It’s got nothing to do with the decision to tone down the references to religion, but the film of The Golden Compass is pretty bad. It suffers from a number of storytelling failures. It doesn’t allow the viewer, particularly anyone who hasn’t read the book, to identify with or come to know any of the characters well, not even Lyra. The narrative line of the screenplay is a jumbled mess. Nobody seems to have made anything approaching a coherent decision about how to establish the dramatic situation in general, or in any of the specific scenes in particular. The pacing of the story is just wacky at points: no tension is built up or sustained. A bit of that pacing and expositionary problem is even evident in the book, to be honest, but the film version is vastly worse.
Plus the ending is a fucking disaster that all by itself practically guarantees the film’s box office failure once word-of-mouth gets around. The book ends on a cliffhanger too, but a much better, richer, more dramatically interesting conclusion that offers some narrative and developmental closure. As the screen started to go dark at the end, I was thinking to myself, “That’s weird, why are they feinting at a conclusion here? They’ve got at least a few more scenes to go.” Then the credits rolled and I just stared in astonishment for a minute, disbelieving.
Spoilers follow if you want to know the specifics.
The film ends with Lyra and her friends heading aboard Lee Scoresby’s balloon to Lord Asriel’s camp to rescue him from forces of the Magisterium. Lyra says something about setting things right, there’s a brief foreshadowing of Roger’s fate, and then fade to black, fin, that’s all folks. This is partly due to a narrative shift in the film in which Lord Asriel is not being held by Iofur Raknison and thus does not meet Lyra when she is at the ice-bear settlement. (She visits it before going to Bolvanger, and resolves Iorek Byrnison’s situation at that time.)
Why this especially astonishes me is that the trailer shows a shaven Lord Asriel in the north gazing in wonder at something bright and skyward, which I took to be the gateway in the Aurora he opens with the intercission he performs on Roger. They filmed the damn scene and they…didn’t…use…it. Why? I really, really want to see someone put that question to Chris Weitz. It makes no sense to me whatsoever. Did they think that the conclusion was too much of a downer, that revealing that Lyra’s mom AND dad are both amoral was too hard a sell? What, as opposed to Lyra perkily saying, “Stay tuned for the next thrilling episode of The Golden Compass, kids!”
I would say that the chances of The Subtle Knife being made into a film are pretty low. Watch for the box-office on this film to tank badly next week. After this adaptation, I almost hope that’s the way it turns out. This makes the somewhat blah adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe look like an astonishing technical and aesthetic triumph in comparison.