Chris Weitz responds to the Atlantic Monthly

Chris Weitz, writer-director of The Golden Compass, has responded to what he calls the “hatchet-job” on his film in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in a letter posted at An excerpt:

Hana Rosin’s hatchet-job on my film of Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass (and by extension, me) is so comprehensive in its disdain, one might go so far as to imagine she had seen the movie!

She hasn’t, of course, though that fact was not mentioned in her assemblage of carefully cut-and-pasted quotes and surmises pumped up with paraphrase. One is put in mind of a line from the Good Book: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” For example: it is true that I said that clerics and religious people had been presented as boobs and hypocrites in many Hollywood films in the last few decades. But her statement that this was to me a “solid explanation for why [I’m] not selling out” is entirely her own invention. We were talking about entirely different things at the time during our interview, and the notion that I somehow regard myself as doing the religious right a solid is grotesque.

Elsewhere she simply seems not to have finished her background reading. If she had, when she got to the end of my script she might have noticed that the Genesis story she says I have stricken from the movie is addressed, though in the mouth of the villain Mrs. Coulter. “A long time ago, one of our ancestors made a terrible mistake. They disobeyed the authority. And that is what brought Dust into the world. And ever since then, we’ve been sick. Sick with evil – sick with Dust.” It shouldn’t take much for somebody with half a brain to understand this, and Rosin, who writes about theology, ought to be able to catch it, but evidently it didn’t suit her thesis, which is that I “sold out” the book I happen to love. What did I sell? Who sold the rights to the books? Not me. . . .

In other news, my CT Movies colleagues Josh Hurst and Mark Moring have asked why the Christian community that was so accommodating to The Da Vinci Code (2006) has suddenly turned against The Golden Compass. I can think of a few reasons:

  1. The Golden Compass has been marketed as a children’s story, whereas The Da Vinci Code was ostensibly for adults.

  2. The Golden Compass had lots of fans among sci-fi and fantasy buffs, but it was never a household word — at least not in North America — whereas The Da Vinci Code was such a popular and hotly-debated novel that the Christian community had time to resign itself to the inevitability of the movie.
  3. The Golden Compass is explicitly about the death of God, whereas The Da Vinci Code at least pretends to be on the side of Jesus.

That said, the two books do share a contempt for the church, especially in its Roman Catholic form, as well as a high esteem for the liberating spiritual power of sexuality — even if Philip Pullman personally finds the word “spiritual” somewhat revolting. So the two books do reflect the era in which they were written in a rather similar way, and thus one could argue that they do deserve similar kinds of responses.

Canadian box-office stats — November 11

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

Across the Universe — CDN $3,340,000 — N.AM $22,353,000 — 14.9%
No Country for Old Men — CDN $158,221 — N.AM $1,202,000 — 13.2%

30 Days of Night — CDN $3,960,000 — N.AM $37,358,000 — 10.6%
American Gangster — CDN $6,820,000 — N.AM $80,679,000 — 8.5%
Bee Movie — CDN $6,100,000 — N.AM $72,214,000 — 8.4%
Saw IV — CDN $4,410,000 — N.AM $58,086,000 — 7.6%
Lions for Lambs — CDN $490,558 — N.AM $6,710,000 — 7.3%
The Game Plan — CDN $6,200,000 — N.AM $85,414,000 — 7.3%
Dan in Real Life — CDN $2,110,000 — N.AM $30,678,000 — 6.9%
Fred Claus — CDN $1,160,000 — N.AM $19,225,000 — 6.0%

A couple of discrepancies: Across the Universe and No Country for Old Men were #9 and #10 on the Canadian chart, respectively (they were #19 and #15 in North America as a whole), while P2 and Martian Child were #8 and #10 on the North American chart, respectively.

All fantasy films lead to Star Wars.

A complete version of that Atlantic Monthly article on The Golden Compass has been posted here, and alas, no, it does not seem that either I or my colleague were quoted. But I am struck by the following paragraphs:

The final, shooting script includes no mention of sin or the end of death. As [New Line Cinema's production president Toby] Emmerich told me, Dust is “akin to the Force” in Star Wars. Coulter tells Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi: “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it,” he says. “They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

It may make sense if you’re in a dark room dazzled by special effects and not thinking too hard. Then again, maybe it won’t. What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all: “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions. . . .

Marketing plans aside, New Line executives likely believe they were doing Pullman no great disservice by stripping out his theology and replacing it with some vague derivative of the Force. Values such as obedience, religious devotion, and chastity are so rare in Hollywood’s culture that they probably seem archaic and quaint—courtly rules that no one lives by anyway. Certainly not something to get exercised over.

It occurs to me that, if Philip Pullman’s fans are upset that his story has been dumbed down so that the anti-theistic elements are now indistinguishable from the Force, then it may be some small comfort to them that the pro-theistic elements in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) got the same treatment. To quote the review of that film written by my friend Jeffrey Overstreet:

While other characters’ roles have been expanded, the lion’s appearances are painfully brief. He doesn’t have the time onscreen to earn our affection and awe the way we might have hoped. And scene by scene, the writers consistently skirt the issue of Aslan’s authority, eliminating most references to his history, power, and influence. Aslan’s father, the Emperor-beyond-the-sea, is never mentioned. Instead, the lion waxes philosophical like Obi-Wan Kenobi, mentioning the Deep Magic that “governs” his “destiny.” Huh?

So it’s not like Hollywood has any particular agenda here. Hollywood just has a habit of turning distinctive stories into pale replicas of proven hits. Especially when the proven hit was a mushy universalist pastiche of existing beliefs to begin with.

Fox Walden gets more bad press.

First there was all that confusion over the title of The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Now Fox Walden is getting even more bad buzz thanks to Big Fox‘s treatment of a critic at a Denver Film Festival screening of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. According to Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, this critic was told he would be “physically blocked” from going into the theatre even if he had bought a ticket to see it like all the other festivalgoers. Oy vey.

NOV 12 UPDATE: Jeffrey Wells issues a clarification. Seems it was an “overzealous” festival rep, and not a Fox rep, that threatened to block the critic. But Variety magazine has now run a review of the film that could perhaps be best described as tepid — and so the buzz on this film isn’t exactly getting all that much better.

Lions for Lambs — the review’s up!

My review of Lions for Lambs is now up at CT Movies.

As an amateur number-cruncher, I can’t resist noting a few extra things about this film — and specifically about its place in Tom Cruise’s career.

Going back to Mission: Impossible II (2000), Cruise is arguably the only movie star to have appeared in seven consecutive films that earned over $100 million in North America — eight, if we count his cameo in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). I say “arguably” because it all depends on whether you think Tom Hanks‘s vocal performance in Toy Story 2 (1999) counts as an “appearance”; if it does, then Hanks has also had seven such films in a row, between Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).

At any rate, Cruise’s track record would be even better — averaging almost one such film per year as far back as A Few Good Men (1992) — if it weren’t for a couple of films he made in 1999, at a time when he apparently felt the need to prove his artistic cred, having long since proved himself as a box-office commodity. I refer, of course, to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. For a brief, shining moment, Cruise put commercial viability aside in order to work with one of the industry’s oldest and most reclusive living legends, and then to be part of the ensemble in a film by one of the industry’s hottest up-and-coming indie filmmakers.

So it is intriguing to see that Cruise, in choosing to make Lions for Lambs his first starring vehicle since he took the reins at United Artists, has apparently opted for something resembling artistic cred again, rather than anything box-office related. The new film even has echoes of the two 1999 films. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it is directed by an old Hollywood legend — in this case Robert Redford — and like Magnolia, it is an ensemble film in which Cruise spends much of his screen time giving an interview to a somewhat antagonistic journalist.

(In a weird way, the fact that Cruise shares top billing with two noticeably older and far more talented actors — namely Redford and Meryl Streep — also brings to mind that period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Cruise made a point of co-starring with the likes of Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson.)

But Lions for Lambs is an extremely talky and didactic picture, so much so that it could almost have been a play, though not a very good one. And it’s an explicitly political movie, released at a time when audiences don’t seem to be remotely interested in explicitly political movies. With almost zero box-office potential, it’s a really peculiar choice for a movie star who is trying to revitalize an old movie studio.

At this point, I turn to Karina at SpoutBlog, who has an interesting take on the significance of this film for Cruise’s career:

As political polemic and as entertainment, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is mostly unsuccessful, but as a statement of purpose on behalf of its co-star and executive producer, Tom Cruise, it’s mildly fascinating. Through sheer force of star power, Cruise manages to temporarily hijack this lumpy lecture, and turn it into a battle cry against the corporate media that both built and destroyed him. . . .

I can’t say Karina’s point had occurred to me in so many words, but I did notice something along these lines while watching the film.

In one of the film’s final scenes, a guy watches the news, and the major military story of the day is relegated to a text crawl at the bottom of the screen while the program dwells on sleazy tabloid footage of a Britney-like pop star and the would-be rapper she’s divorcing. I found myself wondering how that scene would have played if the footage were of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and whether making this film was basically Cruise’s way of saying, “Hey, stop obsessing over my private life, and pay attention to something else for a change!”

As it is, the experts are predicting this film will make less than $7 million this weekend — easily the worst box-office performance of any Tom Cruise movie in its first weekend of wide release since The Color of Money (1986; $6.4 million) or Legend (1985; $4.3 million), with the exception of Magnolia, which played on fewer screens than any Tom Cruise movie since All the Right Moves (1983). And you just know that the media will pounce on figures like these to say that Cruise’s career is falling even deeper into whatever hole he began digging when he jumped on Oprah’s couch.

But perhaps that’s all part of Cruise’s plan. Maybe he made this film just to show that he could throw commercial viability to the winds again, and to lower everyone’s expectations so that he can stage a big comeback with his next film.

Review: Lions for Lambs (dir. Robert Redford, 2007)

Imagine that you are Tom Cruise, and that your career and reputation have begun to falter a wee bit, and so you decide to launch a new phase in your career by, say, taking charge of an entire studio. Imagine that the first film released under your leadership — a film that, not incidentally, features you as one of its stars — is about to come out. Now imagine that the only publicity you intend to do for this movie is a single, private, hour-long, one-on-one interview with a reporter who works for a TV network but brings no recording devices whatsoever with her, let alone anything resembling a camera crew. No photos, no televised interviews, no beaming face on television screens everywhere; instead, nothing but your words, as scribbled down in shorthand by a reporter who, incidentally, doesn’t like your movies very much.

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