The Golden Compass

T and I got a babysitter last night and went out to a preview showing of The Golden Compass last night. I’m a huge fan of the books — I’ve been lending out my copies for years to try to get more people to read them — and have been looking forward to the movie with a combination of excitement and nervousness.  The books are big, complicated, and challenging, and I was afraid that they just wouldn’t survive the translation to the big screen.  But the gorgeously designed website and previews gave me hope that the makers "got" the book.

So, what’s my verdict?  Mixed.  The movie is gorgeous.  They got the vision right — the subtle differences between Lyra’s world and ours, the ways that the children’s daemons flicker from shape to shape, the fierceness of the bears.  Nicole Kidman is close to perfect as Mrs. Coulter, and young Dakota Blue Richards gives a respectable performance as Lyra.  And they avoid the potential trap of making the daemons overly cute.

But the movie is less than two hours long, and this forces a condensation of the story that loses much of its heart.  New characters are introduced so thickly that it’s hard to care much about any of them.  But more importantly, everything seems to fall into place for Lyra, without her doing much.  When she tells Pan that it’s been far harder than they expected, I didn’t really believe her. 

[I also have another complaint about the movie that’s something of a spoiler, so I’ll post it in the comments.]

Much of the attention the movie has gotten has been about the claim that the movie is an attempt to recruit kids to atheism, which Snopes classifies as essentially true.  I think that’s not quite fair — the producers are clearly mostly interested in selling tickets, and the philosophical issues in the book (which are pretty abstract in the first one) are pretty much erased from the movie.  Based on interviews that Pullman has given, it’s clear that he held his tongue about the changes they made to his story, in the hope that a successful movie would attract readers to the books.

The books have been generally labeled young adult fantasy, but I’d say they’re really meant for adults and fairly sophisticated teenagers.  The movie is rated PG-13 for "fantasy violence" and I’d say that it’s probably best for 10-13 year olds.  The violence is actually handled quite subtly — early on, it’s established that when people die, their daemons disappear in a swirl of golden dust, so in the battle scenes you know that each dazzling swirl is a death.  What I think makes it unsuitable for young children is the absolute unreliability of many adults, including parents.

9 Responses to “The Golden Compass”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    The spoiler-ish complaint is that the movie ends before the book does, although it includes some foreshadowing of things that happen at the end of the book. The movie ends with several seconds of a black screen before the credits start to roll, and I just sat there staring, waiting for the movie to continue.

  2. dave.s. Says:

    “…the absolute unreliability of many adults, including parents..” So you’re going to keep your kids from seeing any book or movie by Roald Dahl for the next eight years? good luck with that!

  3. jen Says:

    Elizabeth, having not seen the movie, I’m interested in what you say about unreliability of parents.
    Long ago I noticed, as have many others, the complete lack of mothers in Disney films. (I can think of only one mother who is ever seen, and that’s the lioness in Lion King. The rest are without exception dead.)
    Why is this? It’s my theory that people just can’t handle it. The idea of a mother who would not protect you from whatever challenge is being used as a plot device … it’s just too scary. I believe the same dynamic is behind many folks’ insistence that a mother’s love is a genetically-conferred semi-superpower. The alternative, which is that your mother could choose to not love you, is too much.
    All of which I accept on some level. I do wish, however, that there was as much angst around the screw-up dad as their is around the unreliable mom. The completely ineffectual doddering dad is a children’s story staple. Put the whole dynamic together and IMHO you end up with a message of “men don’t really matter, and women don’t exist outside their role as caregiver.” Yuck. I would hope that we’d find both messages inappropriate for small kids.

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    OK, serious spoilers here:
    In most of the Dahl books (as in many children’s books and movies), the parents are irrelevant or dead. In Pullman’s books, they are downright evil. Lyra’s mother is one of the major villains of the story, and her father betrays her in a fundamental way (this is the part of the book that is cut from the movie). Both of them do seem to love her, although in their own deeply perverse ways. But I think they would freak the hell out of my kids (now 4 and almost 7).

  5. landismom Says:

    Elizabeth, thanks for this review (and for trying to camouflage your spoiler–if only the New York Times had been so considerate!). I’ve been debating whether or not to take my daughter to this movie. I made a deal with her that she had to read it first, and while we’re reading it together, it’s going very slowly. I’m thinking she may have to wait for the DVD.
    But I don’t!

  6. dave.s. Says:


  7. Jody Says:

    The NYTimes ended with a long discussion of the ending. Chris Weitz said, I think, that they ended where they did because it was far more upbeat. He claims to want to start right up where they left off, but also implied that they need this one to make lots of money before they can make the sequels. And at $180 to produce, I’m having a hard time believing that will happen. Not enough children have read it, and not enough adults will want to see a “kid’s movie.”
    I hope I’m proved wrong. If only because of the gorgeous production values, and my irritation when a story only gets partially told.
    Plus, I want to see how they go about filming the scene where Lyra and Will release and kill The Almighty pretty much by accident.
    I loved Kidman on the producers’ absolute conviction that she was the only actress for the role, btw. Not exactly a compliment, indeed.

  8. Jody Says:

    Obviously the movie cost $180 MILLION. Before marketing.
    Oh, and not to wade into the thicket of the parental unreliability issue, I’ll add that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between the books a child finds on her own and the books that adults give her. And also that my own children would be Completely Freaked Out by everything in the Dahl oeuvre right now (including James and the Giant Peach, although they might, just, be able to handle that one).

  9. Genevieve Says:

    Jody, that difference is a good point. And there’s also parental assessment of a child’s readiness. I did a lot of thinking about this issue this fall, as my child wants badly to read Harry Potter 4, and DH and I think it is too intense for him right now (he’s had to do a lot of thinking about death the past couple months) and told him that he has to wait. I started reading Golden Compass to assess whether I would take him to the movie (before I learned it was PG-13, which settled the matter nicely as we have a no PG-13 rule for the nearly-8-year-old). I think the evilness of all the adults would really bother him, among other issues.

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