Boy it's hard to review this one without spoilers. Any discussion of the book will give too much away, so I will mostly stick to the movie.
The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
An alternate world where religion and science are one and the same, spirits are real and technology is still in the Victorian age. A universe where human souls exist outside their bodies in the form of an animal, called a daemon.
And there is Dust. The Church fears these particles coming from the sky, but why? And what are they doing to children in order to fight this Dust? Why should they fight it at all? A young girl named Lyra is in the middle of this conflict. She and her daemon will figure out what this conspiracy at the heart of the Church is, and why she is so important.
She knows her mother is on the side of wrong, so her father must be the good guy, isn't he? Maybe, but maybe not.
This is a sprawling, sweeping epic. Huge in scope and amazing to behold, a well-imagined tale. Lyra is an active main character, and it's refreshing to see this young girl take charge and influence the world around her whenever she can.
It creates an amazing world, and Dust is certainly worth the enormous buildup. The concept behind it takes a bit of rethinking, but it has huge implications and I had to read the rest of the series to find out how this can this possibly conclude.
The Golden Compass (2007)
starring Nicole Kidman
Cramming too much into a tiny space.
The movie follows the events of the book fairly close, but it moves so fast from one event to the other there is no time to digest anything, and they lose all meaning.
Number-one thing the movie fails to establish is that children have been disappearing from all over England. In the book, there's an entire chapter devoted to watching a child on the street snatched up and taken away, and there are rumors of people called Gobblers snatching children in the night, and they prey on children no one will know are missing, such as those of the gyptians. Lyra and her friends on the street even go on semi-play missions around town to find the Gobblers and stop them from taking anyone else.
The movie opens, there's about six lines of dialogue mentioning people called Gobblers and children going missing, and that's all we see. We don't see children taken away. We don't see how it affects any families, and Lyra personally. We barely see Roger. We barely see anyone before the movie rushes Lyra to the world of polite parties and shopping with Mrs. Coulter.
When Lyra's daemon, Pan, finds the list in Mrs. Coulter's room with the list of missing kids, and he makes the connection that General Oblation Board, of which Mrs. Coulter is the head, spells G.O.B., and that spells Gobbler, I said what? Who? Who are the Gobblers? What are they doing? Are they snatching children, and may we see some proof of this?
Lyra escapes Mrs. Coulter and ends up with the gyptians. They tell Lyra they've had so many children stolen from them, and they're going North to find them and bring them home. But wait--who are these people? Have they been losing children? It is never established that anything was going on, and now we're supposed to believe it.
The movie gives answers, but forgets to show the questions. Without getting this across, the entire movie is built on a flimsy foundation, and right from the beginning the audience is left scratching their heads.
I also asked what is the Compass (the alethiometer)? How does it work? How is Lyra reading it? The movie does not show the many levels of meaning the different symbols have, and that Lyra can see these many layers as the compass spells out the answers in its own language. In the book, Pan proposes Dust could be moving the needle, somehow communicating with them. The movie doesn't do this at all. Without showing why this works and what it accomplishes, it makes no sense.
And why does the movie establish there is only one alethiometer left? In the book, there are several still in existence, and these are important in the two latter volumes of the series. Why change that if they were planning to do a trilogy?
But the most critical thing the movie leaves out is the end of the book. The movie cuts the story off just before Lyra meets her father in the North. That's where she learns what Dust is. That's where the whole book comes together and finally--FINALLY!--we learn exactly what the Church is doing, and why, and what the whole series is about. The movie leaves all of that out, which makes the entire story a frustrating paint splatter instead of an intriguing painting to ponder: no reason to look for order and meaning in it because none exists.
The book makes it very clear that science and religion are the same thing in this universe, but the movie doesn't show this. Presumably, we're supposed to be curious what Dust is, but the movie just moves so damn fast, cramming so much story into such a tiny space that it does not feel like anything happened at all.
Oh, it looks so good. This is the world of Lyra's Oxford come to life, but for all the gorgeous visuals the movie throws at us, none of them help to tell the story.
I'm guessing the producers did not want to alienate the Catholic Church, so all references to "the Church" were changed to "Magisterium." The books are very anti-religious, and they make no secret of who is oppressing free thought. The movie goes out of its way to avoid that connection, which cheapens it.
The bears are the most disappointing. The book delves into their society, and how the new king of the bears (Iofur) is trying to change bear society to be more human. He doesn't just want a daemon; he wants to be human, which makes him vulnerable to deception. When Iorek kills Iofur, the bears are glad to be rid of him and return to their normal way of life as bears, not bears imitating humans.
The movie leaves all of that out, so all we see is a couple of bears fighting. Ok, but why? What's at stake? Nothing, as far as the audience is concerned. The book builds up to it much better, giving Lyra an active part in saving herself from captivity. Throughout the book there are entire conversations devoted to the bears, and how Iofur may be deceived. Lyra herself takes these pieces of information and puts them together into a plan to trick him into fighting Iorek to the death, even making Iofur think the plan was his own idea.
The movie gives us one line at the beginning, and somehow Lyra derives from that exactly what lie to tell to make Iofur do whatever she wants. It actually works! It's so ridiculous without more material.
In a prologue, we're told that daemons are a person's soul living outside his or her body. This should be enough to establish why separating children from their daemons is horrible, but it doesn't come into play at any point in the story. Far too much has to be explained because there's no time to show it in action. And then the movie still doesn't explain much.
That truncated ending... It ruins the whole thing! If they had ended the movie the way the book ends, with Lyra meeting her father and learning what Dust is, and why the Church--sorry, the Magisterium fears it, maybe there would be something intriguing to ponder after the credits roll. The one question the movie gives us, and it doesn't answer it! Without that, the movie is instantly forgettable.
I mean that. I watched this in 2008. When I began reading the book in 2014, I couldn't remember a single thing that happened in the film. That has never happened to me before. I have never entirely forgotten a movie! One of my roommates saw it in the theater, and when he came back he remarked that now he'll have to read the book so he can find out what he missed. He was right.
The only memorable part of the movie is Nicole Kidman. She is perfect in the role of Mrs. Coulter, playing the two-faced, cutthroat villain to perfection. But she doesn't have a lot to do, and what she is doing to these children is given no context or purpose, so in the end, her role is easily forgotten, too.
The book does so much more. With more time to show the story and establish the world and the Ch--the Magisterium, this could have been amazing. Skip the movie. Read the books. The scope of the story is enormous, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger as the series progresses. Some details and prophesies established in the first and second books do not come together very well in the third, making the finale a little disappointing, but it's still a decent conclusion. Far more memorable than the movie.
(PS--they had Kathy Bates, and they only gave her two lines?!)