Film Torments: The Golden Compass (2007)

IT’S OSCAR month at SCM, but not the one you were thinking of. This wintry February of Film Torments is dedicated to some of the most undeserving winners of actual Academy Awards, ranging from the overrated to the forgettable to the downright atrocious (and sometimes all three). Kicking us off is Andrew’s takedown of one of the most derided adaptations of modern times: The Golden Compass.

Andrew Noel: Few adult novels are as revered as Philip Pullman’s marvellous, deep, exhilarating Northern Lights, and its respective successors. When I was a boy bordering on the cusp of adolescence, I loved this trilogy. I loved the ideas, the characters, and the other worlds. Of course, the themes of religion dawned on me more as time went on, but the love of the novels didn’t fade.

You can imagine my excitement when they announced a film was being made of the novel. Now, when I actually went to see the film, I left the cinema feeling utterly underwhelmed. So, when Dan suggested we controversially cover Oscar winning films this month, I was surprised to see that The Golden Compass was eligible. I couldn’t resist.

I have no quarrel with the category the film actually won in (Best Visual Effects). The effects in this film are very impressive; visually, the world is as good as I could have ever pictured it in my head. No, I shan’t be chastising the film’s CGI. I also don’t have an issue at all with the casting of the film – even Dakota Blue Richards, whose Lyra is decent, if not perfect.

Dakota Blue Richards - Surprisingly one of the better parts of the film.

Dakota Blue Richards – Surprisingly one of the better parts of the film

The main issues with this film lies in its transition from page to screen, both in the screenplay and by its attempts to meet a family audience. With New Line Cinema at the helm, the company reportedly was desperate to make changes to the film, much to the annoyance of director Chris Weitz. Unlike any torment I’ve done before, The Golden Compass is tricky to justify as being ‘bad’, unless you’re a diehard fan of the book. The fatal flaw of The Golden Compass – the hamartia, if you will – lies in the ending. Spoilers ahead.

As readers of the book will know, the ending of Northern Lights is a sour one. After venturing through the cold north to find her father, Lyra is horrified to discover she has betrayed her friend Roger. By leading him to Lord Asriel, she offers him as a sacrifice for Asriel to use in his experiment. Roger eventually dies as a result of the experimentation and Lyra wanders into the northern lights. It’s an incredibly dark and bitter ending… and not in the film. Instead, Roger and Lyra sail off in a hot air balloon all happy and content.

This completely defeats the purpose of the story. The whole climax of the story is tossed out the window in an effort to make a family friendly film. Screw that! Perhaps the darkest and most twisted aspect of this already dark and twisted story is sapped from the screen. What good is the film without the twist? The audience are deprived from one of the greatest twists in young adult literature, for what? A slightly larger audience?

golden compass 3

Lol where’s the rest of the film?

But don’t get me wrong, this deprivation of ending is not the only victim. The entire film has its violence and religious themes toned down so much it’s actually kind of boring. For example, the fight between Iorek Byrnison and Ragnar Sturlesson (annoyingly changed from the book) is anti-climactic and boring. The violence is toned down from the book, and the tension is zero.

What’s meant to be a high point in the book is reduced to a two minute bore-fest, rounded off by an all too loveable reunion between Iorek and Lyra. The political and religious undertones of the armoured bears is underused as well; Ragnar’s supposed jewelled armour he receives from the Magisterium (a dig at the Pope?) has vanished, along with his ornate palace. The lack of violence is also shown in how the movie depicts a person handling someone else’s daemon. The experience is meant to be sickening, but the film just doesn’t show it the way it could, and should, have been.

The of course we get to the elephant in the room: Religion. While the film tries its best to portray the Magisterium as a corrupt organisation, as opposed to a religious one, it misses the point that Pullman’s novel was trying to make. Of course, had they been explicit in linking the Magisterium with the Catholic Church, there would have been an outcry.

WHOA GUYS LOOK OUT A BIT OF RELIGIOUS IMAGERY SOMEONE CALL THE POLICE!!1!

WHOA GUYS LOOK OUT A BIT OF RELIGIOUS IMAGERY SOMEONE CALL THE POLICE!!1!

Indeed there was, when what looked like a religious icon was shown in one scene, prompting much rage. In a way, it’s probably a good thing they didn’t get round to making sequels; the heresy in those films would have been threefold what was shown in this one. But if controversial films like The Last Temptation of Christ or Life of Brian can be made, why shouldn’t a film accurately portray Pullman’s atheism?

The Golden Compass is an unfortunate example of what happens when a company takes creative control away from a director and an author in an effort to make a movie a commercial hit, as opposed to something people can be proud of. I am not always an advocate of remakes, but in this case I would make an exception. Give it a 15 rating (an ideal target market), increase the violence and the distress, and scrap the coyness of the religious aspect and you might actually have an adaption to be proud of.

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