I saw The Golden Compass this weekend, which - in case you've been under a rock recently, media-wise - is the big-screen adaptation of The Golden Compass (published in Britain as The Northern Lights), the first volume in children's author (and atheist) Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. While there's been a fair amount of criticism of the movie, I have to say that I loved it.
In saying that I loved it, however, I'm not going to claim it's a brilliant movie. A lot of the criticism that I've seen has focused on pacing - that it's slow and sort of didactic at the beginning, and then that it races at a breakneck pace to the end. And I can understand that criticism. Nonetheless, I adored the movie, which got me thinking about the difference between something being good and enjoying it all the same.
One of the reviews I saw somewhere suggested that viewers would enjoy the movie more if they hadn't read the book, and I actually disagree. I think this goes back to central problem of translating a book to film - how can you do so in a way that preserves the book's essence and adequately represents it? A common response is that people will enjoy a film if they don't know the book, if they don't know what the film really "should" be like and don't know what they're missing. Now, I'm so not a film scholar (or a literature scholar, for that matter), so this is all a layperson's opinion and not a scholarly argument. That said, I can kind of get behind the idea that a movie is never going to be able to transplant a book to the screen - that the very process of changing genres creates something new. You cannot expect a movie simply to transfer a book to the screen, in the same way that writing isn't just about transferring ideas from your brain to the page - in both cases, the very process of transfer creates something new and at least slightly different. And it seems to me that the more a movie is "just like" the book, the less it's likely to be a very good movie (unless of course the book was very movie-like to being with, which is possible). So The Golden Compass can't (nor should it be) simply the book transliterated - it has to be something different. Of course, the problem is that frequently people who know the book from which a movie is taken will measure the "truth" of that movie based on how much it's like the book, and the less it's like the book, the less happy will be the books' fans.
Anyway, what I loved about The Golden Compass was that it created a (beautiful) visual space in which I could relive the books, in a way that was largely dependent on my own knowledge of those books. In that respect, it probably isn't the best movie, because my enjoyment of it depended on something outside of the movie itself. Here the pacing criticism is probably a legitimate one. For instance, there's a point in the movie when Lyra, the protagonist, rides Iorek Byrnison, the ice bear (also known as an armored bear, also known as one of the panserbjorne - and my absolute favorite invention of Pullman's, apart from the very concept of people's souls walking around outside their bodies as animal companions called daemons), across a snowy expanse to a house, where she makes a gruesome discovery. The ride is visually absolutely beautiful. The discovery, however, is made fairly quickly, and the horror that it should inspire in the viewer is probably therefore minimized. Because I'd read the book, however, and because I knew what they were going to find in the house, I experienced the ride as a dreadful moment of suspense, and I responded to the moment of discovery not so much as to what was being portrayed on the screen, but as to how I know it's described in the book. Because I had been horrified when I read that section in the book, I was equally horrified when I saw that part of the movie, even though the movie on its own did not succeed in creating that degree of horror.
It's almost as if I enjoyed the movie so much simply because it reminded me of what happened in the book.
This is not to say that the movie has nothing going for it. It's visually beautiful (though it's probably not for you if you a hard-core minimalist, because it's fairly ornate and elaborate). The special effects are incredibly well done - I nearly swooned when Lyra walks into the palace of the ice bears and becomes the focus of a circle of massive polar bears in armor. (Yeah, I have a thing for the bears.) The performances are wonderful - Nicole Kidman is a spectacular icy evil stepmother, and Dakota Blue Richards does a great job at being an ordinary, obstinate, occasionally bratty girl. (Daniel Craig is also wonderful, though sadly not on-screen very much - I've seen a review call him criminally underused, but dude, he's just not in the book very much!) And while the movie does minimize any direct connection between the evil power-hungry Magisterium and the Christian church, I don't think it particularly butchers the story.
But really, I loved the movie because I love the book, and somehow the movie makers created a world that allowed me to map my own understandings of the book onto their visuals, and that succeeded for me more because of that understanding than despite it.
I should add that this hasn't been the case for other fantasy book-to-movie experiences I've had. I actually think that the more the Harry Potter movies mess with the books - editing, streamlining - the better the movies are; in the case of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I felt like the movie improved on the book, making it into something stronger and cleaner, and I'm happy to expend with some of the book's original details to end up with that result. And in the case of the Lord of the Rings movies, even though there were changes I disagreed with and that jarred me while watching (especially the portrayals of Faramir at the end of The Two Towers and Denethor in The Return of the King, both of which inspired those moments of "What?? Why did they change that? That makes no sense!" that interrupt your immersion in the story), overall the director's vision of that world was strong enough and compelling enough to override mine. I don't think the makers of The Golden Compass were able to accomplish either of those things - to improve upon the book, or to create a vision of the book that stands independently from it - but in conjunction with my own knowledge of the books, they did give me an extremely enjoyable movie-going experience.
(Full disclosure, in case this helps you better understand my comments here: I cried almost every time Iorek Byrnison was on-screen. I was a wreck during the fateful almost-intercision. I am a sentimental fool over this book.)