The Golden Compass

I watched this back in 2007 because I adored the book(s) (by Philip Pullman) and was optimistic. Oh 2007, the days of wild optimism.

The movie is…not good. It’s not rotten, there are some attempts at goodness, especially from Nicole Kidman and the visual effects department. But it’s like someone put The Golden Compass through a strainer to sift out all the best bits and made a movie with the wrong bowl.

Yes, movie studios were desperate to recreate that Harry Potter magic, but Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was always a little more cumbersome than its wizarding counterpart; Pullman’s work was not specifically meant for young audiences. But some intrepid readers found him anyway, and loved the way he combined physics, philosophy, and theology but made them accessible via a young protagonist. Those are not exactly movie-friendly themes, and the trilogy’s criticism of religion was of course controversial. When the film got released, christians boycotted it for its anti-religion reputation but secularists balked at this theme’s dilution (and some would say absence).

The film shows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan living in a parallel universe where a dogmatic ruling power called the Magisterium opposes free inquiry and every person has their inner spirit manifested as an animal, which they call a daemon. Before settling into a single shape in adulthood, the deamons of young children tend to shape shift quite a lot. Which is not much use when children are being kidnapped by an unknown group called the Gobblers who are supported by the Magisterium. Lyra joins a tribe of seafarers on a trip to the far North, the land of the armoured polar bears, in search of the missing children.

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There’s more to it than that, a lot more to it. It’s not so bad when you’ve got the book in your hands. You can take a break when you need to think on things, or digest others. You can flip back a few pages, read with new insight and understanding. But movie audiences have to take what you’re given, and if a director foolishly tries to stuff too much detail into too thin a story, it’s not just overwhelming but it turns what should be a fun entertainment or a version of escapism into an exercise in fact sorting and memory retention.

There are some dazzling effects and I’m not going to lie: armoured polar bears are kinda the best. Which is why so many of us rooted so hard for the movie. But the movie was too self-important, too busy setting up the next in the series that it forgot to give us a satisfying experience in the present. Which, as you know, not only resulted in its poor performance at the box office, but it ground production on the next two to a complete and final halt. No one will reattempt this for another quarter century. Which is really too bad, because if you’ve read the book(s), you know there’s a compelling story in there, and it shouldn’t be this hard to tease it out.

16 thoughts on “The Golden Compass

  1. James

    Loved the books, but like you, fairly underwhelmed by the movie although I didn’t hate it. Haven’t seen the recent BBC adaptation yet, but I’ve heard that’s pretty good. Maybe it was more suited to TV?

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    1. fragglerocking

      I haven’t seen the movie but have read the books and did watch the TV series which was well received by most book readers. I do think though if you haven’t read the books ( my OH hasn’t ) it is still confusing. Beautifully filmed though.

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  2. The Butcher

    The golden compass is a film that I saw when I was very young and that I appreciated at the time. After the film I recovered the Pullman trilogy and I was shocked at how many things were not present in the fur and how they tried to hide the themes present in the book. I rigurdai a few years later and in that case I noticed several flaws in the narrative. A shame because as a trilogy it could work very well. The TV series they have done now seems more faithful to the book, above all as regards the atmosphere and the spirit.

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  3. Liz A.

    I was confused by the movie, if memory serves. The TV adaptation was way more clear, although I really, really hated the ending. I suppose that’s how the book ended, setting up the next book. See if you can get a hold of the TV version. You’ll probably like that better. (It was on HBO here. I don’t know what it’s on elsewhere.)

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  4. jeanleesworld

    My husband still hasn’t forgiven me for taking him to this film (in his defense, he’s never been a fantasy fan, but he was being kind to come with me). I highly enjoyed these books, and was really bummed to see the story gutted for the sake of mass appeal. It’s a pity when a group of people–my fellow Christians, in this case–can’t respect a difference of belief and acknowledge that for Christ’s sake, IT’S A STORY.

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  5. Paul

    I watched this when it came out, not having read the books, and was completely underwhelmed by what appeared to be a rather forgettable fantasy.

    Having watched the film more recently, after having read the books, I think the producers were trying too hard to make a film that would appeal to everyone. They would have been better off to accept that, whatever they did, someone was going to be annoyed and decided who was, and wasn’t, their target audience.

    Instead, they delivered a great steaming pile of bland disappointment.

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  6. The Telltale Mind

    My wife and I just started the television show and so far it’s been all right. I don’t remember the movie too much except for the polar bears. I’ll stick with the show instead of a re-watch.

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  7. Widdershins

    I hadn’t read the books when I saw this so I went in blind and liked it … and waited for the next installment … Oops … read the books after that and enjoyed them, and yeah, not really for kids. 🙂

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  8. Kendall

    These are some of my favorite books! I think they are great for kids to read…and the to read again when they are older and can understand some of the bigger issues! I discovered them only a few years back. When the craze hit, I wanted as much of this world as I could get, so I tracked the movie down. While watching, I was excited because I understood it. Later, it wasn’t as great as I thought and there were so MANY necessary elements missing. Great review!

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