‘Compass’ points trilogy in right direction | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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‘Compass’ points trilogy in right direction

Dan Thomas

I’m a guy who spends a lot of time at the movies, as well as the new arts and entertainment writer for a publication that already has a movie reviewer.

So I see one of my challenges as staying on my toes and off Howie Nave’s. Fortunately for me, “The Golden Compass” just opened at the theaters the week after I moved back to Tahoe and about two weeks after I read it. (And I’m about halfway through “The Subtle Knife,” the second book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.) All that means, in addition to getting to go to the movies on the clock, I get to write a take on “The Golden Compass” that’s less of a review and more of a guide to the movie of the same name – and how it dovetails with the book.

Howie handled the basics and the bagels (www.tahoedailytribune.com/article/20071207/ENTERTAINMENT/112070065), rating the movie at four on his five-point scale. Beyond that, it’s a faithful, if not by-the-numbers, companion piece to the book.

In adapting “The Golden Compass,” Chris Weitz (who not only wrote the “American Pie” trilogy but also grew up into “About a Boy” and “In Good Company”) pushed the tempo, rearranged the timeline and provided an introduction that’s not in the book, usually to good effect.

That introduction helps offset Weitz’s condensing the book for the screen, and it addressed one of the big questions I had about the adaptation.

I was curious how the movie would handle the “daemons,” a key concept that I though would be exceedingly difficult to translate to the screen, even with special effects. The tricky part is that the daemon – part of a person’s soul living outside the body – can shift fluidly among animal forms until its person reaches puberty, at which point the daemon locks into one animal that reveals something about the person.

Got it?

If that sounds confusing, Weitz provides surprising clarity, except for the shape-shifting: I wonder if I’d understand why Pantalaimon, the main character’s daemon, alternates between insect, bird, feline and ermine forms every few seconds if I hadn’t read the book beforehand.

Some critics have also compared the trilogy to “The Lord of the Rings,” and while both are darker than, say, Harry Potter, Weitz’s adaptation actually seems to lighten up “His Dark Materials.” While the centerpiece battle between armored polar bears is pretty intense, the first movie ends before the first book’s final twist toward darkness, and it soft-peddles some of Pullman’s themes.

Conventional wisdom characterizes Pullman as an atheist, or at least a free-thinking skeptic. And I ran across the following passages in “The Subtle Knife”:

“For all of (the Church’s) history … it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. … That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

And while it might be a breath of fresh air to many people, the very concept of kid-friendly atheism certainly will unsettle some parents. And the fact that the movie pronounces “daemon” as “demon” (instead of like the first names of Messrs. Albarn, Dash and Runyon), might even bother some others.

But maybe the real measure of how a kids’ movie works isn’t how many children it turns on to atheism. Rather, it’s how successfully it translates Pullman’s vision to the screen (or, more cynically how many stuffed armored bears or Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans or volumes of Lewis it sells).

The first Narnia chronicle felt like a complete movie on its own (even with “Prince Caspian” due out in 2008), while the first installment of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” did little more for me than set the table: One thing I’ve noticed about kids trilogies or heptologies (or whatever you call a series of 13 installments, in the case of “A Series of Unfortunate Events”) is that first installment always has so much work to do introducing the peculiar mythology of Hogwarts or Narnia that it’s hard to advance the plot.

“The Golden Compass” seems to fall in the middle of those two extremes: It’s a rollicking introduction, but to go deeper and try to get at what Pullman was really after, I’ll probably go back to the books.


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