After reading The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman I decided to check out the movie version despite numerous warnings from other people who had also read the book. I really liked the story and since reading and re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy I have learned to be a little bit easier on film adaptations. I thought that I would check it out for myself. The result was a rekindled hatred in film adaptations of books. There were so many things that I hated about this movie but before I get into those I would like to point out that the film did have two redeeming qualities; Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby and Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison. That being said, two well casted roles were not enough for me to like this movie.
Let's start from the beginning. The movie opens with the voice of a narrator, I am assuming Lyra's voice, that blatantly explains that there are multiple worlds and that in "her" world people's souls reside outside their bodies in the form of daemons. As soon as this voice began to speak I should have realized how bad the film was going to be but for some reason I kept watching. I don't like this narrative voice for a couple reasons. For one, the beginning is the ONLY time that it appears in the film. I think that is just seems kind of lazy or sloppy or both. If you are going to set up a film in the context of a narrative the narrative voice should probably be consistent throughout the movie. Otherwise you don't get a sense of who the narrator is and why they are speaking or telling the story. Essentially the voice becomes a tool to throw some information at the viewer. That is really what it felt like. In Pullman's novel he begins with the story in progress and allows the reader to make inferences about the world that he sets up through sensory details, interaction between characters and interesting scenes that develop the plot as well as the world. In the film it felt as if they were shoving Pullman's world down our throats both with this opening narrative voice and awkward expository dialogue throughout.
On that note I also feel that many of the transitions and major changes throughout the film seemed incredibly forced. I'm thinking of when Serafina Pekkala literally drops in from out of nowhere and decides to introduce herself to Lyra for no apparent reason. Also the scene where Lyra and Iorek go off to find the severed child then the gyptians storm in and a battle erupts. It was like they just mashed together a bunch of parts from the book without really thinking about it too much. I just kept wondering where the Gyptians came from and how they got there so fast. Quite possibly the worst transition in this movie and probably the worst transition I have seen in ANY movie was the shift from Svalbard to Bolvangar. After the battle is over Iorek just says, "And now, I will take you to Bolvangar" and immediately there is a cut to her riding him across a snow covered field. I actually had to rewind that part and watch it again because it was so unbelievably bad. In general all of these forced transitions and moments in the film made me feel as if I were being beaten over the head with the plot of Pullman's novel.
There is also the matter of one of the most fundamental changes to the plot in the film adaptation. They completely switched the events of Svalbard and Bolvangar for the sole purpose of hyping up the battle scene at the end. I felt that this switch really took away from the complexity of the events at Svalbard. In the film we didn't get any sense that Iofur Raknison (renamed Lord Rakna in the film, presumably because it sounds cooler) is trying to go against his bear nature and act more human. Moreover, we don't see that the struggle between Iorek and Iofur is really about the conflict between two ideologies that will ultimately determine the fate of the bear race. They might as well have cut the entire sequence from the movie altogether. I also found the actual battle scene between the bears pretty tame and disappointing. When Iorek knocks off the other bear's jaw I was really hoping to see his tongue flop out like it describes in the book...then Iorek doesn't even eat his heart! It seems like they tried to downplay some of the more gruesome elements of the story in an effort to make the movie appeal to a younger audience. I found this disappointing because one of the things I liked about Pullman was that he did not seem to censor or restrict himself despite the fact that he wrote for a younger audience.
Related to the issues of censorship and restriction is the ending of the movie...Lyra and Roger fly off into the sunset in Scoresby's balloon. Credits. It seems like in an effort to make the end more appealing to younger audiences they really limited the possibility of a sequel. So how does the Subtle Knife movie start? They land the balloon, Lord Asriel brutally murders Roger in an effort to tear open the fabric of reality and thousands of kids expecting another delightful romp featuring talking bears run from the movie theater screaming and crying. I don't see it happening. If they are going adapt the whole trilogy it seems like it would almost make more sense to start again by remaking The Golden Compass with the whole project in mind. I can only hope that happens because the movie version I saw butchered a story that I really liked. It would be nice to see a version come out that actually does it justice.