Among the usual collection of Christmas holiday season movies is The Golden Compass, the film of Philip Pullman's wonderful Northern Lights. I saw the film a few weeks ago with my stepdaughter and two daughters, between us ranging in age from 150 (me) to 24, 16 and 12. We all think we enjoyed it, but we aren't too sure - something of a curate's egg.
The younger generation all felt that you had to have read the book in order to understand the plot and hence enjoy the film. I wasn't so sure -- because for me the film was "good enough" (in the sense that the Harry Potter films are "good enough" renditions of the books though lacking a dimension or two), but it had two stand-out dreadful flaws. The first of these was a voice-over right at the start, which solemnly explains the entire plot in words of one syllable -- what Lord Asriel is doing in the North, the existence and meaning of dust (including detail from book 2) and all you ever could want to know about daemons. Hence, dramatic tension was ruined.
The second horror was that the film ended three-quarters of the way through the book, destroying the terrible balance of Lyra's two parental confrontations and hence the awful power of the story. One of the many reasons why Northern Lights is so thrilling is that Pullman is not afraid to go "all the way" with the evil parent motif -- not just with one parent but both. The author backs down somewhat, but not very far, in subsequent books (one reason why they are weaker); the fierce independence and strength of Lyra, such a fresh character in all of fiction, is severely undermined by this bizarre plot decision.
I can forgive the omission of Lord Asriel's dramatic slamming of the head on the table of the senior common room to the shock of the dons, and (apart from in a brief aside) the gliding over of Iorek Byrnison's true status. These, and other, simplifications weaken impact but don't detract from the power of the story. There were lots of very good things about the film, as described in two excellent reviews at Stephen Lang and at Material Witness. But I can't forgive the awful, unnecessary dumbing-down of the initial voiceover, and I was left high and dry by the decision to truncate the story before its end. It is as if Far From the Madding Crowd ended before Bathsheba finally reciprocates Gabriel Oak's devotion, or as if Othello ended at the death of Desdemona.