It was very hard not to focus on the movie as an adaptation rather than as a movie of its own, having read the books so recently. I couldn't really see how it would play to someone who had no knowledge of the books, except to wince at some of the expository dialogue that's required. Pullman lets you discover everything on your own, but there's no time for that in a two-hour movie! Here's some opening narration spelling out everything important, and here's some daemon rules dropped into children's conversations, and here's an important plot point told to Lyra for NO REASON WHATSOEVER.
I liked the movie much more once we were free of the exposition and things started moving. And they really did move! In the book, there would be all this time in a new location before something exciting happens, but there's no time for that in a two-hour movie! Here's a quick montage of stuff, and here's an attack right off the bat, and here's Lyra having a plan IMMEDIATELY UPON ARRIVAL. Surprisingly, though, they're pretty faithful to the book (with one notable timeline switch), and they keep all the major set pieces (except, of course, for one, but that's something to be discussed under the cut).
The CGI animals were done very well, and I liked how fluidly they changed. I liked that daemons were being themselves and sometimes changing even when they weren't the focus of attention. And, oh man, I kind of loved the sound and visual of daemons exploding into Dust as their humans died. Or, if that wasn't supposed to be Dust, since I don't remember that from the book...exploding into sparkly magical yellow stuff.
The movie is very well cast. Dakota Blue Richards is good, although I feel like the characterization of Lyra is a little wonky. They want to have it both ways: they want to stay true to her dirtier side, but they also want her to be lovable, when, honestly, she's kind of a brat. A brave and loyal brat, sure, but still. I wished they'd done more with her obsession with lying, but I suppose it's hard to get across without her inner thoughts. Eva Green is perfect as Serafina Pekkala, who is a complete and utter badass in this movie. Sam Elliott owns Lee Scoresby, getting across what needs to be gotten across about his character. The Magisterium goons are all very evil-looking, because they are clearly evil.
As everyone knows, they sort of gutted the religion right out of the movie, though there remain a couple vague references that mean what they mean if you know what they mean. But, because they don't come right out and define the Magisterium as the damn Church, their existence and role doesn't really make any sense. The characters' motivations get a bit lost, though the message of "Woo, free will!" remains.
So, I mean, I liked the movie all right, and there was pretty awesome fighting stuff, and it was cool to look at, but the book is a hundred times better.
YOU ARE ENTERING BOOK SPOILER TERRITORY.
The first thing that bugged me was that they changed who poisoned the decanter of Tokay! It was supposed to be the Master! Which was all confusing and ambiguous and interesting, but there's no time for that in a two-hour movie! Just have a Magisterium goon do it.
I totally didn't even notice that they gave Billy Costa Tony Makarios's role because it fit so well with the story. Well done.
Can witches become all invisible and shit in the book? That was cool, but I don't remember it.
The Gyptians really got short-changed. They were barely there, and they kind of made no sense. Farder Corram or Lord Faa or whoever had that weirdly out-of-place speech that went on forever.
I totally agree with cleolinda that Lyra was "weirdly, creepily seductive" when making her offer to Iofur/Ragnar. I hadn't even made the Mrs. Coulter connection, but that scene was great. It was like, "Shit, dude, you're thirteen! Stop being unnaturally sexy. You're not trying to turn on the bear."
Did Lyra consult the alethiometer right in front of him in the book? I thought she went away so he wouldn't know where she was getting the answer. If she's reading some device right in front of him, how does that prove ANYTHING?
Holy God, I was so confused when Lyra ended up in that scene so early in the movie. I thought they'd skipped Bolvangar! But they just moved it to the end, which is perfectly fine, since it has the BIG EPIC BATTLE that was made of awesome.
They fucked up Iorek's renaming of Lyra as Lyra Silvertongue. He didn't fucking explain it at all, and it made no sense since they never talked about how it's supposed to be impossible to trick a bear. And then that didn't even come into play during the big fight because I kept expecting Iorek to attack with the paw he appeared to be claiming was injured, but then the jaw went flying off in the opposite direction, and that was all not very clear at all.
It really bugged me that they had that random scene of Asriel where he, speaking to his daemon, refers to "that Coulter woman." BULLSHIT. He would have called her Marisa. Don't fucking talk about her like you don't know who she is just because THE AUDIENCE doesn't know who she is yet.
I was sort of meh on the way they did the alethiometer. I mean, okay, it would be really tedious to be interpreting symbols in the movie, but that's part of what I love about the damn thing in the first place. All this sparkly gold imagery doesn't really mean anything, and it also does not get across at all what it takes to read the alethiometer, and why only Lyra can read it. And the froofy images don't convey the specific question being asked, which is a very important part of using it! And they never bothered to explain the initial reading, with the hand stopping on the hourglass twice. I don't remember what it meant in the book.
Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra she's her mom?! Way to be all Darth Vader about it, guys.
I thought the line about their "ancestors" was a pretty clever way of getting around not actually mentioning Adam and Eve. I'm glad they kept the basic concept in there.
I got anticipatory chills at "It says I'm bringing him what he needs."
EXCEPT WHAT THE HELL. I KNEW THEY ENDED EARLY BUT THAT EARLY??? They don't even fucking get to Asriel! They took out the ominous dialogue about Lyra betraying Roger, and then she didn't even get to do it in the movie. Look, it's not like the movie is any more complete by ending it here; nothing is resolved except that she saved Roger.
And what really irks me is that I KNOW THEY FILMED THE ENDING BECAUSE IT WAS IN THE EARLY TRAILERS. There are even PICTURES. I was really looking forward to seeing all that cool stuff in this movie, where it belongs, because I am so with hobviously on endings being endings and not forced into the beginning of a story that has its own proper beginning. Without the real ending, Asriel is just a PROP in this movie; it's only at the end of the book does everything truly come into focus. So fucking annoying. Let's be all happy and hopeful and inspiring instead.
From what I've heard, Chris Weitz sacrificed religion and the ending for this first movie so that he could have more freedom on the second and third (which may not even get made now), but it still sucks. Curse you, Hollywood!
But, you know, there was some other good stuff.
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