The Golden Compass

I have some words of advice for any of you who are planning to see this movie: don’t.

I know that there’s no accounting for taste and all, and generally when I review something unfavorably, I expect some people to disagree. But this is, bar none, one of the worst movies ever made. It’s certainly the worst movie I’ve seen this year, and possibly this decade. Not only was The Golden Compass absolutely vile, it was also a complete disservice to the book. I hope that Philip Pullman is covering his eyes in shame somewhere for even allowing such a project to be associated with him.

Now, one of my main irritants with people who criticize things is that they often cannot explain why, exactly, they think that something is terrible. Which makes it difficult to argue with them, because they keep going “oh, it’s just awful.” So I thought I’d set out some talking points to explain why this film was so bad.

Let’s start with why it’s a bad movie.

The dialog was painfully stupid; to the point that we started wondering if the film was the result of an elementary school writing contest. These awkward, stilted, very stagy scenes were spattered throughout the movie, and the stiffness wasn’t from the acting, because the cast was actually quite good. It was obviously the awful script that essentially left the actors hamstrung. The characters were flat and dimensionless, and we didn’t get a chance to learn anything about any of them because they whizzed quickly by on screen.

Had I not read the book, I think I would have been in a state of deep confusion. The movie jumped about by bits and starts, dropping random events into the mix that would leave your head spinning if you didn’t already know the plot. I understand that things need to be cut and moved around to adapt a film from a book, and I accept that, but this was poorly done.

The special effects were…well…awful. The daemons looked awful. The city looked awful. Pretty much everything involving any sort of animation looked just dreadful, or so painfully cheesy that you wanted to cover your eyes. (Which I did at one point, actually.)

Also, the composition was criminal. I think that the camera man actually wandered off a couple of times, leaving the camera pointing roughly in the direction of the scene. There were a couple of times when the framing was so laughable that an absent camera man is the only explanation. I’m all for edgy angles and unusual perspectives, but this was just bad.

As for why it’s a bad adaptation…

It really was a complete slaughter of the book. The book is dark and complex. Readers don’t learn things until the characters do, and we care, deeply, about the characters, because Pullman develops them slowly and elegantly. The book is an adventure to read because there’s so much going on and everything is this great mystery.

The movie was not a mystery, at all. From the idiotic voiceover at the beginning, I knew we were doomed. Instead of lettings things unfold, the movie forced things on us, but only partially, which I imagine was frustrating for people who haven’t read the books. The stupid expository bits didn’t illuminate the story or what was going on, they just added to the confusion. Once again, I know that books are very different from films, and it’s a bit tricky to let a plot unfold in the way it does in a book, but still.

The awkward, stilted dialog left the characters flat, dull, and stupid. They are not stupid in the book. It is a great shame that the film dumbed them down, as one of the things I like about the His Dark Materials trilogy is its intelligence.

The film did not capture the darkness and the terror of the books, the themes about growing up and change. It did not end where the book ended, with Lyra’s betrayal of Roger and that awesome yet awful unveiling of a bridge between the worlds.

I also like how the film completely skated over the fact that the Magisterium is the church. Funny, that. And it provided details in weird ways which really changed the characters and plot for me. For example, Lyra learns from Ms. Coulter herself about her parentage in the film, which is a far cry from hearing the story from the Gyptians in the book, complete with complexities which are related to the themes of the book.

I feel like my comparisons of films to books are often unfavorable, and I think that this is a common complaint, although I have seen a few decent and sometimes even good adaptations. But this film was total garbage from top to bottom, no matter how you look at it, so don’t bother wasting your time. And if someone you know has the gall to say it’s good, you have my permission to smack them soundly about the head and shoulders.

Given that this movie was so awful, I doubt there will be a production of The Subtle Knife, which is probably a good thing. I can only take so much literary desecration before I snap.