The Golden Compass

Yesterday, the university Humanist Society and friends went to see ‘The Golden Compass‘ on the big screen. ‘The Golden Compass’ is the film adaptation of ‘The Northern Lights’, the first book of Phillip Pullman‘s ‘His Dark Materials’ series. The books really are excellent, so we were quite excited and nervous about how the film would compare.

So the question that everyone really wants to know: is it any good? Well, it’s okay. It’s not bad but it’s not amazing either. The visuals are lush and rich. Costumes and scenery are very nice and I loved how they realised the daemons. The animation was excellent without looking too obviously like CGI and any scene involving people was bristling with daemon activity. We all felt that the actress playing Lyra was just right. She was bold and bright and her acting felt genuine. Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison struck the right chord as well. Oh, and armoured bears are every bit as awesome as you imagined them to be.

So what wasn’t I happy with? I already knew the overall story to be excellent so the important part for me was the delivery. There were rumours that the controversial portrayal of religion would be removed from the film so I won’t comment on that, especially as that aspect develops more fully later on in the story arc. What disappointed me was the heavy handedness with which the story was told and characters were introduced. When a character appeared, they or someone else would immediately explain who they were and whichever piece of information that was necessary for the next plot development involving them. While you would expect a good screenplay to provide the audience with that information, it seemed to be at the expense of character development, suspense and the character of the original story. One of the strengths of Pullman’s books is that he doesn’t dumb down ideas for children. That said, everyone left the cinema wondering what the next two films would be like…

This wasn’t a fantastic film but there’s still a fantastic story at its heart. Yes, Hollywood has taken Pullman’s story and adapted it to their own tastes but it’s still hard to resist the lure of daemons, gyptians, witches, scholars, armoured bears and mysteries.

Please do tell me your thoughts about it!

3 Responses to “The Golden Compass”

  1. 1 Hugh December 9, 2007 at 3:32 pm


    Could I ask you about the religious aspects of this?
    You mention that the stories are a bit controversial in their approach to religion, and while I haven’t seen any of the reviews or discussions about it, from reading the books and hearing Phillip Pullman I got the impression he was intending it to be quite openly hostile to religion. I know you’re very good with the tolerance and respecting other people’s opinions, so I’d be interested to know if you thought so too?
    I guess to an extent that wouldn’t be entirely a bad thing, in a freedom of speech sort of way.

    I was kinda worried too that the humanist society were choosing this as an outing, I didn’t really see the books as being humanist, except to the extent they were against religion? Although I did only read them quickly and I think there was a lot going on I didn’t pick up on- am I just being overly literal and stuff?

    And sorry if you were trying to avoid the controversial aspects here. I realise too you’re quite limited in what you can say about the plot without giving away endings. (I should say too I haven’t seen the film yet, so I’m mostly talking about the books.)
    Anyway, glad you enjoyed it :o)


  2. 2 Tim Maguire December 22, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    I loved Northern Lights when I first read it at the suggestion of my sister shortly after it appeared in paperback and I’ve reread it many times since, although I’m about 5 times the age of the target audience. I went to see Mr P when book three of the trilogy came out and took advantage of the Q&A to say that one of the reasons I liked it so much was that it seemed to me at least to be unfilmable. Pullman replied that the rights had been sold, so I’ve been waiting to see the film for really quite a long time and having now done so, I have to say I think I was right.

    I can accept that the storyline had to be compressed but unfortunately at the same time the characters have been steamrollered flat, and although the animators are now very skilled at rendering animal hair and movement, the Disneyfication of Pantalaimon left me cold: even his polecat form, his ugliest manifestation, as Pullman describes it, is as cute as Chip & Dale, the Disney chipmunks. Never mind the fact that the daemons of secondary characters appear only intermittently if at all.

    It’s a shame, really. I had hoped for better but i should have remembered the law that says “The better the book, the worse the movie”. The Golden Compass is not the exception that proves the rule.

  3. 3 ranma-tim December 24, 2007 at 11:32 am

    Great review – I also found Dakota Richards as Lyra to be surprisingly good, all the more amazing considering the alarmingly bad script she had to work with!

    I had been wondering if the heavy handedness was a result of the writers attempting to make the story easily accessible to kids. I remember when I was young I found it really hard to follow the story of a film and could only really follow things scene by scene. However, you quite rightly point out that Pullman does not dumb things down. I think after all is said and done this is the most disappointing thing of all for me.

    Nonetheless I’m really hoping that the sequels get made. For me, the second book was when things really took off. Even written badly, the story is so fascinating that I’d happily watch it.

    “I didn’t really see the books as being humanist, except to the extent they were against religion?”

    I personally don’t agree. It was a while ago when I read them, but my memory of it (especially the final book) was that it suggested ideas that seemed very close to my idea of humanism. The vagueness of my memory and the strange experience of the film (especially the parts that made me think “was the original so obvious with its plot devices and I somehow missed it?!”) makes me want to read them again though.

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