Stephanie Zacherek’s review at Salon pretty well sums it up:
I can think of no more dispiriting experience this holiday season than seeing the crestfallen faces of several of my colleagues as they trundled out of a screening of Chris Weitz’s adaptation of “The Golden Compass.” Those faces said it all: Their faith had been shattered; there was nothing left to believe in; God must surely be dead. How could a book they’d loved so much be turned into such utter, soulless crap?
The Golden Compass is, visually, a beautiful movie, and I didn’t find the talking animals particularly fake-y looking. Most of the actors seem to be valiantly doing their best with ludicrously bad material, and I salute them for their effort. But, hoo boy.
(I should warn you, dear reader, that I’m as intense a fan of His Dark Materials as I am of the Harry Potter books, so you should brace yourself for the heartbroken ramblings of a nitpicky fan.)
Let’s start with this: I don’t think they should have tried to make a movie out of these books. Frankly, so much of what makes the books so engrossing and powerful only comes through in the exposition, and there doesn’t seem to be a good way to translate that to a screenplay.
The most important aspect of Lyra’s world is the relationship between a person and his or her daemon. Throughout the book, it’s demonstrated to us over and over again just what the bond between Lyra and Pantalaimon means: they are the same being. In the movie, daemons come across as clever talking pets, which is precisely not the point. In the movie, there is no horror at seeing a daemon-less child. In the movie, there’s no sense of how deeply wrong it is when the Bolvanger technicians place their hands on Pantalaimon. In the movie, there’s no sense of panicked grief at the thought of Lyra and Pan being separated. (When they are reunited, they hug, briefly, and then on we go with the breakneck plot.) Since the nature of daemons isn’t made clear, neither is the evil of what the “child-cutters” are doing. The stakes are just too low. (Hell, it’s even implied that a severed child can get their daemon back, somehow.)
In an attempt to appease religious conservatives, apparently (and let’s take a moment to pause at the absurdity of trying to tone down His Dark Materials so as not to offend the sensibilities of religious Christians), the nature of the Magisterium is changed, rather significantly, from the loose federation of ecclesiastical organizations that exercise nearly-complete theocratic rule, to an ill-defined one-world government—complete with “golden M” logo!—presided over by Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee. The costumers do, at least, dress our bad guys in quasi-clerical garb, but the church is not present in this movie at all. (Iorek’s armor isn’t hidden in the priest’s house, it’s hidden in the “Magisterium district office.” I wonder who the assistant to the regional manager is at the Trollesund office?)
The loss of the church makes Lord Asriel’s character kind of stupid. Asriel is now just a rebel, and overgrown adolescent who is on a quest to travel to another world and find out about dust so he can fight “authority.” There’s no capitalization. Daniel Craig plays Asriel as a twinkle-eyed Bond; there’s no darkness in Lord Asriel at all.
I thought Nicole Kidman’s Mrs. Coulter was fine, although her daemon wasn’t anywhere near creepy enough. The genius of the character of Mrs. Coulter is that she is a beautiful, glamorous, seductive woman, whose soul is a snarling, cruel, golden-furred monkey. In the movie, the monkey looked like a Fraggle.
The dialogue and the pacing were pretty awful (at every dissolve, I muttered, “aaaaaand… scene” to Rachel sitting next to me), and at least part of that has be blamed on trying to squeeze the book into a watchable single film. Here, with very little exaggeration, is the scene at Jordan College where Lyra meets Mrs. Coulter for the first time:
Master: Lyra, this is Mrs. Coulter.
Mrs. Coulter: Hello, Lyra, nice to meet you. By the way, the king of the bears wants a daemon.
Mrs. Coulter: I’m going north, and I’ll need an assistant. Want to come?
Mrs. Coulter: Master, I’d like to take Lyra with me.
Master: Well, I don’t know about that…
Mrs. Coulter: (Narrows eyes.)
Master: Okie dokie.
I could go on and on about what the screenplay got wrong in more detail. Ooh, shall I? OK, then.
The Master of Jordan College doesn’t try to poison Lord Asriel, Fra Pavel and his evil combover do. (Fra Pavel is elevated, in the movie, to a high-ranking Magisterium agent.) So when Lyra jumps out of the wardrobe to warn Asriel, it’s not clear why he sends her back into the wardrobe to watch. “Keep your eyes open,” he tells her, but he doesn’t ask her what she saw (and, indeed, there’s no guilty glance at the Tokay for her to see). And in the aftermath, after telling her to pay careful attention, why does he tell her “don’t worry about Dust, it’s none of your business”? Oh, right, bad writing.
In the movie, Lyra escapes from Mrs. Coulter’s house after discovering that she runs the Oblation Board, and the monkey daemon actually gets his hands on the alethiometer. Pan manages to get it from him, and they run out the window, slamming it down on the monkey’s paw. (Hilariously, in the movie, humans feel their daemons’ pain directly, so Nicole Kidman has clutch her hand and overact.) Anyway, the fact that Lyra and Mrs. Coulter both know that Lyra has the alethiometer, and how important it is, makes their reunion scene at Bolvangar make no sense. Mrs. Coulter’s innocent, “Say, did the Master of Jordan give you anything? Can I have it?” is pretty stupid.
The plot line of the pretender king of the bears (his name is changed from Iofur Raknisson to Ragnar) is trimmed quite a bit. The whole story about how it’s impossible to trick a bear, but Iofur so badly wants to be human that he loses his bear-ishness, allowing Lyra to trick him, and earning the name Silvertongue, and Iorek’s faked injury in their fight… all gone. Instead, Iorek was exiled for, like, some reason, and Lyra pretends to be a daemon so Ragnar will challenge Iorek, and he shows up, and they fight, and Iorek wins. The whole thing could, and should, have been lifted out of the movie (there’s no reason Iorek needs to be king of the bears in the rest of the story) except they wanted to have a cool CGI bear fight.
Speaking of cool CGI, why did they decide that all of the vehicles in Lyra’s (apparently) retro-futuristic world would be powered by gryoscope-mounted glowing orbs?
This movie, it’s… it’s just not very good. If you’re interested in this movie, but haven’t read the book, save yourself the cost of a movie ticket and buy the paperback. Seriously.