The Golden Compass at Hoyts, Broadway

The accepted wisdom is that the film The Golden Compass is much weaker than the original book, Northern Lights. Certainly, everything is much more obvious and unsubtle, and some nuances are missing. Having said this, however, I felt that they did a pretty good job of compressing the actual plot of the book (except for the ending – more on this later). I didn’t think that the removal of all references to the Church, to God and to sin actually detracted in this instance, though how they plan to sustain this for the later books has me baffled. Aside from the ending, I thought the single biggest problem was the scene with the intercised Billy Costa: the equivalent scene in the book (with the not-appearing-in-the-film Tony Markarios) was intensely powerful and heartbreaking, and it was somewhat emasculated in the film – particularly since Billy Costa still seemed to be alive at the end. Actually, I was a bit worried about seeing this on screen, as I thought it would be too harrowing, but by making it less disturbing, they also reduced the impact of how evil the intercision process is.

I thought all the performances were good. Actually, given the way the plot was trimmed, it was basically just Lyra and everyone else. Possibly Ian McKellen’s Iorek sounded a bit too cultured, but Sam Elliot was great as Lee Scoresby, as was Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala (for the tiny amount of screen time she got) and the rest. I had imagined that Nicole Kidman would be perfect as Mrs Coulter, but when she first spoke I got a bit of a shock – her voice sounded a bit high and “little girlish”, rather than mature and sophisticated. But she looked exactly right, and either her voice changed or I just got used to it as the film progressed.

But Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra was brilliant. I have never really been able to warm to Lyra. A bit like Jane Austen’s Emma, I have never been able to make sense of the fact that other characters in the book love her, when all I can really see as her faults. But Dakota Blue Richards finally made me see it (as Alicia Silversone did as the Emma equivalent in Clueless, but Gwyneth Paltrow completely failed to do in the big screen Emma). All of Lyra’s faults were still there – she was a liar, she was shamelessly manipulative – and yet through all that, she completely shone through as a pure and even lovable character.

The “look” of the film was great – particularly some of the early scenes with the group of children and their daemons running around, and some of Pantalaimon’s transitions from one form to another. The big battle scenes were also good: clearly riding on the coat-tails of Lord of the Rings, but then there are only so many ways you can show a battle.

So the only real problem with the film – and it’s a biggie – was the ending. I’m really not comfortable with the idea of cutting off the last few chapters, and writing a new, upbeat ending to the book.

Michael, who hasn’t read the book, found the final scene rather saccharine, and felt that it undercut what had gone before. So in at least one case, the changed ending didn’t work for someone who didn’t know any better.

But for me, knowing what was to come, the ending was neither upbeat nor even saccharine – I found it unbelievably heartbreaking. Because they think everything is alright, and it so completely isn’t. Finishing the film on Lyra’s totally optimistic – and totally wrong – understanding of what is happening just feels wrong. In fact, she is even more wrong than she was at the equivalent point in the book, since I think we are meant to assume that she will also be able to get Ratter back for Tony Costa.

So if the changed ending doesn’t necessarily work for people who haven’t read the book – and those who have will obviously know what comes next – it would surely have been better to climax with the tragedy, and then finish – as the book does – with Lyra, sadder but wiser, moving forward and making her own choices. This is not exactly a happy ending, but neither is it despairing: Lyra is no longer anybody’s puppet, and she may well achieve what she sets out to do.

2007 in review

Books

I read 167 books in 2007, of which 106 were re-reads and 61 were new (though of the 61, there were two I didn’t finish – Lolita and Crime and Punishment). Dividing up by category, 104 were adult fiction, 32 children’s fiction, 20 young adult fiction and 11 non-fiction. By genre, I read 55 crime/thriller and 53 SF/fantasy – though SF/fantasy is spread across all age categories, and crime/thriller was only adult books. My most read author was Agatha Christie, of whom I am slowly doing a chronological re-read – this probably also skewed the genre numbers, since slightly over half the crime/thrillers I read were Christies. There was a big drop to my second-most-read author (Donna Andrews – also crime/thriller, and also a complete re-read – with 10 books) and there were 47 authors of whom I only read one book.

Probably my favourite “discovery” for the year was Sonia Soanes – I absolutely loved her verse-novel Stop Pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy. Though I found her other books much less gripping – Stop Pretending was a very emotional book, whereas the others were a bit more lightweight. The other young adult book I was very impressed by was Alex Flinn’s Fade to Black, and I will probably be chasing up more of her work. In the adult fiction line, I have been enjoying Amanda Grange’s diary-of-Austen-hero books, and (at the other end of the “literature” scale) I am glad to have read The Odyssey, though at times it was a bit of a struggle.

None of the other new authors I tried really grabbed me, and of the new-books-by-favourite-authors probably the one I was most pleased to get was Susan Geason’s new(ish) Syd Fish story, Hook, Line and Sinker. This isn’t actually published, but it’s available for download from her website. The new Dick Francis was very readable, but not out of this world, and I was a bit underwhelmed by the new Lois McMaster Bujold fantasy – I don’t find this particular fantasy world all that interesting, and in any case I prefer her SF books.

Films

I saw 10 films at the cinema, and another 8 or so on various planes. There were no real stand-outs, though my favourites were probably Breach (which I unaccountably failed to blog), Hot Fuzz and Music and Lyrics, with honourable mentions to Pan’s Labyrinth and No Country for Old Men – these two were probably the “best” films I saw, but Pan’s Labyrinth was rather depressing – and very violent – and No Country for Old Men didn’t quite work for me. Amazing Grace and Sunshine are also worth mentioning.

The worst film I saw was probably Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, though there was competition from 300.

Plays

I only saw 6 plays, all by the Sydney Theatre Company. The two best were Riflemind and The Art of War, and I probably got least enjoyment from The Season at the Sarsparilla and Tales from the Vienna Woods – though neither of these came even close to the awfulness of 2006′s The Lost Echo . But I’m definitely going to make an attempt to get to the theatre more often in 2008.

No Country for Old Men at Hoyts, Broadway

Somehow, No Country for Old Men didn’t quite work for me. It was very well written, and the performances were excellent. I liked the twists on standard action-film cliches, I liked the theme of random chance, I really liked some of the dialogue and the cinematography. And I thought the last few scenes, in particular, were very well done. I even found most of the characters interesting, but in the end, I just wasn’t emotionally engaged with any of them.

I’m certainly glad to have seen it, but I don’t feel any urge to see it again. I have some slight curiosity about the book, but probably not enough to actually hunt it up.