The Golden Compass

I just saw the Golden Compass movie. I agree with PZ when he says that you’re going to be seeing the word “disappointing” in a lot of reviews.

Mild spoilers after the jump.

I saw two major flaws in the movie: one was that not enough was cut. You can’t just take several hundred pages of novel and turn them into a two-hour movie, so something has to go. But there are good ways of doing this, and bad ways. I’ve heard say that a good approach is to take an entire subplot and cut it out. The Lord of the Rings movies dropped Tom Bombadil and the scouring of the Shire entirely, resulting in a less complex story, but a coherent story nonetheless.

The other approach is to snip a plot point here, a scene there, until you’ve trimmed the movie down to a reasonable length. This is the approach taken in The Golden Compass. Unfortunately, this shows, at least here. The result is that you keep getting snippets of scenes that obviously fit into some greater whole, but it’s not clear how. Bits of expository dialog are liberally spackled onto the script throughout the first half. During the climactic battle at the end, the witches arrive out of nowhere, with no indication of why they would want to get involved. In a similar vein, Bad Things happen to some of Lyra’s friends; but since we’ve only seen them for a few minutes at the beginning, we don’t know them well enough to really care.

This leads to the second problem, one that’s familiar to roleplaying gamers: let’s say that a new player joins your group in the middle of a campaign. So your party meets a complete stranger at the inn (usually the Cliché and Contrivance, just off Market Square) who introduces himself out of nowhere, and within five minutes the party has taken him completely into their confidence. The player characters also lead charmed lives, in which very unlikely but fortuitous events keep happening to make their lives interesting: the itinerant monk with a Dark Secret™ just happens to be staying at the same inn as the characters; the betrayed prince is willing to put his life in the party’s hands after only the briefest of conversations, and so on.

In a game, you can use “I rolled 16 for diplomacy. Is the prince convinced?” to stand in for a lengthy series of presumably-plausible events. But in a movie, you have to spell things out a bit more. People come up to Lyra out of nowhere, and trust her for no good reason. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when Iorek Byrnison, the bear prince who was tricked out of his birthright, defeats his rival and retakes his kingdom. Then, quite literally before his opponent’s body is cold, he turns to Lyra and tells her he’ll take her to the next part of the story. You’d think he’d want to at least catch his breath first.

Having said this, there’s a fair amount of good stuff: visually, the movie looks quite good. Feel free to take stills from the movie and paste them into your copy of the book as illustrations. The armored bears, in particular, are quite well done, including the aforementioned fight.

Nicole Kidman is the Mrs. Coulter I had in my head while reading the books. She’s sharp, sexy, dangerous, and you’re not quite sure whether she’s working for the Magisterium or whether she’s using them. Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel seems similarly ambiguous, though his appearances are so short that it’s hard to tell.

As for the religious content that the fundies have been getting their knickers in a twist over, it was minimal. Yes, there’s the Magisterium, which looks an awful lot like the Catholic church, who want to run people’s lives and do horrible things to children “for their own good”, and there’s an obvious parallel to the Adam and Eve story at one point, but that’s about it.

It’s too soon to tell whether the next two books in the series are likely to be adapted as well, but if they are, I hope they hire a nun to rap the director’s knuckles if he gets anywhere close to messing with the script.

Addendum: There are rumors on the intertubes that the DVD will have various deleted scenes, possibly including a director’s cut. Depending on how extensive the changes are, they might be sufficient to salvage this film.

Also, I don’t normally like it when publishers change books’ titles when they cross the Atlantic, but in this case I approve: the alethiometer, subtle knife, and spyglass are important manmade objects in the books. The northern lights don’t fit the scheme.