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Retro-spective: The Golden Compass (2007)


I’d love to be able to say that the film I am about to share with you was the best of my childhood. I’d love to say it fulfilled all my hopes and matched my imaginings of what was undoubtedly my favourite book series growing up: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. In 2007 the trilogy’s first film instalment was released under it’s American title, The Golden Compass. The change in name from The Northern Lights was the first blow, but it didn’t diminish my excitement travelling to the cinema at the newly re-opened Millennium Dome, similarly renamed the O2, for my twelfth birthday.

The Golden Compass had all the potential to be a great film with seemingly all the necessary ingredients: an all-star cast, stunning Academy-Award-winning visuals and a fabulous storyline that’s captivated millions with the His Dark Materials trilogy being published in more than 40 languages, and selling more than 17 million copies worldwide. The characters are wonderfully acted with Daniel Craig reflecting the authority and resolve of Lord Asriel, Nicole Kidman all the elegance, charm and cruelty of Mrs Coulter, Sam Elliott the soft Texan temperament of Lee Scoresby (other big names include Eva Green, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and even Christopher Lee). Equally, the visuals bring the daemons to life beautifully, and the ferocity of the armoured bears. However, the film failed at the third and most crucial element: the story.

The Northern Lights follows 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua on her quest to rescue her best friend Roger from a sinister, church-run organisation who have been stealing children for chilling experiments involving their ‘daemons’ – part of a person’s soul which always accompanies them and takes the form of an animal. The crux of the story revolves around the ability of children’s daemons to change between animals at will and their loss of this ability at puberty, as they ‘settle’ into a permanent form reflecting the personality of their person. It is at this point the illusive Dust can enter. The books are full of intrigue, conspiracy and fear as the characters collectively search for answers to the question of Dust with Pullman dropping only breadcrumbs along the way and always maintaining a mystery and suspense.

Instead of following suit and building up to a climactic reveal, the film explains Dust in a cinematic introduction in the first two minutes. This along with clumsy, haphazard editing which rather than solely focusing on Lyra’s journey attempts to bring in scenes whose purpose seems only to shoehorn in more airtime for the star cast (for instance one needless action scene which sees Lord Asriel attempt to fight off a group of armed captors serves only to remind the audience of Craig’s new-found Bond glory). The effect is a film stripped of all mystery and anticipation, the distracting scenes being both confusing and dull and adding little to the overall story. The film is rushed and spoon feeds the audience information in such a pantomime-esque way that even I as an avid fan of the books found myself bored and disinterested in Dust or Lyra and her great achievements.

It is both appropriate and tragic that one of the book’s central points was exemplified by the film’s failure; His Dark Materials, aside from a coming of age tale, is about the stifling of curiosity and knowledge by oppressive religious organisations and most obviously reflects upon the Catholic Church. Sam Elliott said “The Catholic Church happened to The Golden Compass, as far as I’m concerned. The Catholic Church … lambasted them, and I think it scared New Line [the production company] off.” The filmmakers censored the religious aspects of the film and ended it short of the book’s own dramatic cliff-hanger due to pressure from American religious groups. The film failed to make enough money at the US box office thanks to a boycott by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, among others, and so the sequels were scrapped.

For fans of the books there is still hope for a re-watchable adaptation (the play alas unlikely to be performed again) with a new BBC TV series. Announcements have been frustratingly lacking in information regarding release date or cast but if they match up to the adaptations of the Sally Lockhart books, another fantastic series by Philip Pullman, then fans surely won’t be disappointed. If that seems like too much uncertainty, in February this year Philip Pullman announced the release of a new trilogy ‘equel’ to His Dark Materials with the first instalment The Book of Dust, to be published in October. I for one am looking forward to it.

Retro-spective is a feature looking back at films through history from a present-day perspective. Image source: Slashfilm.com