The Golden Compass

Movie Information

The Story: A young girl is the key to fulfilling a prophecy that threatens the foundations of the ruling faction of her world. The Lowdown: Creative, entertaining and sometimes disturbing (in a good way), this is a fantasy film with more going for it than just elaborate effects.
Genre: Fantasy
Director: Chris Weitz
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Sam Elliott, Ian McKellen, Eva Green
Rated: PG-13

I’m perplexed by two issues concerning Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass. The first of these is similar to what I felt 23 years ago when David Lynch’s Dune came out. People called it incomprehensible, and told me I wouldn’t be able to follow the story line if I hadn’t read the book. When I saw that film for myself, I had no idea what they were talking about, since it didn’t seem especially hard to follow. The same is being said about The Golden Compass, and again I haven’t read the source book, but following the story of the film didn’t present much of a challenge.

Then I hear that the books in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman have been watered down thematically in the film. It’s said that the novels’ direct attack on organized religion has been subverted and replaced with a kind of safer antitotalitarian government theme. I’ve no doubt that the irreligious elements have been toned down, but there’s enough antireligion subtext in The Golden Compass to fuel pages and pages of academic studies.

For that matter, some of it is hardly subtext. There are obvious parallels to the age-old business of religion keeping knowledge from people on the pretext of doing so “for their own good.” There are discussions in the film that clearly refer to the idea of original sin. Moreover, the armor that was stolen from the bear Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) is said to be hidden in an “outpost of the Magisterium” (the Magisterium being the name of the controlling government—and not, coincidentally, the name of the Catholic Church’s “divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion”), which is revealed to be a building festooned with Russian Orthodox religious iconography. It is also stated that Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is going to be tried and executed for “heresy”—and heresy is generally applied to religious dogma, not to political concerns.

Either the toning down is all a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to defuse complaints by certain religious groups about the film’s content, or it’s a sly comment on the increasingly narrow gap between church and state. Possibly, it’s both. But what surprises me is the way in which all this content is being overlooked. On balance, I’d say that The Golden Compass is easily as antireligion as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) is pro-religion. The Golden Compass is simply subtler about it—as well as considerably more lively and entertaining.

Theological concerns to one side, The Golden Compass is a very agreeable fantasy that takes place in a skewed parallel world that looks like our own, but is as much different as it is the same. But unlike the worlds of fantasies like Narnia or the Lord of the Rings films, the world in this film feels a lot like the world as an imaginative child might see it—with people having “souls” that exist outside themselves (represented by companion animals called “daemons” that are not unlike witches’ familiars) and mysteries at every turn. It’s the sense of the mysteries and the discovering of their solutions that makes the film a particularly agreeable viewing experience, because it actually mirrors the sense of youthful discovery with the world falling into place—albeit not always pleasantly.

The central premise of a young girl, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), being the key to fulfilling a prophecy—a prophecy the forces of reason would like to see fulfilled, and one the Magisterium would like to see thwarted—isn’t exactly original or inspired, but it’s perfectly workable for the purposes of the film. The other characters—from the icy villainy of Mrs. Coulter (your chance to see Nicole Kidman spank her daemon monkey), to the stoic rationalism of Lord Asriel, to the gruff heroics of Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott)—are amusingly and creatively drawn. The one exception to this is Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala, who is only sketched in and serves (at least in this film) a wholly sorceress-ex-machina function.

Overall, the batting average is high, however, and while effects are central to the film, they don’t give it its greatest interest. Unlike most fantasy aimed at younger audiences, there’s a singularly disturbing undercurrent at work here that sometimes recalls Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children (1995), and which imbues the film with a weightiness that’s unusual in such works. It’s not a perfect movie, nor a great one, but it’s one where I’m actually intrigued to see the next two entries—and that’s saying something in these days of sequelitis. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “The Golden Compass

  1. I felt like Weitz lost the soul of the characters in all the violence. The only thing propelling the move from scene to scene was the next battle sequence. I also felt that the movie was a mere summary of the book, rather than being compelling in its own right.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I can’t really argue the point about it being a mere summary of the book, since I haven’t read the book, but I found it surprisingly compelling on its own. This may simply be a case where having not read the book makes it a more agreeable experience.

  3. Movies are always approximations of books. I first learned this when James Grady’s “Six Days of the Condor” (a book I had read and enjoyed) was filmed as “Three Days of the Condor” (albeit Robert Redford did well in it). But movies are really short stories, not books — no room for a novel’s nuances of action and depth of character. “Dune,” as Ken points out, is another excellent example of a novel with a vast landscape being pared into a movie. As a longtime science fiction fan and author, I say ‘read the book(s)’ on that one. The first novel in the series — “Dune” — is one of the greatest SF novels ever, the many others following it by Frank Herbert, then his son and others, fall off rapidly in quality, alas, but “Dune” itself is seminal.

    After I become a writer myself and did some movie novelizations, I found all this works in the reverse as well. Taking a movie/short story format and turning it into a book requires extrapolating a great amount of detail to the characters and events in the plot that movies only allude to in passing, or ignore totally.

    As to “The Golden Compass” we saw it Tuesday. The effects and the world depicted in the movie were strikingly done. The plot more simplistic than not and certainly did not do full justice to the book. Still, I enjoyed it a lot. ;-)

    As to the so-called religious or anti-religious of works such as the Dark Matters series or Harry Potter or Narnia — they are only entertaining stories and will not subvert your mind. Enjoy them for what they are.

  4. Ken Hanke

    “As to the so-called religious or anti-religious of works such as the Dark Matters series or Harry Potter or Narnia—they are only entertaining stories and will not subvert your mind. Enjoy them for what they are.”

    While I’d agree that these things can be enjoyed however one chooses, isn’t a little much to suggest that their thematic material isn’t part of what they are? That said, if THE GOLDEN COMPASS in any form can shake your faith, or if the NARNIA stuff can rattle my agnosticism, then neither were too strong to begin with.

    As for THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, perhaps the most remarkable thing about that whole episode was when they put out the movie tie-in paperback of SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR and retitled it THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR despite the fact that the book still dealt with twice as many days.

  5. Orbit DVD

    Saw this last night…

    I liked it, but it left me scratching my head and wanting more. I know that books are hard to translate to movies sometimes, but this one seemed like the worst case scenario. Nothing was resolved and it looks like that there will not be a sequel.


  6. Ken Hanke

    I wouldn’t rule out a sequel, because it’s made a lot more money internationally than it has here. What worries me is that they’ll take the bargain basement path and make cheesy sequels. They definitely made this with sequels in mind, but then they also thought it’d hit bigger than it has.

    But take heart — ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS took in about $30 million more than was predicted, so we’re almost certainly going to get another one of those. It makes me despair for humankind.

  7. “But take heart—ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS took in about $30 million more than was predicted, so we’re almost certainly going to get another one of those. It makes me despair for humankind.”

    I’ll break out my CHIPMUNK PUNK 8-track in celebration.

    I wonder if people are tiring of the effect-heavy fantasy film, or maybe trilogies in general.


  8. Ken Hanke

    “I wonder if people are tiring of the effect-heavy fantasy film, or maybe trilogies in general.”

    With ALVIN I think people are merely expressing their God-given right to evidence the decline of civilization. As for the failure of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, it’s probably as much the fault of a film of this sort with a female lead (traditionally a harder sell with this kind of material) as anything — that and the fact that the books aren’t that well known in the US (the latter supported by the overseas box office).

  9. I think the overseas haul might have something to do with the alleged anti-Catholicism. Remember how well THE DAVINCI CODE performed?

    As far as Alvin, there’s not too many remakes or sequels this holiday season, but I bet its success will validate the reason why they rehash the old shows in the first place.


  10. Ken Hanke

    “I think the overseas haul might have something to do with the alleged anti-Catholicism.”

    Not sure I can see that, since we aren’t essentially a Catholic country while many of the European countries where it’s playing well are.

    As for ALVIN…well, it’s partly the fact that it’s something new you can take a kid to, or that’s the perception. Otherwise, it’s a case of Mr. H.L. Mencken still being right with his “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

  11. Chip Kaufmann

    THE GOLDEN COMPASS leaves off the all important but very downbeat ending of the first book. It was shot but cut shortly before the film’s premiere which shows New Line’s lack of confidence in the material. They say they hope to use it in the sequel if there is one. Judging from the overseas box office and the fans of the books in the U.K. they’ll probably do one but as of now according to IMDB there’s no sequel in production and whether Craig and Kidman will be back is a major question considering their other commitments and their salaries.

  12. Ken, the DAVINCI CODE did extremely well in Catholic countries, one of the biggest hits of all time in them I believe. THE GOLDEN COMPASS might be repeating that.

    Minor Spoiler!!!

    I haven’t read the books, but the disappearance of Craig’s character and him not being found at the end was a disappointment for me. Some films I don’t want tidy little conclusions, like the new Coen Brothers, but some of them I do, like this one.


  13. Ken Hanke

    “Ken, the DAVINCI CODE did extremely well in Catholic countries, one of the biggest hits of all time in them I believe. THE GOLDEN COMPASS might be repeating that.”

    But the thing is that THE DAVINCI CODE did extremely well in this country, too, so I’m not getting your point. You’re saying that a supposedly anti-Catholic work will do better in a predominately Catholic country? That’s a line of reasoning that escapes me. The fact that the books are better known in Europe than they are here strikes me as the more likely key.

    I really don’t see the problem with the end — even though it doesn’t go as far as the book. I find it no more inconclusive or unsatisfying than the end of the first LOTR film

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