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.