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Review: The Golden Compass (movie)


Kam and I saw the movie of The Golden Compass tonight.

There may be some minor spoilers in this entry. I don't think there's anything important about the plot that I'm saying here that isn't in the first ten minutes of the movie (and there's definitely nothing spoilery here if you've read the book), but if you want to go into the movie not knowing anything about it, then you may want to skip the rest of this entry.

Important note: The beginning of the movie reveals some hugely important stuff that you don't find out in the book 'til much later. So if you have not read the book, but you plan to read it before watching the movie (which I would recommend doing, 'cause the book's definitely better), then don't read the rest of this entry; go read the book instead.

The best thing about the movie is the casting. Specifically, by far the best thing about it is Dakota Blue Richards (not to be confused with Dakota Fanning) as Lyra; she's exactly as I pictured Lyra from the book, fierce and strong-willed and brave. And she looks, to my mind, exactly as Lyra should look. And she's not the only one. Nearly every casting choice is excellent, both in terms of acting and (especially) visually.

Well, okay, I wasn't initially thrilled with the choice of Daniel Craig as Asriel; and I see that Pullman wanted Jason (Lucius Malfoy) Isaacs, who does look rather more like my mental picture of Asriel (especially in this still from The Patriot). But I thought Craig did a fine job nonetheless.

The second-best thing about the movie is the visuals. Some lovely stuff here. The daemon-death effect is lovely and spooky and scary. Pantalaimon's shapeshifting at the beginning is excellent. Iorek and the other bears are almost completely believable. (But a little bit too CGI at times, and a little bit too cuddly-animal-looking at other times.) The look of the airships and other tech is excellent, as is the handling of the witches. The alethiometer effects are pretty.

There's a lot else to like about the movie. For example, I can't find my copy of the book to check, but I think they managed to squeeze in nearly every important scene and bit of plot. And I loved Iorek's roars.

And there's plenty to dislike. For example, a minor annoyance is the heavy overuse of the term "golden compass"; see the books' FAQ page to learn why/how that term became incorrectly attached to the alethiometer.

A few more-important criticisms: fans of the second and third books are likely to be disgruntled by the soft-pedaling in the movie of the criticism of religion, and in fact the downplaying of anything explicitly about religion at all. People who disliked the books and/or Pullman on religious grounds can point out that the books' heavy-handed treatment of religion is even more oversimplified here (even though less explicit). I found much of the first half of the movie a little emotionally distant, though I'm not quite sure why. There are plenty of political grounds for criticism, including the usual issues about lack of people of color (IMDB says Pullman wanted Samuel L. Jackson as Lee Scoresby, which would've been cool, though I can't say I'm sorry Sam Elliott ended up with the part), and the usual Chosen One fantasy thing. Also, the ending of the movie is very different in certain key ways from the ending of the book, leading me to wonder how they're going to do the sequels. (IMDB suggests that the missing material will appear at the beginning of the second movie.)

But I'm gonna skip ahead in my ranked list of things about the movie to the second-worst thing: the transitions. Kam (who hasn't read the book) and I (who have) agreed that a lot of the transitions seemed rushed and forced, and that they gave the impression that the moviemakers were trying too hard to fit everything into the movie. The result is a movie that feels like it rushes from one set-piece to another, with little natural flow.

And the worst thing about the movie, to me? The voice-over summary in the opening minute.

To recap for those who haven't heard me talk about the book, the main thing that I totally adored about the first book was the slow reveal of the amazing worldbuilding, the gradual step-by-step revelations of the ways in which Lyra's world differs from ours. (Even the fact that it's a different world at all took me a while to understand.) There are a couple of major important facts about the cosmology of the trilogy that are only revealed (iIrc) in the last few pages of the book. And iIrc, the book never explicitly spells out what exactly a daemon is.

The movie throws away all of that lovely gradual revelation, in favor of voiceover narration that tells you, bluntly, exactly what the world is like in a few sentences.

And it's mostly unnecessary, because all of the important/necessary info given in those sentences is revealed, sometimes nicely subtly, later in the movie.

Which leads me to suspect that the voiceover was added late in the process by someone who didn't trust the strength of the work, and/or didn't trust American kid audiences to be able to figure things out.

And maybe they were right. Watching the movie, audiences don't have the luxury of going back and re-reading the first chapter after discovering that the world of the story is not our own. Things go by quickly in a movie, and maybe it would've been too hard to follow (for people who hadn't read the book) with that voiceover.

But I was still very disappointed in that choice.

Still, overall I enjoyed the movie and felt it was worth watching.


You wrote: "the main thing that I totally adored about the first book was the slow reveal of the amazing worldbuilding, the gradual step-by-step revelations of the ways in which Lyra's world differs from ours."

Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes! I have often expressed my delight of that very aspect of the book, in almost the same words, in fact. And I liked that the nature of daemons wasn't explicity revealed in the book.

However, I don't really see how that could be accomplished in the movie. Perhaps someone might have managed it, and well, but I just don't see how, especially because much of the specific "nature of this world" info would probably have to be dumped into dialog to come out at all, in which case waiting for specific points in the movie might have been very plodding and contrived.

I did feel that the movie was rushed, though. I would have liked another 20 minutes, which still would have been quite a manageable length in today's movie world.

I'm sure the movie would benefit from more time (I haven't seen it), but it's already almost two hours long. It's a big risk for studios to release a movie longer than that; longer movies means fewer showings per screen, meaning less revenue.

I agree about the initial voiceover. Same DumbItDownDuh Nonsense that changed the book title from Northern Lights to The Golden Compass, or changed The Philosopher's Stone to The Sorceror's Stone. Gah!

I think the movie ending makes a lot of sense for a movie when they aren't wholly sure they can do the next two. As we came up on it I started thinking, "Oh gosh, they're going to end here, aren't they!" and lo! they did. I'd just re-read the book the week before.

I bet the DVD release is longer than 2 hours. *grin* Someday we'll get back to long movies wiht intermissions! :)

And we had previews for Prince Caspian huzzah!

Oooh, cool, I was wrong about the how/why they changed the first book's name! Thanks for the link to the FAQ, Jed -- I should read it before commenting!

Amy: Yeah, it might've been hard or impossible to get all of that info into the movie without the opening voiceover. But I do think that most of it is already in the movie, in subtle but clear ways. And I think a couple of lines of dialogue would've helped with the rest. One difficulty is that the pronunciation "demon" gives entirely the wrong idea, while the spelling "daemon" makes it much less likely that readers will think the creatures are the people's familiars or something. (And other spellings (such as "elyctrical," iIrc) also helped point out that we were in a different world.) But even so, I think it would've been possible. One example: the specific thing that gave me the biggest hint toward making sense of Lyra's world in the book was their version of the Adam-and-Eve story. But I gather the movie was intentionally avoiding any direct/explicit mention of religion, so that might not have been feasible.

Ted: It seems to me that for a few years, we had a lot of movies that were well over two hours long. But it sounds like the pendulum may be swinging toward shorter at this point anyway, and it's possible that the effect I was observing was due to a observer bias; I didn't do any sort of study or anything.

Kir: Interesting about the ending; I was just assuming that the other two movies are happening, but I suppose if there's a chance they won't, then yeah, I can see this ending working better in that context.

Good point about the DVD; it'll be interesting to see whether they add much footage.

Yay for Caspian! I wasn't as blown away by the preview for that as I was for the first Narnia movie, but I still got a little tingly about it, and I'm definitely looking forward to the movie. Though I have no idea how they can turn that particular book into a compelling movie. But I'm willing to trust that they will.

I would say just what Jed did only more strongly. It was absolutely tragic to see that, with brilliant source material, 90% of the people involved in the movie did a brilliant job adapting it -- the wonderful casting, sets, acting -- and that, in the process of being earnestly faithful to the book, they made a movie that was barely mediocre.

The transitions were excruciating, and it wasn't just the transitions: in every scene, actual cinematic business -- any sort of rising tension, suspense, moment of revelation, reaction sinking in, etc., etc. -- was dispensed with in favor of an efficient presentation of illustrations of elements of the plot. So the bulk of the movie was characters appearing, announcing their relation to Lyra and the information they had for her, and/or saving her, and then briskly clearing the way for the next character.

The best bits were some of the scenes with Nicole Kidman, and the polar bear fight, both of which briefly allowed the movie to breathe and be a movie.

Ted is right that the movie was already two hours long. But the solution would have been to do more violence to the book. They should have cut at least two of: bears, witches, gyptians, Texas aeronaut. Not cut their scenes -- erased them as elements, redistributing their plot functions among the other parts of the story.

It's as if the directors set out to prove by example that you really can make a sophisticated, nuanced movie of a children's book with a highly complex plot and very sophisticated worldbuilding, without leaving any of it out; and what they've proven is that, while you can do so, it's a really bad idea.

This was an object lesson for me. If a novel of mine ever gets filmed I am going to tell them "please don't bother about being too faithful to the book. I'd rather have a really good movie loosely inspired by the book, than a replica of the book which fails as a movie"

Of course, Ben, if a novel of yours ever gets filmed, you will probably have no say at all about what they do with the movie. :)

I think the practice of slavish fidelity toward the book is a result of the Harry Potter adaptations; the novels were so popular that it was essential that the movies satisfy people who had read the novels and include all the elements that readers would want to see visualized. This is actually a pretty rare situation; most of the time, the moviemakers pay very little attention to the novel, if for no other reason than the readers of the novel usually represent only a microscopic fraction of the audience they're aiming for with the movie.

More generally, I think most writers agree that a novel is simply too long to be turned into a movie. A novella or even a short story is a better candidate for a faithful adaptation, but short fiction rarely generates the buzz that attracts studio interest.

(I have long thought that, if you wanted to adapt a novel and remain faithful to the text, you should do it as a miniseries. There currently isn't a good business model for this, though, although HBO has some projects in the works that might act as examples.)

Good points, Ben and Ted.

I continue to feel that it's possible to turn a book into a film while remaining mostly true to most of the events in the book, and very true to the spirit and feel of the book. My two main examples are The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Princess Bride. Both left out some major elements (and one could argue that Bride left out the central theme of the faux metafictional side of the book), but I thought both were pretty close to being as true to their respective books as it's possible for a movie to be to a book while still being a good movie per se. Oh, and I might add Stardust to the list, though that's harder for me to judge because I actually liked the movie more than the book in that case.

I'm told that Sondheim liked what Burton was proposing to do to Sweeney Todd because he sees musicals and movies as having different strengths; I think I heard that Sondheim was actually annoyed with previous movies of his work for trying to stick too closely to the way things are done on the stage. I haven't seen the new movie (and may not), and I suspect if I do I'll be disappointed about some of the stuff they left out, but I can't help but applaud the intent of making it work as a movie in its own right.

And yet, it's easy to go way too far in that direction; just look at the Dark Is Rising movie, where the director said (more or less) that his goal was to translate the book into something that would work on film. By all accounts, he completely failed to capture the spirit of the book, and didn't keep much of the letter of it either.

Re length: In terms of page count, I agree that a short story (well, say a novelette) is probably a good length to be turned into a feature film (and the Narnia book, for example, is quite short by modern standards), but in terms of substance, it doesn't always work so well. The movie Kissed, for example: I liked it, but I kept thinking to myself as I watched it that it felt a little slight, that it had the feel more of a short story than a novel; and in fact it turned out to be based on a short story. So, maybe a novella is the best option, though as you noted there aren't so many bestselling novellas out there.

Then again, I think a lot of novels contain a lot of stuff that's not directly relevant to the main storyline (I'm told by novel-lovers that that's one of the appeals), so maybe just being willing to cut a lot is the way to go.

Of course, using a short story as the basis for a movie doesn't guarantee a good movie; I just meant that it was the best length for not having to do major cuts. The most recent example of a good movie being made from a short story that comes to mind is Brokeback Mountain, which matches the original story surprisingly closely.

Years later, I've just watched the Blu-ray version and decided to come back here to comment. This time through, I skipped the two-minute opening voiceover, and I think the movie is significantly better that way. Almost everything in the voiceover is covered again later, sometimes better, sometimes in just as much detail. (I went back and watched the voiceover after watching the movie.)

I don't think they added any material for the home-video release. The transitions per se didn't seem as bad to me this time through, but the pacing issues were definitely still there. I particularly agree with Ben's comment about “characters appearing, announcing their relation to Lyra and the information they had for her, and/or saving her, and then briskly clearing the way for the next character.” Also, it seemed like everyone she met who wasn't Evil immediately swore fealty to her and did everything in their power to help her; I'm sure that felt more justified in the book, and I vaguely remember the book being more nuanced about what the various factions wanted. (Not just Help Lyra And Rescue The Kids.)

Still, I still think there's good stuff in this. Most especially Lyra, who continues to be amazing.

Ben also wrote: “They should have cut at least two of: bears, witches, gyptians, Texas aeronaut.” I don't remember if I agreed back then, but I totally agree now—I wouldn't have come up with that idea, and I would have been sad to lose them, but I now think the witches and Lee Scoresby had no business being in this movie. The witches do essentially nothing other than act as backup cavalry at the end; they could be removed almost without touching the rest of the movie. Scoresby does some rescuing, but he also disappears at some key moments when he should be doing some rescuing; everything he does could've been handed over to a Gyptian by the writers.

Unfortunately, due to the abruptness, I'm not sure that even cutting the witches, Scoresby, and the opening voiceover would give the movie an extra twenty minutes to play with; that might all add up to only about ten minutes.

Anyway. Definitely some good stuff here, but yeah, still disappointing that it doesn't live up to its potential.

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