On The Big Screen: The Golden Compass

I went and saw the film, THE GOLDEN COMPASS, the day after it opened, to make sure I saw it, on an at-least-middlin’ sized screen.

I enjoyed it a lot; I’d happily go see it again (on a larger screen, if possible), and if the eventual DVD has extra material, I’d rent/borrow it for that, although I don’t feel the desire to own and re-re-re-see the movie.

Spoiler alert: for those of you who haven’t read the book (yet), I’ll do the first half of this review without giving anything away, beyond stuff from the first few minutes. I’ll put up a Spoilers Follow flag before any serious plot-killers.

Some of the underlying premise: The books (and movie) take place (mostly) in a parallel Earth, where people’s souls are external and visible, taking animal form, and behaving like autonomous, talking beings. Referred to as “daemons,” (pronounced “demon” in the movie, I don’t know whether that’s how Pullman meant it pronounced in the book, versus the more Greek-ish “day-mon.” (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s part of the movie’s voice-over intro.)

It’s books, it’s now a movie, too: Like the LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy, and the five or six Harry Potter films, the GOLDEN COMPASS movie is based on a popular “ology” of fantasy books — in this case, the first volume (except, I’m told, the last three chapters) of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy HIS DARK MATERIALS. The three books in the trilogy are THE GOLDEN COMPASS (known in the U.K. as “Northern Lights”), THE SUBTLE KNIFE, and THE AMBER SPYGLASS. (Useful-looking web sites: www.hisdarkmaterials.org and the site by the book publisher.)

Book or movie first?: Should you read the books first? I can’t advise you. Having read the books makes it lots easier to know what’s going on, but, of course, changes the experience from “what’s going to happen next?” to “So how will they show this?” — probably the biggest challenge that Tolkein and Rowling readers faced in seeing the movie adaptations.

But do read them. I’ve read all three books — several times — and enjoyed them. They’re full of distinctive characters, marvels and other nifty stuff, and a rip-rousing lot of action. (I’ve read some criticisms, mostly on how parts of the second and third books seem to lose their sense of direction, and I can’t argue that, but they’re still wonderful, wonder-filled, good books.

Good job of rendering the book?: My summary opinion of “how well did the movie do in conveying the book?”: Very well. I had no clear in-my-head images of what I expected — unlike, to some extent, LORD OF THE RINGS — so I wasn’t disappointed, and didn’t find myself muttering “That’s not what she/he/they/it looks like…” If anything, the movie exceeded my mental images. Lovely steampunktech vehicles, architecture, and all. The movie kept/conveyed the tone of the book, took us to all the locales — Jordan College, the docks, the cold north, the castle of the armored bears. No complaints.

And the movie did a good job of introducing all the characters, helping us keep track, moving parallel sub-plots along… and bringing the events to a good closing point at the end, while also clearly stating what the (hopefully) next movie will be about.

The only thing I really didn’t like was the dorky song over the closing credits. Bleah.

Go see it (unless you belong to a religious group that has forbidden members to see it).


I’m not going to tell you about the movie proper; other people can do that, probably better than I can.

The golden compass is an Alethiometer — a handheld instrument that lets the user get answers to questions, assuming they have the ability to query the device and properly interpret its responses. In the book, if I recall, alethiometers are (important) tools used by protagonist Lyra Belaqua and others; in the movie, the golden compass takes on greater import, it seems.

There’s some major differences between the book and the movie, although they don’t, in my opinion, make a big difference to the general action.

In particular — as you probably know if you’ve heard any of the radio interviews/discussions, or read some of the reviews — in the movie, the Big Bad (to borrow a Buffyism) is the Magisterium, an organization seeking to eliminate free will, to wipe out sin. In the books, although the Mag. is still a Medium-Size Bad, it’s, ultimately, about a powermad-gone-senile angel who claimed to be the divinity (if you read the books carefully, they’re not about “God dying” or “killing God,” it’s “an angel who claimed to be the Creator”), and the BB is the angel Metatron and his multi-universal minions.

If/when we get to Movie #3, possibly even within #2, this could make for big differences; in GOLDEN COMPASS, not so much, in my opinion.

(The Catholic Church has decided that the Magisterium is a very thinly disguised negative portrayel of the Church — something I, um, confess I neither noticed nor cared about either way. The Vatican is apparently Not Happy. It’s good to see they’re not still busy being upset about Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE 🙂

Things I liked: The movie’s makers did a lot of nice touches regarding the daemons, which I’ve decided I won’t mention, so that even if you’ve read the books, you can still get some sense-of-wonder out of this. I will say it was nifty seeing all the daemons alongside and interacting with their people, in scenes, it made the whole notion a lot more real than the books did.

The zeppelins were fabulous, the interior looked a lot like some of sf artist Tom Kidd’s Gnemo paintings.

What else…I liked the cast, which includes Daniel Craig (the most recent James Bond) did a good job, Derek Jacobi in a good if small part, and Nicole Kidman (loved her in MOULIN ROUGE) as a well-dressed “don’t mess with me” mastermind. Great sets, great scenery. I gather some people complain that the CGI effects are to much like LORD OF THE RINGS, HARRY POTTER, and everything else that’s been out lately; I didn’t have that problem.

Conclusion, sort of: I don’t know if this helps you decide whether or not to go.

My bigger question(s): I wonder what the reading/watching experience is like for somebody who hasn’t read a bunch of fantasy and science fiction?

In theory, given STAR WARS, STAR TREK, HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, and NARNIA, not to mention ALIENS and whatnot, this may no longer be possible. However, soaking one’s brain with movie and TV scifi isn’t necessarily the same; it may familiarize you with obvious concepts (alien, rocket ship, faster-than-light, wizard, magic, lesnerize, et cetera), but not necessary “the science fiction (reader’s) point of view.”

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