Archive for December 2007

LOTR, what hath thou wrought?

Cathy and I have taken the day [Dec 21] and enjoyed lunch and a movie. We checked out the new movie multiplex completed at the mall. Cathy selected the film: “The Golden Compass”, the latest fantasy flick based on a cult favorite, in this case the trilogy (always in threes they come, to paraphrase Yoda) by Phillip Pullman. Cathy had read the books, so she came in with an expectation. I, however, had not, so I had to get the jist right off the bat.

On the whole it was pretty good: Visually stunning, the film provides great variety, at times sleek and modern, or rural and rough, or modern and sleek. The effects were top-notch, especially the animals. And the film has a fairly mature set of subtexts in a genre that has typically been simplistic (i.e. for kids).

With that, I was still a bit underwhelmed. I kind of wonder why. A film with this kind of visual and plotline should leave me gripped. Is it me, or is it the post Lord of the Rings era in which we live.

LOTR not only set the bar for filmmaking in general, but for the fantasy genre in total. It looks, however, like any fantasy outing becomes “the next LOTR series”. From what little I’ve read about the Pullman series, it comes across as a more socially relevant fantasy than Tolkien (with its thinly obscured views on academia, government, and religion). Tolkien and his supporters have always furthered the position that his works were not analogies to modern concerns (with perhaps a pass on his obvious disdain of industrialized society’s relationship with nature), so this foray would be a nice change from the LOTR milieu.

But its hard to see it as such. The effects throughout just invite comparisons to LOTR. And getting through this surface barrier is tough. I did at points find myself looking at the screen and thinking, “ah, that’s a LOTR effect”.

The settings do disabiguate it from the LOTR look a bit more. Set in a parallel universe in a parallel England in a sort of future time that’s art deco, “Golden Compass” gets to model more of our actual real world, whereas the LOTR series can only create worlds that resemble our own.

Again, not having read the source material, some of the plot elements had an air of contrivance. In particular the witches, which were not adequately explained in the narritive as to who they are and what their role is in this world: They seem to just “be there”. And their appearance in the climax of the closing battle sequence seems sort of stream-of-consciousness:

“And as the guards began to turn the tide of battle, the witches came screaming out of the sky! Oh yeah, the witches are fighting on the good guys’ side, did I mention that?”

It may be an issue with the screenplay not affording a clear enough picture within the structure of the film, but translating a fantasy book with a lot of detail is difficult without generating a lot of tedious exposition. LOTR’s screenwriters did a great job of distilling arguably the most deep and detailed fantasy world for the screen, and the screenwriters for “Golden Compass” face a similar task. I think this is why David Lynch’s film adaptation of “Dune” never felt right, but I felt the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Dune” miniseries (which followed the book more faithfully and, with much more time, could spread out) captured the story and themes much better. The trick with film adaptation is how to get that same capture of story and theme into a 3 hour or so run time.

Pullman’s series seems to be a good candidate for film, but will the unassailable success of the LOTR franchise mean dredging any fantasy series with a devoted fanbase into a Hollywood splash? I sure hope not. I’d rather see more original fantasy (original anything) than an attempt at jamming a fantasy world into a LOTR mold.

And if they do, they better hope Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee are free.