Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2007

Sized-down

Wordy, vague 'Golden Compass' doesn't hold up to other epics...or other movies, for that matter

The Golden Compass
New Line Cinema
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman
Starring: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliott and the voices of Ian McKellen, Freddie Highmore, Ian McShane and Kathy Bates
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Opens December 7, 2007
(out of four)

Thanks, Peter Jackson. Thanks a lot. Just look at what you've spawned.

I know, I know, you're an insanely talented filmmaker and you make three-hour fantasy epics look easy. I can't fault you for that. But just look at the mess you've caused. Now everyone thinks they can do it. Apparently, this kind of thing can't be taught or even imitated.

Yes, like the special effects-laden action blockbuster in summer and the please-give-me-an-Oscar biopic in the fall, the big fantasy epic has become a tradition of the holiday season. In 2005, it was The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was fine the first time but got completely upstaged just a few days later by Jackson's own King Kong, which made Narnia look like a Roger Corman production by comparison.

Then last year we (meaning me and the nine other people who saw it) had to suffer through Eragon, whose 16% Tomatometer rating speaks for itself. And for this magical holiday season, we get The Golden Compass, which writer/director Chris Weitz has stripped of all magic, cohesion and intelligence. Come on, Peter Jackson - I don't care if it's The Hobbit or something completely new, but once you're done adapting that crappy Alice Sebold book (which will inevitably be better than its source material), we need you back. At least once more, show these people how it's done.

Apparently, Weitz thinks the way to go about it is through relentless exposition, half-developed characters and action sequences that mean absolutely nothing. One movie cannot define a filmmaker, but The Golden Compass certainly seems to overwhelm Weitz, who candidly admitted that he couldn't pull off such a large-scale project when he first quit the film, before returning a year-and-a-half later after his replacement, Anand Tucker, also quit.

Adapted from the first installment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass is theoretically about a young girl's struggle to retain her innocence (and her soul) against the conspiratorial forces of authoritarian rule. Her name is Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) and, like everyone else in this world, she's accompanied at all times by her daemon, which personifies her soul. When children are young, their daemons can change shape and species before they eventually settle on one as the child ascends into adulthood.

(They also, apparently, are good for whispering completely obvious hints of advice that neither Lyra nor the audience needs.)

The ominous Magisterium - which represents a sort of neo-religious, theocratic syndicate that intends to control people's thoughts and actions, though all references to God and religion have been excised in the film version - is the villain, and the powers-that-be have been secretly abducting children and trying to separate them from their daemons, a grueling physical and spiritual process.

Of course, like those in religious or political authority who abuse their power, it's all for the children's own good.

Now if only we understood - or better yet, felt - what was actually at stake. Instead, we get loosely explained plot points that lead to other loosely explained plot points. We don't get to explore anything. And for all the exposition, we don't even really get to understand anything except in the vaguest of terms. We understand only what we need to understand in order to follow the plotline. Everything else is just details, and the screenplay conveniently left those out.

What I'd really like to see is someone like Jackson - to use the most obvious example - write a self-help book for up-and-coming filmmakers who want to direct fantasy epics. Or maybe a 12-month training session, complete with a leadership training retreat. As it is, we'll just have to settle for a few of my handy do-it-yourself tips:

1. When trying to set up a conflict or narrative dynamic intended to drive the story forward for two hours, it helps if you explain what in the world you're talking about.

In The Golden Compass, cryptic terms or entities like "dust" and "Gyptians" are thrown around without any significant explanation or exploration whatsoever. Nor is there any real development of the things we can understand - like witches, demons and thinly-veiled figures of religious authority. For a movie whose almost every line of dialogue is expository, you'd think the script would have, at some point, gotten around to explaining things to us.

On a side note, a script written by Oscar winner, Tony winner and Brazil co-writer Tom Stoppard was rejected by Weitz. Just thought I'd mention it.

2. When you hire actors the caliber of Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman...use them.

In this case, Craig's heroic Lord Asriel - Lyra's noble uncle - all but disappears from the movie about 25 minutes in. But even the little screen time that Craig has is wasted on a severely under-written character. It's a waste of Craig's talent. And his salary.

Kidman, meanwhile, as the aptly named, evil Ms. Coulter, looks regal, cold, calculating and appropriately ominous - but the development of her character is such that she's supposed to walk around looking regal, cold, calculating and appropriately ominous. So it's an easy trick.

3. Assume your audience is not among the Baby Einstein / Veggie Tales set.

Really, I don't care how cute and adorable the CGI animal sidekicks are - you really mustn't make these adorable little creatures say stupid, obvious things that both the audience and the characters have already figured out.

For example: If Lyra is in danger, don't have her daemon say, "We need to get out of here!"

Example No. 2: If a clearly devilish character is trying to explain away the insidious doings of the film's villains, don't have her daemon say, "Liar!"

4. Do not, under any circumstances, have an animated polar bear with the noble, kingly, naturally seductive British voice of Ian McKellen say to an 11-year-old girl, "You want to ride me?"

It will only provoke laughter and discomfort.

When creating major action set-pieces - say, between a talking Armored Bear who wants to regain his nobility by fighting his greatest nemesis - you should probably make sure it has something to do with the rest of the story. Otherwise, it's not a setpiece anymore - it's just gratuitous.

6. More Eva Green.

7. More Eva Green.

8. When designing talking, computer-generated animals - polar bears, for instance - it would be best if they didn't conjure images of a certain animated mascot of a certain delicious and world-famous soft drink. It's 2007 - let's put a little effort into our CGI, shall we?

The best news, for all of us, is that the film also ends with a cheap set-up for an inevitable sequel. So if it weren't already enough that the film was lifeless as it is, Weitz has deprived us of even a simple payoff. Well-done.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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