The accepted wisdom is that the film The Golden Compass is much weaker than the original book, Northern Lights. Certainly, everything is much more obvious and unsubtle, and some nuances are missing. Having said this, however, I felt that they did a pretty good job of compressing the actual plot of the book (except for the ending – more on this later). I didn’t think that the removal of all references to the Church, to God and to sin actually detracted in this instance, though how they plan to sustain this for the later books has me baffled. Aside from the ending, I thought the single biggest problem was the scene with the intercised Billy Costa: the equivalent scene in the book (with the not-appearing-in-the-film Tony Markarios) was intensely powerful and heartbreaking, and it was somewhat emasculated in the film – particularly since Billy Costa still seemed to be alive at the end. Actually, I was a bit worried about seeing this on screen, as I thought it would be too harrowing, but by making it less disturbing, they also reduced the impact of how evil the intercision process is.
I thought all the performances were good. Actually, given the way the plot was trimmed, it was basically just Lyra and everyone else. Possibly Ian McKellen’s Iorek sounded a bit too cultured, but Sam Elliot was great as Lee Scoresby, as was Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala (for the tiny amount of screen time she got) and the rest. I had imagined that Nicole Kidman would be perfect as Mrs Coulter, but when she first spoke I got a bit of a shock – her voice sounded a bit high and “little girlish”, rather than mature and sophisticated. But she looked exactly right, and either her voice changed or I just got used to it as the film progressed.
But Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra was brilliant. I have never really been able to warm to Lyra. A bit like Jane Austen’s Emma, I have never been able to make sense of the fact that other characters in the book love her, when all I can really see as her faults. But Dakota Blue Richards finally made me see it (as Alicia Silversone did as the Emma equivalent in Clueless, but Gwyneth Paltrow completely failed to do in the big screen Emma). All of Lyra’s faults were still there – she was a liar, she was shamelessly manipulative – and yet through all that, she completely shone through as a pure and even lovable character.
The “look” of the film was great – particularly some of the early scenes with the group of children and their daemons running around, and some of Pantalaimon’s transitions from one form to another. The big battle scenes were also good: clearly riding on the coat-tails of Lord of the Rings, but then there are only so many ways you can show a battle.
So the only real problem with the film – and it’s a biggie – was the ending. I’m really not comfortable with the idea of cutting off the last few chapters, and writing a new, upbeat ending to the book.
Michael, who hasn’t read the book, found the final scene rather saccharine, and felt that it undercut what had gone before. So in at least one case, the changed ending didn’t work for someone who didn’t know any better.
But for me, knowing what was to come, the ending was neither upbeat nor even saccharine – I found it unbelievably heartbreaking. Because they think everything is alright, and it so completely isn’t. Finishing the film on Lyra’s totally optimistic – and totally wrong – understanding of what is happening just feels wrong. In fact, she is even more wrong than she was at the equivalent point in the book, since I think we are meant to assume that she will also be able to get Ratter back for Tony Costa.
So if the changed ending doesn’t necessarily work for people who haven’t read the book – and those who have will obviously know what comes next – it would surely have been better to climax with the tragedy, and then finish – as the book does – with Lyra, sadder but wiser, moving forward and making her own choices. This is not exactly a happy ending, but neither is it despairing: Lyra is no longer anybody’s puppet, and she may well achieve what she sets out to do.