I saw The Golden Compass last night. In summary, I thought it was a pretty good adaptation. At times it moved a bit faster than I wanted it to, but that’s only to be expected from a two-hour film based on such a complex book.
If you read on, there will be spoilers for both the book and the film. But if you’re a friend of mine then I fully expect that you’ll have read the trilogy years ago.
It started badly with a voice-over that gave more details about multiple universes, dust and the alethiometer than I thought was strictly necessary. The terms “alethiometer” and “golden compass” are used interchangeably in the film which I also found pretty annoying.
The next scene was also a disappointment. It was a scene that didn’t appear in the book and served to introduce Lyra, Roger and the Gyptian children (particularly Billy Costa). Whilst Dakota Blue Richards impressed as Lyra, it’s a shame that the other child actors weren’t up to her standard. The only thing I found occasionally annoying about her performance was her “yokel” accent. But that’s a fair translation of the book where I found Pullman’s use of “ent” instead of “isn’t” in Lyra’s speech to be just as annoying.
After that the film manages to tell most of the story of the book. There are obviously some simplifications. For example, they don’t mention the fact that the Panserbjørne can never be tricked, so Lyra’s tricking of Iofur Raknison (renamed Ragnar Sturlusson to avoid confusion with Iorek Byrnison) isn’t as impressive a feat as it should be. Other scenes were missed out completely. Two that I particularly missed were Mrs. Coulter’s party (so we didn’t get to meet Lord Boreal) and Iorek Byrnison cleaning his armour once it was retrieved.
At this point let me reiterate the spoiler warning from above.
The most surprising change was the ending. The film misses out the last part (one or two chapters I think) from the book. The film ends with the children freed from Bolvangar and Lyra heading north to meet Asriel. In the book, she meets Asriel, stuff happens and Asriel successfully opens a portal to another world which he and Lyra both go through. That’s all missing from the film. I have no doubt that it will be included at the beginning of The Subtle Knife, but I was very surprised not to see it in this film.
On a more positive note, the special effects are very impressive. The daemons are a very important in these books so it was vital that they were portrayed realistically. And I think the film-makers achieved that. The daemons are very convincing, even when Pantalaimon is changing shape. It helps tremendously that they have such a strong cast of voice actors for the daemons. Even Asriel’s daemon, Stelmaria, who speaks about two lines is played by Kristen Scott-Thomas.
And what about the portrayal of religion? How much of that was cut out? Well, there’s really very little religion in Northern Lights and I didn’t notice any of it missing. The Magisterium is still the Magisterium. The Authority is still the Authority and Asriel’s theories about dust are still described as heresy. So, no, in my opinion there’s nothing important removed there – because there was nothing that needed to be removed. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with the other two books where the religion is far more explicit.