Monday, 3 April 2017

Final Fantasy?

Whatever happened to His Dark Materials?

The film, not the books. I feel as though I may have had a dream a few years ago because I'm pretty sure a version of the first book (The Golden Compass) was made into a film with all sorts of fanfare. I recall watching it in an actual cinema, waiting with baited breath as the trailers made way for the main event and then settled down for two hours of massive disappointment.

Let me just put this in perspective for a moment. The Philip Pullman novels are some of my favourite books. Aimed at children/young adults but containing themes that resonate even as a grown up. They are simply fantastic, a great example of the art of storytelling. Starting in a skewed version of reality they soon expand to describe a fantasy setting that takes the reader on an astonishing journey.

The lead character of Lyra is wonderful, both inquisitive and vulnerable, and always resourceful. The adults in the book, whilst apparently in charge are as flawed as anyone, and frequently upstaged by the younger protagonists. Whilst the added dimension of alternate realities enables the story to shift it's pitch and create unforeseen adventures.

So back to the film.

Daniel Craig. With a beard!
Budget blown on actors.

What happened? It had a pretty good cast. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig took the lead adult roles, supported by the voice of Ian McKellan and Ian McShane, Sam Elliott played Lee Scorseby (a Cowboy, no surprises there) and Christopher Lee even got in on the act.

They cast a relative unknown in the lead role, and Dakota Blue Richards did a pretty decent job. But the film missed all the marks of the book. It was a case of all surface and no feeling. Yes, it looked sumptuous but they rattled through the story at breakneck speed, evidently worried that dwelling on the characters, their relationships and their motivations would get in the way of the next piece of epic fantasy.

Epic wide shot.

And it served to make everything formulaic. This felt like a cynical attempt to mirror the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (both this and The Golden Compass were produced by New Line Cinema). Almost every other scene opened with an "Epic Wide Shot". Stirring music wailed as the camera flew between mountains, city roofs, or down rivers before alighting on a party of adventurers. Cue close-up to pivotal lead actor; wide shot to the group; close-up of another party member; over shoulder shot of "insert important speech"; camera whizzes around; cut to next scene.

And this all served to miss the point of the books. The characters and their interplay where the things that glued the story together. The fantasy was the backdrop (important, but there to support the development of the protagonists). The film seems to want to serve this up the other way round. For all the money spent on CGI (which looked lovely by the way) you end up wishing more of it could have been spent on a script doctor.

And the worst part is there was no attempt made to finish the trilogy. It was left behind without a word. Almost as if the filmmakers were embarrassed to carry on. No doubt it didn't make the money it needed to. And this is the worst part, as a fan of the books it would've been great to see if they could have turned this around. But instead they chose to leave the series alone, and leave a potential audience behind.

After the grand success of The Lord of The Rings trilogy I fully expected the reawakening of the fantasy genre in cinema. But it never happened. Maybe audiences weren't ready. Maybe their aren't actually that many great fantasy series' that would make it into decent films (television seems to have cornered this market today). But His Dark Materials was worth a shot. Hell, it had flying boats, armoured bears and daemons in it. It's just a shame that it seemed to succumb to derivative film making, and totally failed to do justice to the books.

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