It's been a few years since I read the book, but to my recollection, the film stuck fairly closely to the text, although of course with some compressions and warps due to distilling a lengthy novel into the space of a standard movie. I was very favorably impressed by the vizualization of Pullman's world, integrating new alternate architecture spires into the Oxford and London skylines, and displaying the "magic" based technologies such as Mrs. Coulter's airship,the self-propelled Hansom cab, and the nasty spy-flies. A very strong performance by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra is well supported by Nicole Kidman as the overtly wicked but conflicted Mrs. Coulter, veteran actors Jim Carter as the Lord of the "Gyptians," Sam Elliot as the aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and the voice of Ian McKellen as armored bear Iorek Brynison. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is off-screen for most of the movie, so there's not really enough there to judge by (although I note that "Lord Asriel" has the same swaggering walk as "James Bond"--). Kidman's Mrs. Coulter is a "piece of work": she cruelly maltreats Lyra in order to enforce her petty will, then demands "Now kiss me!" as a closure. But then later on, she risks her own person to save Lyra from the intercission process--. There's something subtly "wrong" about Kidman's performance, but I'm not quite sure on one viewing whether it is Kidman taking too much pleasure in playing the villain, or the twistedness of the character herself coming through. Either way she is chilling. And her golden monkey is just as odious as one would expect from the books, not only echoing Fu Manchu, but expressing her inner character as vicious and spiteful.
We did not agree with critics of the film, either religious or cinematic, both of whom are writing with foreknowlege of where the story goes after this. In fact, although it's clear that the Magisterium (or some of them) are the bad guys, this script does not contain any overt attack on the Church, religion, or God, so it isn't really true that the film "promotes atheism" save insofar as it is part of a large whole which may eventually do so. Ironically, a common complaint from the cinema side is that the anti-religion knives do NOT come out, but again they are reading ahead, since the more explict critiques of religion and Lord Asriel's plan to overthrow "The Authority" do not come out until later in the series. (I was also dismayed by the ignorant film writer who held out that you could recognize the Magisterium as clergy by their gowns--. In Britain, even that of Pullman's Lyra, lawyers, judges, and public officals wear robes of office, as well as university scholars. In the dinner scene, the Master of Jordan wears his, although admittedly the purple cording seems to owe more to Hogwarts than Oxford. The Magisterium assassin's "M" collar tabs seem like a clerical shadow of an SS tunic--.)
All in all, very well done. Fans of the books in our party were not disappointed, and those new to them were asking where to find them. We all eagerly look forward to the next installment.