Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What's It Really Like?

With the release date getting nearer, a new trailer for The Golden Compass is up on the Apple site. (It may already be showing in cinemas for all I know but being in a large room full of sniffling, shuffling proles is something I’m still trying to avoid. At least until the release of American Gangster).

Some scenes in the trailer look utterly fucking spectacular – Polar bears in armour duke it out! What’s not to like there? A couple of instances, though, made me wince.

Nicole Kidman’s performance as Mrs Coulter, obviously. Pullman may have had her in mind for the role, but in one scene in particular her line reading wouldn’t have pasted muster in a rural village hall am-dram audition. Any more footage of her and I’d probably have tried to swallow my own tongue.

Then there were the references to alethiometer, in which the word “alethiometer” never comes up. The US publishers must have had a good reason for re-titling Northern Lights as The Golden Compass for the American market. Obviously, given the sales and enough popularity generated for a film adaptation, it paid off. But was the cosmetic change simply on the cover and title page alone?

Calling the dæmons “animal spirits” is fair enough as it comes up in the voice over, which has to help sell what is expected to be a two-and-a-half hour film in just over two-and-a-half minutes. But to reduce the alethiometer to “the Golden Compass” – which is what Jack Shepherd’s Master of Jordan College calls it when he entrusts it to Lyra - seems to be a case of dumbing down a little too much. Still... there’s always the armoured polar bears laying into each other.

Watching the trailer, the overriding impression I got was the sell. Fantasy in a visual medium needs explanation. How they’ll set the narrative up remains to be seen for the audience to quickly process all the information to follow without it becoming a distraction.

Star Wars had the now famous opening crawl, which worked. David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, on the other hand, had poor Virginia Madsen spout off about how “The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the Fourth... blah, blah, blah” which landed with a dull thud and never recovered. The best, in recent times, has to be The Lord of the Rings, which employed a range of talent that managed the impossible feat of selling the exposition throughout the films without it sounding like utter twaddle.

Original ideas, it’s obvious to say, are a difficult sell. It may be new and unlike anything have people have ever seen before which means that the tentative consumer – whether a reader or viewer – needs to be given something to compare it to. Even if the product is ultimately devalued by being shoehorned into a category, it gives them comfort in knowing that if they liked one thing, they’ll like this.

New Line have spunked a load of money into adapting Northern Lights. The budget is suggested to be around $180 million before prints and advertising eat up a whole other chunk of change. Not a sequel, or based on a range of toys, amusement park rides, or old TV shows, it’s still a gamble. Especially if they haven’t completely excised the anti-religious sentiment/overt attack on organised religion in the books which is bound to offend some blinkered Bible-thumpers.

With Christopher Lee popping up in the trailer, and Ian McKellen brought in to replace Nonso Anozie as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, call me a cynical sonofabitch if you want but the trailer has everything but a sign at the end that reads: IF YOU LIKED THE LORD OF THE RINGS, YOU’LL LOVE THIS!

Still, armoured polar bears showing who’s the daddy...


At 11:20 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

I'm not defending the changes made to PP's book, but, as I understand it, Pulman's original title for the trilogy was going to be 'The Golden Compass', but the American publishers seized on it instead of 'Northen Lights' as being better suited to go with the other titles: 'The Subtle Knife' & 'The Amber Spyglass'.

But, as you say, the alethiometer is NOT a compass in the sense of an instrument for finding directions - it is for locating the TRUTH.

PP used 'compass' in the sense of a compass for drawing/measuring circles...

At 11:45 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Brian, oh I have no problem with it as a title because it seemed to work - which is important - and acts as a good hook.

As you say, it means that each book gets a three word title which links them together. (In that respect 'Northern Lights' as a title does stick out like a sore thumb).

But it's the "dumbing down" of the dialogue, replacing "alethiometer" with "golden compass" that disappoints me a little. Oh well.

Anyway, I may not be first in the queue, but I'll be there to see it.


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