20 July 2006

Seeking direction on The Golden Compass

On Sunday, Variety magazine analyzed the challenges, technical and financial, in filming Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass (a/k/a Northern Lights) this fall.

Among the obstacles ahead are "over 800 CGI shots," no worldwide brand of the magnitude that New Line could count on for its Tolkien trilogy, and finding just the right polar bear to play Iorek Byrnison. (All right, that last one isn't in the article.)

Variety also lists this as a challenge: "There is a decidedly anti-authority tone to the stories. (Because of Pullman's atheist beliefs, some have interpreted this as anti-organized religion, but for him, it's a metaphor for any controlling organization.)" In other words, there are no more problems with organized religion than with any other organization that tries to make people think and behave in a certain way to benefit its leaders. Evangelical moviegoers are so open-minded that few will have a problem with that, right?

Ironic that we audiences can cheer for the rebellion in Star Wars, for defying government authorities in E.T., for breaking down class lines and etiquette in Titanic, for maritime criminals in Pirates of the Caribbean--but an "anti-authority tone" might be a problem when it comes to a fictional church.

The detail from the Variety article that seems most ominous to me is:

New Line, which hardly ever goes over $40 million on a budget, hasn't yet committed to filming the other books in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
As we recall, the first book ends with Lyra flying up Some of you haven't read it? Please, run, run, like a bunny to the library and get yourself a copy.

In the meantime, The Golden Compass is clearly the first part of a trilogy. It ends with important threads unresolved and the heroine heading off to a new, strange world. Hollywood won't be able to give viewers a satisfying ending without changing the book's story, but New Line's not yet ready to commit to the full trilogy.

Perhaps we'll end up with two endings for The Golden Compass: one for the standalone version, in case it doesn't make enough money to warrant a sequel, and one to lead into The Subtle Knife. After all, the unscreened ending could always go on the DVD.


John L said...

Hi, this is my first posting here.

It's interesting that the "obstacles" named by New Line are about branding, CGI and politics, and not about the huge storytelling challenges of bringing this tale to the screen.

Lord of the Rings was pretty straightforward as a book, even though its world was invented. The Golden Compass trilogy contains so many abstract concepts, from daemons to dust to parallel worlds. I would even go so far as to say it's "unfilmable" without losing much of its richness. (Though it's some consolation that a movie usually prompts people to go read the actual book.)

J. L. Bell said...

Good points about translating the universe of The Golden Compass into a movie-length entertainment.

On reflection, I think Philip Pullman has actually paved the way for a movie adaptation. The daemons and dust are abstract concepts made physical. It might well be easier to for filmmakers to communicate how a daemon works than it was for Pullman on the page.

We'll see Pantalamion change shapes, speak to Lyra, and so on. If we're lucky, we'll see Will cut holes from one universe to another. And in those cases, a thousand pictures strung together as a movie shot might be worth a million words.