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Whenever I'm planning to write on a movie that's a literary adaptation of a major work, I typically read the book first. As a result, I've read some fine books this fall: Ian McEwan's Atonement, Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But when it came to The Golden Compass, writer/director Chris Weitz's adaptation of the first book in the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, I wanted to go in knowing as little about the source material as possible. Not just because getting through the 700-plus pages of the trilogy would have required a month's leave, but because Pullman's fictional universe seemed so sui generis, so dazzlingly weird, that I wanted to see if the movie could establish that universe's laws and logic on its own terms.
I'm here to tell you that, without at least a working knowledge of the Dark Materials cosmos, Weitz's adaptation is a near-impenetrable murk, a blur of CGI beasties, shimmering dust clouds, and vaguely mystical blather. To prove my point, I'll try to describe the plot without any recourse to what I know of the books: An orphan girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is being brought up as the ward of an institution known as Jordan College. It's run by a priestlike cabal known as the Magisterium (we know they must be bad because they're headed up by Simon McBurney, the go-to character actor for your bloodless-bureaucrat needs). During a visit from her uncle, the mysterious scientist Lord Asriel (an underemployedDaniel Craig), Lyra comes into possession of the golden compass, a kind of cosmological BlackBerry that can access any piece of knowledge from past, present, or future. Lyra, tipped off by the compass that she's destined to discover why children are being abducted to the Arctic North, takes off in a zeppelin with the beautiful but remote Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a trustee of the college who's somehow in league with the Magisterium.
I confess that I may have taken a tiny nap at this point (the swirling Alexandre Desplat score was making me drowsy), but somehow we end up in Norway, where Lyra, having escaped the increasingly menacing Mrs. Coulter, befriends a disgraced bear-king named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) and a wise Texan aeronaut, Mr. Scoresby (Sam Elliot). After Iorek wins back his bear kingdom in a battle with the foolish King Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane), this merry band sets out for points farther north, where they must rescue the kidnapped children from becoming guinea pigs in an unspeakable experiment.
That lengthy précis represents only a skimpy description of the film's story. But as incoherent as my summary may seem, it's nowhere near as cursory as the treatment Weitz's adaptation gives to the novel. After several post-movie conversations with Pullman fans (all of which were twice as entertaining and enlightening as the movie itself), I've gathered that His Dark Materials is a vastly ambitious rewrite of the Book of Genesis, enacting the fall of man in reverse as Lyra, the new Eve, discovers that the possibility of sin, and of sexuality, represents not a flaw in creation but rather the source of all human power. Christian activists who fear that this movie will spread the books' anti-clerical, pro-sex message can relax in the knowledge that not a scrap of Pullman's theology has made it through the Hollywood blandification machine. New Line should market the film to churches with the tag line: "Not only won't you be offended by The Golden Compass, you'll have no idea what's going on!"
In one of the few ideas that has survived intact from the book, each human being in Lyra's world has a daemon, an animal that follows them around like a kind of external soul. It's a magnificent conceit, and one that's stunningly rendered by juxtaposing computer-animated animals with live actors. (Nicole Kidman's daemon is an obsequious gold monkey and Daniel Craig's, fittingly, an elegant snow leopard.) The all-CGI battle of the bears (or "clash of the Ians," as McKellen and McShane compete for the title of Most Regal Ursine Voice) is the film's central set piece and its most exciting moment. But without knowing more about the stakes of this fight and the place of the bear kingdom in the human world, even this thrilling scene adds up to little more than a jaunty animal fight downloaded from YouTube.
Even I know enough about Pullman's books to know that a movie adaptation of the series could have been something truly beautiful and strange, a myth about a child's quest to liberate the human race from God. Instead, The Golden Compass is a tepid, jumbled Hollywood fable whose final message seems to amount to little more than "Follow your dreams," or worse, "Stay tuned for the sequel."