‘The Golden Compass’ on the Silver Screen (My Review)

Alison Morris - December 7, 2007

I said I’d tell you today about The Golden Compass, so on the heels of a 12-hour work day (hello, holiday season retail!) here goes:

GORGEOUS. Absolutely gorgeous! I loved the Oxford sets, the North sets, the lighting, the costumes, the make-up, and the way the special effects worked seamlessly with all of these. There was a sweeping sense of space in each scene, making it easy to forget that the scenery didn’t extend beyond the confines of the movie screen. Within that sweep, though, there were so many fine details, costumes among them. And oh, Mrs. Coulter’s dresses and the costumes for the Gyptians! Fantastic!

FAST. The story clipped along at an astonishing pace. Blink and you miss half the story! Use the restroom and the world unravels! I wondered, often, if I would have been able to keep up if I hadn’t already known where the story was heading and been so well-acquainted with the characters. Someone less "in the know" will have to pass proper judgment on that. In all I’d say that it moved a bit too quickly for my taste. A movie that covered the same ground in three hours (instead of two) would have been more to my liking.

WELL-CAST. I can’t imagine a better Mrs. Coulter than Nicole Kidman, and I thought Dakota Blue Richards made a fantastic Lyra — with just the right mix of sweetness and cheek. Even more perfect, though, might’ve been the choice of Sam Eliott as Lee Scoresby. From the second he appears on screen with his lopsided grin (and long-eared rabbit) he exudes every ounce of Lee’s charm. Once he opens his mouth he seals the deal.

TRUE. To the book, that is. Granted, much had to be cut (again, for the two-hour reason) but the "essence" of the book was undoubtedly there. Most importantly, the characters felt real — as if they’d stepped right out of the book and appeared on that big screen. The things that won me over the most in this movie were the small moments, brief conversations in which I suddenly felt as though I really was watching the book come to life. The scene in which Mrs. Coulter asks Lyra to remove her (alethiometer) handbag, arguing that it’s silly to wear one around the house, might have been my favorite scene in the movie, because emotionally it hit the book’s notes PERFECTLY. The escalation of evil in Mrs. Coulter’s voice against the escalation of defiance in Lyra’s was so good in this scene, the tension so perfect, that I felt, momentarily, like I was watching the scene I see in my head whenever I read that section.

CLEVER: In order to include the book’s "biggest" scenes but the conclude the film with an action-packed finale, director Chris Weitz had to do some inventive rearranging of things, which worked surprisingly well. I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice it to say you get your Battle of the Bears and you get your Bolvangar, just not when you expect them.

BAFFLING. Completely so. (And there’s a spoiler here, so skip ahead if you don’t want me to ruin anything for you…) Chris Weitz chose NOT to end this movie where Philip Pullman ends the book. This makes sense when you consider that it’d be evil to end a movie on a depressing, cliff-hanger of a note, when you’re not yet assured of the finances to film a sequel. But still… I was COMPLETELY unprepared for this change. At the end of what I didn’t yet know was the final scene Roger is telling Lyra that he wants to go with her to find Lord Asriel, and my heart was breaking, my head shaking NO, NO, NO, the voice in my head telling Roger to turn around and JUST GO HOME when poof!  The credits rolled. Whaaaaaaaaaaat?! WHAT?!? It’s over? Just like that? With no _______ and the ______ and we don’t find out that _________??! Well… okay then. Happy ending it is. But how the dickens is he going to start off the second film on THAT terrible note??

BREATHTAKING. In places. Little, wonderful places. When the daemons would change form and zip suddenly from bird to mammal to insect, the change looked SO REAL. So completely real! And each time a person would die their daemon would explode in a sparkling whirl of gold dust! Beautiful!

CHEESY. Yes, cheesy. But only in one recurring place: each time Lyra read the alethiometer we, the audience, see gold sparkles swirling around brief hazy glimpses of people and scenes, making it look a bit like Lyra is falling into some 1980’s film vortex — traveling back in time or watching her life flash before her eyes. Those moments were my least favorite of the film (though I’ll grant you that I haven’t yet thought of a better way to capture them).

IMPERFECT. Like everything. I love Ian McKellen’s voice but found it distracting to hear it coming from the mouth of a polar bear, almost as if Sir Ian (or perhaps Gandalf) had been swallowed and was calling out from the bear’s stomach. This didn’t prevent me from enjoying Iorek’s scenes, though, except for the occasional moment when the computer-generated bears bore a slight resemblance the advertising bears of Coca-Cola. And Pantalaimon was believably real in his ermine form, but not so as a cat.

A LABOR OF LOVE. That’s what it felt like, above all. This movie was clearly made by someone who wanted to put a beloved book on film and make it fly.

NOT THE BOOK. It’s not the book. And in the end I think that’s what I found disappointing about this film — I got so much FROM this film, but I didn’t get enough OF this film. What was there was wonderful! Almost perfect! But that made it almost all the more painful to get such a small fraction of the full story. In my dream world, there would have been enough funding to do this elaborate film as a 6-hour or 12-hour movie. Except, who would be able to sit though such a thing? So… maybe a 6-hour or 12-hour HBO mini-series! Except then you’d lose the impressive sweep of seeing these sets and these costumes on a big, BIG screen.

Gareth commented tonight that he thought the biggest thing missing from the movie was, for him, the "edge" that’s present in the book, and I’m inclined to agree. The trouble is, there’s just not enough time, in two hours, to move the plot where it needs to go AND build in that edge — the tension, the fear, the conflict, the love, the betrayal. But without them, the end results just aren’t that powerful. I teared up at the end of this movie, but I feel relatively certain that’s because I know the WHOLE story. I know what’s been cut, I know what comes next, I know how the whole affair finally ends. If I didn’t, well…? Let’s just say that I HOPE this movie will make people who don’t know the whole story want to go in search of it. If it does that, then it’s doing about as well as ANY movie version of The Golden Compass could do, even if it ran for 6 or possibly 12 hours!

17 thoughts on “‘The Golden Compass’ on the Silver Screen (My Review)

  1. Suzette C

    Okay – after reading your review I’ll have to get the book and read it quick like a bunny so I can then see the film – or would it be okay to see the film, while it’s still on the big screen, first? Either way I WILL read the book (and probably wouldn’t have otherwise.)

  2. mermangel

    I just finished the book on Wedneday morning and can’t wait to see the film. READ it, it won’t take you that long (my copy has 398 pages) and you will have such an advantage when seeing the movie. I will NEVER see a movie without reading the book first again. Since “Fellowship of the Rings” Frodo IS Elijah Wood and as much as I loved him and the trilogy, I would rather have my own impression of the setting and characters rather envisioning the film after the fact. Anyway, as we all know the book is always better than the movie and that’s the way it SHOULD be!

  3. Amy Wachspress

    I’m so jealous that you’ve already seen it. I live in a little town in Northern CA and the first show today is at 4:15. I can’t wait! Amy (find out about my children’s fantasy book at wozabooks)

  4. felicity

    So…for all of you who have seen the film and/or read the book, what is your take on the controversy surrounding this movie? Does it have a bad message? Is it anti-God? Or, is all the talk just hype like the Harry Potter hoopla when those books first came out?

  5. Niki

    Saw the movie yesterday and agree wholeheartedly with youre review. If a second movie is made, keeping my fingers crossed that it will be, they’ll have to find some way to show what was cruely left out before introducing will.

  6. Jean

    Loved the movie and this review sums it up pretty well for me. I don’t know how the non-book reading viewership will find it to follow (and I fear that book 3 is unfilmable) but I was so happy to see it all up there, so close to what I had imagined. I loved it. Sad to say, I think the coordinated attack campaigns are keeping crowds down.

  7. anonymous

    Felicity, The author is an athiest who has been quoted as saying his purpose for writing the books was “to kill God”. And he targeted his message at children. That’s not the same as having an author write a story and having other interpret her words (a la JK Rowling’s Harry Potter). Make your own mind up, but the author has made no bones about his message or his reason for writing it.

  8. cathy

    Loved the movie. My non-book reading husband liked the movie but thought everything was wrapped up a little too neatly at the end. I tend to agree but still loved it.

  9. ShelfTalker

    Anonymous & Felicity, Here’s how Philip Pullman responded to accusations that his books “promote atheism” in a Nov. 2nd interview on “The Today Show”: “In the world of the story — Lyra’s world — there is a church that has acquired great political power, rather in the way that some religions in our world have done at various times, and still do (think of the Taliban in Afghanistan). My point is that religion is at its best — it does most good — when it is farthest away from political power, and that when it gets hold of the power to (for example) send armies to war or to condemn people to death, or to rule every aspect of our lives, it rapidly goes bad. Sometimes people think that if something is done in the name of faith or religion, it must be good. Unfortunately, that isn’t true; some things done in the name of religion are very bad. That was what I was trying to describe in my story… As for the atheism, it doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I’m not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they’re kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.” You can watch the full interview on the MSNBC website.

  10. ShelfTalker

    Niki, Jean, & Cathy, I’m so glad to hear that you guys enjoyed the movie too! Jean, I was intrigued by your remark about book 3 potentially being “unfilmable.” I’ve been wondering about that, too. I think it’ll either look amazing or amazingly bad! I can imagine that the land of the dead might look remarkable, but the mulefa?? I just don’t know…


    Respectfully, Shelf Talker, Mr. Pullman speaks directly to specifics, not religious intolerance in general, when he is quoted in the Washington Post in 2001 saying “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” And in the Sydney Herald when he was quoted: “My books are about killing God.” In one of these ostensibly children’s books, a character says “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” Mr. Pullman isn’t concerned about religion going bad, he is on his own crusade against God and is using children to do it.

  12. a. fortis

    Alison, thanks for the excellent review! I can’t wait to see the movie, and I appreciate your comments about where it differs (sometimes necessarily so) from the book. I also appreciated the “cheese warning” and consider myself appropriately mentally prepared!

  13. Peter

    Over here in New Zealand, we have to wait until December 26 to see this! Definitely looking forward to it, although I wonder whether the book trilogy will make an effective film trilogy? I was not alone in loving the first book, liking the second book and hating the third book (I find being preached at by an atheaist fanantic is just as annoying as being preached at by a religious fanatic)- although I know others thought the third book was brilliant…

  14. Dee

    I think you did a fabulous job with your review. Exactly the same weak points I saw with the movie. I was let down after such a build up with the trailers. (I’ve read all three books, and although I definitely agree to there being an edge, I don’t believe it to be anti-God. Mostly anti-establishment.) Thanks for such a concise review.

  15. stelmaria

    I am an atheist. I saw the 1st Narnia movie, read the book, gritted my teeth at the parts I found objectionable, and remained polite. I did not boycott the movie or tell other people they shouldn’t see it because I didn’t agree with its philosophy (even though I found it somewhat offensive). I wish believers of all stripes would extend the same courtesy to this new movie. From reading the books, I conclude Pullman is a decent person with clear moral values. People who have not read the books should not assume they know what his beliefs are based on religious smear campaigns. The books and movies should be appreciated for their own merits, not on whether they conform to a certain group’s beliefs or not. If he disagrees with you, the more you need to read the book and find out why before you attack it. The poster(s) in this list who talked about “killing God” clearly had not read the books, only about them, and should not have commented until they found out more (or at least read the books). This shouldn’t even have to be said. I thought the movies were stunning visually and not nearly as profound and troubling as the books. All movies sacrifice richness for narrative clarity and concision. I never like that sacrifice, and here I liked it less than in the other fantasy movies of recent years. But visually — wow! I loooooved the bears. Bears seem to be the animal of the moment, what with fears for polar bears due to global warming, etc. “Grizzly Man”, anyone?

  16. Mary Crabtree

    As a fan of the Golden Compass Series I went to the film with low expectations. The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe really was a disappointment so I didn’t have high hopes on this. But I loved it. You should read the book first. It really offers a deeper explanation of the daemons and the role they play in pullman’s character’s lives. Please let’s not make this great children’s series a religious debate. A dose of “read it and then decide” should be perscribed to all those out there that have made their decisions to censor these beautifully written books based on what “someone else” says.


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