethiometer–the magical compass-like truth-telling device that gives the book and film their name–is repeatedly described as a "symbol-reader." When Lyra asks it a question, its hands swing around to point at various symbols, which she has to interpret. While she shows a natural instinct at figuring out what its messages mean, it takes some time and effort to learn to read. Whereas in the film, she asks it questions and it shows her magical golden visions, and she uses it right the first time she tries. This seems like a fairly necessary change, given the visual nature of film, but I got hugely sick of it early on, especially since she consults the alethiometer a lot, and every single time, we get the same computer-animated flashes of gold sparkles with faces mixed in. I thought that kind of constant re-use of specific animated sequences went out of style 20 years ago, and in a $180 million movie, it's pretty unforgivable. Also, whereas in the book, alethiometer-reading is portrayed as an esoteric skill that few people can manage–which is why the adults keep taking Lyra along on their dangerous adventures, since she can discover truths none of them can–the film makes it seem about as difficult as flipping a light switch.

• The concept of "severing"–cutting a child loose from his or her daemon–is fairly key to both book and movie, though the book takes greater pains to make it clear how utterly horrifying this is for anyone non-evil to contemplate. In the movie, it's never made clear what happens to a daemon after it's severed from its human. In the book, there's a terribly sad scene where Lyra gets loose in Bolvanger and finds a repository where dozens of severed, faded daemons are being kept in glass canisters. She frees them, and sends them off to look for their children, though it's emphasized that they'll never be properly connected again.


• In the film, the "severed child" that Lyra and Iorek Byrnison find and bring back to the gyptian camp is a childhood friend of Lyra's, seen early in the film. In the book, he's a stranger to her, though we do see him captured by Mrs. Coulter early on, to emphasize how she works. In the film, once Lyra gets him back to camp, the adults have a moment of "Oh, that's horrible," and then a big battle instantly starts, and it's never clear what happens to the boy. Whereas in the book, she brings him back to camp, there's a great deal of comment and horror over him, and then he dies that night. Lyra is deeply touched by this, and goes through a ritual with the dead child akin to one done at her home, Jordan College. I can see why it wasn't included in the film–dead kids and funeral rituals don't make for good populist kids' movies. But the passage in the book is one of my favorites, and I'm including it here to make it clear exactly how much emotion and characterization is being lost in the film's slick, quick version of events:

Pantalaimon crept close as Lyra looked down on the poor wasted face. She slipped her hand out of the mitten and touched his eyes. They were marble-cold, and Farder Coram had been right; poor little Tony Makarios was no different from any other human whose daemon had departed in death. Oh, if they took Pantalaimon from her! She swept him up and hugged him as if she meant to press him right into her heart. And all little Tony had was his pitiful piece of fish…


Where was it?

She pulled the blanket down. It was gone.

She was on her feet in a moment, and her eyes flashed fury at the men nearby.

"Where's his fish?"

They stopped, puzzled, unsure what she meant; though some of their daemons knew, and looked at one another. One of the men began to grin uncertainly.


"Don't you dare laugh! I'll tear your lungs out if you laugh at him! That's all he had to cling onto, just an old dried fish, that's all he had for a daemon to love and be kind to! Who's took it from him? Where's it gone?"

Pantalaimon was a snarling snow leopard, just like Lord Asriel's daemon, but she didn't see that; all she saw was right and wrong.


"Easy, Lyra," said one man. "Easy, child."

"Who's took it?" she flared again, and the gyptian took a step back from her passionate fury.


"I don't know," said another man apologetically. "I thought it was just what he'd been eating. I took it out his hands because I thought it was more respectful. That's all, Lyra."

"Then where is it?"

The man said uneasily, "Not thinking he had a need for it, I gave it to my dogs. I do beg your pardon."


"It en't my pardon you need, it's his," she said, and turned at once to kneel again, and laid her hand on the dead child's icy cheek.

Then an idea came to her, and she fumbled inside her furs. The cold air struck through as she opened her anorak, but in a few seconds she had what she wanted, and took a gold coin from her purse before wrapping herself close again.


"I want to borrow your knife," she said to the man who'd taken the fish, and when he'd let her have it, she said to Pantalaimon: "What's her name?"

He understood, of course, and said, "Ratter."

She held the coin tight in her mittened hand and, holding the knife like a pencil, scratched the lost daemon's name deeply into the gold.


"I hope that'll do, if I provide for you like a Jordan Scholar," she whispered to the dead boy, and forced his teeth apart to slip the coin into his mouth. It was hard, but she managed it, and managed to close his jaw again.

Then she gave the man back his knife and turned in the morning twilight to go back to Farder Corum.


I think in the end, that really sums it up better than 20 more bullet-pointed differences between the film and the book. In essence, the film is the quickie Cliffs Notes version of the story, emphasizing action and conflict, and inventing a simple group of human antagonists to replace the book's more chaotic dynamic, where there's never a single simple villain behind everything. Whereas the book makes everything more complicated, grimmer, and more adult.

Oh, and the ending Keith was missing out on? The film ends with Lyra, Roger, and her various allies heading off to the north to save her father Lord Asriel. There's some rousing narration about how she and her friends will "set things right," and "just let them try to stop us." It's sort of an attempt to go out with a big bang, while leaving things open for the sequel.


The book's ending, on the other hand, is much darker. And I'm afraid I'm not going to spoil it here, in part because it's presumably going to come up if a film version of The Subtle Knife is ever made, and in part because the book does it really well, and it's a big surprise, and it'd be a shame to give away the twist in a bare sentence or two. But just so's you know, it involves Lyra getting to Lord Asriel, and finding out his intentions aren't anything like what she thought they were. She sees her parents reunited, learns a lot more about their relationship, and winds up heading off into another universe through a rift, still intending to "set things right," still obviously setting up for a sequel. And all that is a huge, huge omission for the movie.

Once again, I understand why Chris Weitz and New Line Cinema didn't want to end the book on a big downer note. But still, it's sort of as though Star Wars had ended with the rebels heading off hopefully toward the Death Star, plans in hand, fairly sure they'd be able to blow it up. So I certainly understand Keith's disappointment too.


What the book does better: Depth, depth, depth. Any given character or setting or culture or relationship or creature you want to know more about after seeing it flit by briefly in the film? Read the book.

What the film does better: The thing that struck me most powerfully about the film was the battles. The book explains that daemons poof into nonexistence when their humans die, but the film illustrates this by having them come apart in a Catherine-wheel shower of golden sparks. It's beautiful, but also conceptually amazing, because every time you see one of those pretty fireworks, you know someone has just croaked. In a film made for kids–and, as I said earlier, with most of the edges sanded off–it's pretty easy to see a big combat scene and not think about the death toll, or think "Well, that guy's probably just wounded, and that guy's probably just unconscious…" (Kid cartoons of the '80s, where armies could shoot at each other all day without ever hitting each other, and no one ever died in battle, really encourage this kind of mentality.) In Golden Compass, you practically have a running death count in shining golden letters at the top of the screen. It's particularly striking when Iorek Byrnison is laying about himself with both paws; every time he moves, someone dies. Typically enough, the film is more dynamic and visually oriented than the book, but this was a particularly telling detail.


That, and Iorek Byrnison is really well done. The film gives an excellent sense of his size and power, his nobility and animal sense of justice, and the viscerality that the book emphasizes.

Petty little altered detail: In the book, Lyra Belacqua's alethiometer is one of only six left in the world. In the film, it's repeatedly emphasized that hers is the very! Last! One! Why, thank you again, clumsy exaggerated sense of drama. Also, at one point it's implied that the Magisterium glommed up all the others, presumably in order to further deny The Truth to The People, because fascism and evil are awesome, yo.


Does the film version "get" the book? I want to say that Chris Weitz does, but that he wasn't really free to adapt the book as it's written. But that's just a guess on my part, from reading between the lines of his interviews. The film version doesn't do a terrible job with the book, but it's a hollow, rushed version of the story.

Book, film, neither, or both? Indubitably the book. Far more expansive, more beautiful, and more challenging, and less intended as a kid-safe thrill ride.


Next time on Book Vs. Film:


And coming soon:


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