Here, There be a Writer

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Golden Compass: A Review

After doing a few these book to movie reviews I have learned two major things (and several smaller and equally important points as well). First (and oddly not directly related), my husband is a genius with a fresh new idea for my review projects. I had been doing book to movie reviews, but he suggested trying (or at least considering) a movie to book review. This means movies that had books written after the movie came out. It certainly might give me a different perspective on storytelling. Such possible examples include Batman and Dick Tracy.

Second, is that I realize that I am super nit picky about my written stories versus my visual stories. And because of this I forget that sometimes the movies themselves are at good at being movies and thus telling a story with visuals, especially if you are not going to be reading the books. I have been surprised by a few movies that have proven me wrong on some level or another.

Now to be fair this doesn’t mean I will go easy on the movie version of The Golden Compass. Just because the movie was actually entertaining, looking at the entertainment factor here folks, here’s a few points to note. It was eye catching and beautiful crafted, the polar bear fight (yes, you heard me correctly) was pretty awesome. Oh, the actors were well cast in their characters (voice and live action included), and the plot is 85% of what is in the book (albeit truncated in places). That means it is watchable.

But, there are some grievous mistakes and in some poor choices that affect the plot, and at least one moment of WTF-ery.

I will give my actually score at the end, so onto the review.

First point: consistency! It’s just simple consistency of facts, names, pronunciation. If a movie doesn’t have a degree of consistency whether it’s an adaptation or an original then I will have issues with it. Yes an adaptation is going to have things that are different that the original, also the vision of the original is not what the director of a movie will have, hence why it is an adaptation. Adaptation means taking one form and making into something different, the state of being adapted. Hence there will be changes. This is especially true of books that get made into movies. The biggest difference between books and movies are that books have long expansive scenes about trips to London or what occurs in Bolvangar (more on these later). But a movie has to keep the pace and within the 90 to 120 minutes given to tell a story. This is something I run across a lot when I cross a book and the counterpart movie adaptation; when the movie has to condense 30 to 40 pages of written text into 5 minutes of movie. To me it loses something, but I am biased and read a lot of books that need those 30 to 40 pages to build the development of the characters. Where a movie needs to convey that information with a short amount of time and move on. In The Golden Compass Lyra’s trip to London with Mrs. Coulter is only about 5 minutes (give or take) of the movie. The book obviously takes it’s time to show what Lyra and Mrs. Coulter are doing and thereby building their character’s relationships and character development. The movie has so much more to cover that it has to take a few important bits of information to convey Lyra’s adoration of Mrs. Coulter and the discovery of the General Oblation Board. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes not sure much.

For consistency The Golden Compass rates a 7 out of 10. This is because the ending was chewed up and spit out from book to movie. There is a decided last of consistency from the Ice Bear, Iorek Byrnison getting his amour in Trollesund to the travels north to Lord Asriel’s prison at the end of the movie.

Another case of the movie rushing a scene because of time is when Lyra is in Svalbard and Iorek Brynison is rushing to her aid. They skip quite a bit of the King’s back story with Iorek and how he became king. Suddenly we are presented with Lyra’s telling Ragnar she is Iorek’s Daemon who wants to be his Daemon. Then there is a polar bear fight with little build up. There is greater detail of the ice bears and their kingdom, but much of the movie glosses over much of this in favour of the polar bear fight. It feels rushed. I think even if you haven’t read the book you would still feel that there was something missing. You cannot have your audience feeling like there is something missing, especially if it’s an adaptation. Because their will those people who pick out this inconsistencies between the different forms.

A note to consider, the screenwriter do not have an easy job. They are the ones to cherry pick the book’s details and turn printed words to visual media. Having written a dew short plays, I understand that plays (screenplays) are more dialogue-sentric, and this is different to print media which is descriptions and dialogue combine. To movie a good movie you have to know what is good dialogue and what are good visual elements. I understand better why playwrights and screenwriters have a hard job. The Golden Compass’s consistency is overall more fluid.

For consistency The Golden Compass rates a 7 out of 10. This is because the ending was chewed up and spit out from book to movie. There is a decidedly lack of consistency from when the Ice Bear, Iorek Byrnison reclaims his amour in Trollesund to the travels north to Lord Asriel’s prison.

Second point: Order of things. It goes with consistency. This doesn’t mean that I find every since instance of misplaced scenery or dialogue bothers me. Under certain circumstances I can understand why the order might have been shifted. The problem is this, often in fantasy movies made from books the story usually has to play out a certain way. This means that Person A meets Person B and encounters Event C. If you have Person D meeting Person A first and Event E happens then many times the story will have to change within the screenplay to have the whole of the story make sense.

What I mean is that having the polar bear fight happen before Lyra gets to Bolvangar does not make sense if she still has to travel through the Ice Bear’s Kingdom to get to Lord Asriel’s prison. The bears are the one holding Asriel prisoner, if Iorek has already defeated Ragnar then it should make sense to have Iorek take Lyra to Asriel. Not straight to Bolvangar, and then to Asriel’s prison. It seems weak and poorly planned, hence inconsistent and out of order.

In the choice to move Bolvangar to the end, after the polar bear fight, wasn’t nearly as bad as what they did to the ending. This is a far more heinous act and more on that later. It still felt wrong, again I am aware of both versions and this makes me a bit biased. But when I look at the Bolvangar scenes I feel that by placing it out of order you are losing something, or at least you are rushing the stories that take places there. It is a bit frustrating when there is much more detail nuances and stories that can be told of the children. That fits right into my next point.

Out of order: A-. The movie was spot on until Polar Bear fight and Bolvangar.

Third point: Getting shit wrong! The single most irritating thing I have run across in any of these reviews it when the director, producer, screenwriter, or someone get facts blatantly wrong. There shouldn’t be a problem with naming the polar bear king Iofur, yet the movie calls him Ragnar. WTF, movie?!?!? Yes, there are times when one can probably come and defend these choices made. But simply put, if you know a character is named, or a character exists and then you change it to another, you suddenly it change the dynamic of the movie. And it does bother me, because these characters exist for a reason. So to callously toss them aside just seems wrong to the storyteller in me.

See, The Golden Compass is not unique to getting things wrong. It just has some glaring mistake. Yes, I realize that if you don’t read the books, then some of this is lost on you. But there are just simple basic that everyone should get, like King Ragnar (called Iofur in the book) or calling the animal souls of people Demons when the spelling and pronunciation is DAE-MON. It’s not just in The Golden Compass, the movie Eragon also changes the names of town visited and switching out one name for another. Eragon Review: read here if you are curious about my feelings on that one. It seems paltry, but to simply get names and basic elements wrong feels like they weren’t trying.

Getting Shit Wrong: C. I can’t give it more, because the shit that they got wrong was pretty big. As a writer, I felt that it was a disservice to the story.

Okay, so you didn’t like it then?

Nope, not even saying that this time around. Yes, there are the small and petty things I noticed. It want I do.. I could be here all day and night complaining and arguing why Pantalaimon, Stella Marie, and Hester are the only daemons who speak out loud. Never mind that these characters have big name voice actors attached to them. And generally Daemon’s only talk to their human half or other daemons. You pay good money to have Kathy Bates voice a rabbit for three lines and yet other daemons who are represented much more don’t speak at all, like Mrs. Coulter’s golden marmoset. That’s but minor. When I watch the movie, I still felt engaged, vested in the story. Yes, I clearly love top pick apart these movies. It has become a pleasant if unusual pastime.

Still there is much to be admired her. The CGI was awfully good. The daemons were well done, not really cheesy wand much of the time Pantalaimon’s animated in such a way that his character was daring, emotional, and crucial to the story at the right times. The casting was also pretty spot on. Nicole Kidman plays a delightful bitch here and also in the recent movie Paddington (just go watch it). Dakota Blue Richards (who played Lyra Belacqua) needs to be in more movies, because she’s got some talent. Even Daniel Craig, who got shafted out of a really powerful scene at the end was well cast. Action wise the movie was most often spot on with plot and filled a constant energy keeping you vested in the story.

What it didn’t get right was a gross oversight on details that were either skipped over, rearranged, or just plain wrong. As much as I can complain about the concepts mentioned earlier, the one other point that tick me off to one end is changing the ending to make the movie have a lighter, happier ending. The ending of the book is hard and cruel and utterly heartbreaking. But yet so dramatic perfect and a heartstrings moment; and there’s the BIG betrayal at the end is just glossed over. The powerful punch that Phillip Pullman gave to his story is more like a gentle tap on the shoulder.

For you completists, go and watch the revised alternate ending here. Fans of the books will appreciate the effort and anyone who likes a well crafted scene will at enjoy it for what it is. The book is a beautifully complex story and one that should be read. The rich characters and a vastly unique world created and lovingly polished like a piece of fine silver until it shines. If you like a great fantasy, with something a little outside of the box then go check it out.

After all is said and done and this review is posted, I think I will give the book an A and the movie a B-. It was worth the trip, but the staying power is in the book.


  1. Generally I would agree that I prefer the books to the movies, although I don't over think them quite this deep lol. I think the film had a happier ending because it was aimed at kids
    Popping by on the A to Z Road Trip

    1. I definitely agree with you about the ending. I do this in depth review because I find an odd pleasure in comparing the medium. It gives my a healthy and well rounded perspective.


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