The book version of The Golden Compass begins with a bang. The movie version with a lecture.
The film opens with the camera panning across a sea of computer-generated galaxies, and a narrative voice tells us of the underpinnings of Philip Pullman’s world. We learn that many universes lie parallel to each other, and that, in some, human beings have souls that live outside their bodies¯souls that take the form of animals and are called daemons. We then see our heroine, Lyra Belacqua, running through fields, playing with Gyptian (think Gypsy) children. Their adventures end with Lyra making a boastful pact with the ringleader of the Gyptian children, and, to fulfill this pact, she needs to steal an academic gown from a room in the alternate-universe town of Oxford, where she has grown up. After that set-up, we find Lyra sneaking through rooms where no children are allowed, tumbling upon things not meant for her eyes, and getting caught up in an adventure she could not have anticipated.
It may be a good beginning to a movie, but it’s not as good as the beginning to the book, in which the first sentence reads: "Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen." In the book, readers don’t need a lesson on particle physics, and they’re not wondering why a little girl is sneaking through a room; they’re creeping along with her from the moment their eyes hit the page.
I think that sums up The Golden Compass as a movie: good enough, but not as good as the book. The actors are the best part. Jim Carter makes a gentle but fierce and deep-voiced John Faa, who, as king of the Gyptians, leads an expedition to recover children captured for scientific experiments up in the Artic. Sam Elliot plays Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby as the quintessential cowboy, with quick wit, sly charm, and a speedy trigger finger. Most daemons don’t make much of a splash, but Scorseby’s is a hare with huge ears and a Texan drawl, marvelously voiced by Kathy Bates.
The big newcomer in the film is Dakota Blue Richards, the British thirteen-year-old who stars as Lyra. She can be impish, wrathful, and charming all with equal aplomb, and her smile quietly floods the theater with warmth. And then there’s Nicole Kidman, playing Marisa Coulter. Rarely do actresses get to play roles so dangerous and seductive while wearing so much clothing. The first image we have of Kidman is her back as she slinks through a room in a shimmering dress; just from the way she walks you can tell that her character is perilously alluring.
While Kidman is the best performer in the film, my favorite character was the ferocious, curmudgeonly armored polar bear, Iorek Byrnison. When we first meet Iorek, he’s tearing apart his dinner in a back alley behind a bar. He opens his mouth to speak, and out rolls the rich baritone of Ian McKellen with gravelly accents for a more ursine effect. To help him wash down his meal, a bartender hastily appears and pours about a bottle of whiskey into a bucket, which the bear gulps down, the excess running over the side and down his snow-white coat. In battle, the bear rears up and roars, swiping here and there¯by far the coolest and most volatile character in a film this year.
Unfortunately, that’s about all Iorek Byrnison does. He just shows up in his armor, roars, and hits some people. His appearance doesn’t add anything to what Pullman created. This is true for the rest of the characters in the film as well: The fine acting cannot shore up the choppy, rushed script and run-of-the-mill direction. Lord Asriel, the most morally ambiguous¯and therefore most interesting¯character barely shows his face.
The actors are not the only ones who suffer. In the book, Pullman situates the battles as parts of the larger plot. In the film, the narrative breaks down into a melee. In the book, Lord Asriel uses the life force of Lyra’s best friend to blow a hole in the universe. The child dies, but Asriel is now ready to enter other worlds and assemble an army to take on the Authority, Pullman’s image of an evil god. In the film, the moral complexity is left out. There isn’t even a climactic ending. "We’ll set things right," Lyra says, and then our heroine and her companions literally fly off into the aurora borealis.
The ending isn’t the only thing that loses subtlety. It should come as no surprise to those who noted Pullman’s portrayal of religion in his books that the film’s straw god would be even easier to knock down. The Magisterium is the big bad guy in this film, "the ruling power fearing any truth but their own." They’re easy to pick out because every member, every document, every zeppelin of theirs has a handy-dandy M on it. Apparently, this religion doesn’t have a savior or a symbol, they just have an alphabet. Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee play two members of the Magisterium. Add to the mix a henchman named Fra Pavel¯a calmer, more conniving incarnation of The DaVinci Code ‘s albino monk assassin¯and you’ve got quite a crew ready to repress free thinkers everywhere.
I find it hard to believe, though, that many people will leave The Golden Compass afraid of the big bad Church. While the filmmakers may have diminished the overtly religious content a bit, they did amplify the volume (we never actually saw the Magisterium in the book). But contra Bill Donahue and other vociferous critics, neither the film nor the book is likely to make any converts to atheism. Just as most children walked away from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with religious convictions unchanged, so will they leave The Golden Compass as they were when they came.
So if you or your kids want to go see The Golden Compass , go right ahead. You’ll enjoy the marches through the frigid aquamarine landscape. The actors give good performances, and Iorek Byrnison is worth the price of admission. In the end, however, the film’s handling of the narrative undermines the its power. I was not enchanted by Pullman’s books in the way I was with Tolkien’s, Lewis’, or Rowling’s. I left the movie in a similar state: It was good, but not entrancing.
Nathaniel Peters is a junior fellow at First Things .