C. A. Casey

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The Golden Compass — The Film

Posted by Casey on December 2, 2007


We went to a sneak preview of The Golden Compass last night. The fact that it was a sneak preview was entertaining in itself. A lady in front of us stood with a clipboard, taking notes on the people coming in, along with counting them with a clicker. She said the film studio wants all kinds of information. The studio should be pleased that most of the audience arrived early and almost filled the theater. They were also a very attentive and respectful of the film. I suspect many were fans of the books. I thought it interesting the only time the audience really came alive and applauded was when the armored bear, Iorek Byrnison defeated the king of the armored bears.


I started reading His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman after I finished the Harry Potter books. These two sets of fantasy works will be forever linked since they became popular at roughly the same time. Although Pullman said in an interview, “I was quite happy for Harry Potter to get all the attention so I could creep in underneath all of it.” The book Northern Lights–known as The Golden Compass in the US–was first published in 1995 and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone–know as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US–was first published in 1997. Both gained popularity in England before crossing the pond for greater fame and fortune.

I wasn’t quite ready to commit to reading another series, so I’m only a couple of chapters into The Golden Compass. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I think I’m ready to read the trilogy.


I’ve read enough of Philip Pullman’s work to know he writes with a depth and intellectual awareness that is not found in Rowling’s work. Like the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, Pullman’s books have strong thematic substructures that are difficult to translate to a visual/aural medium. Since I’ve read only a bit of The Golden Compass, I can’t comment on the faithfulness of the film adaptation to the original text. I can say the screenwriters found a narrative thread that was easy to follow and made sense dramatically.

Having said that, two things I know aren’t the same as in the book. The whole opening sequence with the kids doesn’t open the book and the Master is the one who poison’s the wine in the book, not the scuzzy bad guy from the Magisterium in the film. Maybe I’ll understand these changes when I finish the book.


The director, Chris Weitz, “decided to move the final three chapters of The Golden Compass to the beginning of The Subtle Knife. To me, this provides the most promising conclusion to the first film and the best possible beginning to the second.” Pullman agreed to this change. A similar decision had been made in the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.


At the heart of the series is a tough eleven-year-old girl, Lyra Belacqua. Dakota Blue Richards went to an open audition and beat out 10,000 other girls for the part. It’s a difficult role because Lyra is a tough, unruly, orphan who has basically been allowed to run free and raise herself. So it’s amazing they found a girl who has never acted before, so perfect in the role.

As for the religious controversy surrounding these books . . . It’s fantasy fiction with the same moralistic and thematic weight as those other monumental fantasy series that has drawn some sort of religious controversy. Works such as the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Narnia is usually criticized because it’s too allegorical and LotR for not having any religion at all.


The funniest part of the whole controversy is that the ringleader for the controversy, William A. Donahoe of the Catholic League thinks, because The Golden Compass is the least religiously offensive of the books and the filmmakers supposedly have been careful to keep the offending elements from the film, parents won’t find anything wrong with it and buy the books for their kids to read. Only too late will these parents learn that these books, according to Donahoe “promote atheism for kids.”

An article posted today in the Los Angeles Times puts this so-called controversy into perspective. Laura Miller states in “Religious furor over Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ ” :

Most preposterous, of course, is the idea that anyone would make a $180-million movie with the purpose of tricking children into reading a seditious book. What self-respecting kid ever needed that much encouragement to ferret out whatever the adults are trying to hide?


Also — whoops! — no one’s been hiding “His Dark Materials.” To date, 15 million copies of Pullman’s books have been sold worldwide. “The Golden Compass” won not only the 1995 Carnegie Medal, a prize awarded by British children’s librarians, but also the “Carnegie of Carnegies,” as the public’s favorite book in the prize’s 70-year history. The final novel in the trilogy, “The Amber Spyglass,” won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001, the first children’s book ever to do so. It’s safe to say that copies of the trilogy reside in every decent children’s library in the nation. If there is indeed a “deceitful stealth campaign” afoot to lure children to Pullman’s books — as William Donohue, spokesman for the Catholic League, insists — it’s remarkably short on stealth.

I enjoyed the film. It’s visually stunning, well-acted, and goes along at a good pace. All the critters surrounding the people–their dæmons–are fun to watch and the bears rock. For me, that’s all I need for a good time at the movies.



One Response to “The Golden Compass — The Film”

  1. sparky said

    I enjoy reading your break down of the this movie.
    Support material in reference to the religious points was
    informative and seemed to say it all.
    I’m with you the bears were wonderful.

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