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The Golden Compass

The 2007 film adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy novel.

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Unraveling the Mystery of Dust in the Far North

  • Dec 24, 2008
WARNING: This review may contain spoilers!

I suppose it's not surprising, what with the current trend of adapting fantasy literature into films, that Philip Pullman's novel The Golden Compass should become a major motion picture. What is surprising is who ended up writing the screenplay and directing the film. Chris Weitz, best known as one of the producers of the American Pie films, seems an odd choice to adapt the epic fantasy story for the silver screen and yet his commercial success gave New Line Cinema the courage to greenlight the project. Adapting Philip Pullman's novel proved to be a daunting task and though much of the more controversial subject matter within the plot has been omitted, the film is fairly faithful to the conceit of the book. But the film suffers from a lack of thematic depth, which can be attributed to the removal of the book's religious and political commentary.
Lyra and Iorek
It should also be noted that the film ends in an abrupt and emotionally unsatisfying manner. Apparently this is because the studio was not confident that the film would be successful and they didn't wish to end the film with a cliffhanger.

The story, which is set in a universe parallel to our own where people's souls take on the physical form of animals called dæmons, follows a feisty and rebellious young girl named Lyra Belacqua, an orphan who lives at Jordon College in England. After a series of widespread kidnappings Lyra half-jokingly promises to rescue her best friend Roger if he is ever kidnapped. Little does she suspect that such a thing will actually happen.
When Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel, makes a visit to the college to announce a startling discovery in the Far North, Lyra has no idea of the far-reaching implications. Lord Asriel has discovered a connection between the mystical substance Dust and the divisions that separate parallel worlds. This controversial revelation places both he and Lyra under the watchful eye of the Magisterium, a vast totalitarian government, which uses religion to subjugate the masses. But all is changed when the beautiful and authoritative Mrs. Coulter invites Lyra to join her at her home and then journey with her to the Far North.
Before her departure, Lyra is given a tremendous gift from the Master of the College, who bestows unto her an alethiometer (or Golden Compass). The alethiometer has the power to tell the truth to anyone who can read its symbols.
At first Lyra relishes the attention and the luxuries that Mrs. Coulter showers upon her, but then Lyra begins to see a controlling, manipulative side to her new guardian. One night Lyra and her dæmon Pan come across a list of children's names and to her shock, she finds Roger's name is on the list. She then realizes that Mrs. Coulter is behind the kidnappings. Lyra runs away, but she is pursued by sinister agents. Luckily she is rescued by Gyptians, a nomadic people, who are seeking revenge on the Magisterium.
Learning to read the alethiometer, Lyra soon realizes that a great destiny is set upon her. She meets and befriends an Armoured Bear named Iorek Byrnison, a beautiful witch named Serafina Pekkala, and an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby. Lyra continues her travels north, and along with her new allies, overcomes many perils including savage Armoured Bears, and soldiers.
Yet nothing can prepare Lyra for what she finds in the Far North. There she learns what became of the kidnapped children and the horrible truth about Mrs. Coulter. In the end Lyra and her companions must face the power of the Magisterium, and either succeed in freeing their world and all others from its tyrannical grasp or die trying.

The film features a spectacular cast including Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, and Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala. The film also features Christopher Lee, Derek Jacobi, and the voices of Ian McKellen, Freddie Highmore, and Kathy Bates. The entire cast is superb especially the young Dakota Blue Richards, whose portrayal of plucky heroine Lyra has unfairly been overlooked by most critics.

The den of the armoured bears...
The Golden Compass, which is the first part in a trilogy, failed to become a hit in the U.S., so it's questionable whether or not the next two books in the series shall ever be adapted into films. Sadly, this means that the adventures of Lyra (at least cinematically) are left without an ending. This certainly detracts from the enjoyment of watching the film, but perhaps there is still hope that the next two books will be given a cinematic treatment and thus provide viewers with a sense of closure.

It's unfortunate that the film was a Box Office disappointment and that we may never find out how Lyra's adventures come to their end, but there are reasons for the film's poor reception from audiences. One of those reasons is New Line's overly ambitious and foolhardy marketing strategy. In the very first trailer they dared to make a comparison between this film and the beloved The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. This in itself was like committing Box Office suicide. Another reason for the film's failure to attract large audiences is the controversial thematic materials of the books. A major theme of Philip Pullman's books is that of rebelling against authority and religious dogma. Cleverly (and some would say subversively) exploiting taboos within Judeo-Christian beliefs, Pullman weaves a tale of redemption, not through a higher power but through the power of the self. As a result the Catholic Church boycotted the film, deeming it heretical in its content.

Overall, The Golden Compass is an admirable yet deeply flawed epic. Though it features a strong cast and gorgeous visual effects, these can also be found in the Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia series. What really hurts the film is the inexperience of its writer/director and the lack of faith that the studio placed in him. It's ironic, but ultimately the film about a Golden Compass finds itself lost.
Early Poster Lyra and Iorek Lyra in the Lair of the Armoured Bears

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January 14, 2010
glad you and I see eye to eye on this. Despite its flaws, I somewhat enjoyed it.
January 14, 2010
Trashie thought it was embarrassingly bad, whereas I felt that it was merely mediocre. The book is so much better!
More The Golden Compass reviews
review by . September 17, 2008
When this movie was green-lighted for production, the studios were obviously hoping to hop on the Fantasy Movie bandwagon and take advantage of the momentum created by the Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies.  Despite the very high quality of the visual effects, this movie was poorly executed.  Part of the problem may be a result of the movie being based on the first book of a trilogy.  I won't ruin the movie by giving away any spoilers... essentially because the movie abruptly ends …
review by . April 29, 2009
I was greatly disappointed with this film after hearing how wonderful the books were. It was boringly long and the characters lacked any depth especially the various children and the little girl who has the power to be able to ascertain the truth through the compass.     The one interesting thing about the movie is that everyone has their own personal daemon that looks like an animal. The daemon is able to change at will between different types of animals until its host attains …
review by . November 15, 2008
Short Attention Span Summary (SASS)     1. A governing body called the Magesterium sets the rules and tells people what to think and when to think it.   2. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) aren't very good at following rules.   3. In this world, a person's soul lives outside of their body in the form of an animal called a daemon.   4. Mrs. Coulter has one heck of an ugly soul, and a …
review by . June 07, 2008
This movie is based on a book, the first book of a trilogy. I have never read any of these books, and have no intention to, so this review is purely of the movie itself, as a standalone piece of entertainment.     First of, contrary to what some other reviews have suggested, there is minimal resemblance between this movie and the LOTR, Narnia, and Harry Potter movies of recent release. Unlike LOTR, this movie is more intellectual and the conflicts more subtle and nuanced. For …
review by . May 21, 2008
I've been looking forward to this film for the past couple of weeks. And while there are a lot of very strong reviews for this film there were one or two which really slated it, so I expected an average forgettable film which might at least entertain me. And I do like fantasy stories.    This movie was an if for me at first, being that it just seemed like one of the many quickly thrown together fantasy novels/movies that have supposed huge followings. However, I found myself …
review by . May 03, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
It is easy enough to say that "the book was better than the movie" -- since it is usually true that books offer a wealth of world that can only be hinted at in a couple of hours -- but this is a clear and disappointing case where the cliche fits. Even films like the Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series don't really measure up to the original books they were based upon -- but in the case of those films, especially the Lord of the Rings series, the movies work on their own. They establish …
review by . May 03, 2008
Not being one who seeks out the seemingly endless line of Harry Potter/Narnia/Lord of the Rings tropes (a little computer generated monster realm goes a long way), THE GOLDEN COMPASS came somewhat as a pleasant surprise. Yes, this is still a fantasy film, but the emphasis is more on stylish creation of various animals (in the forms of 'daemons' that accompany children as their souls, morphing into various animal life at will) than tiresome explosions and flying beasties.    Lyra …
review by . December 28, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Special effects, especially with regards to the daemons.      Cons: Inconsistent acting, horrible pacing, and very bad music      The Bottom Line: Difficult to recommend. If special effects make or break a film for you, watch it in the theater, otherwise wait for DVD.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.      The Golden Compass is a difficult movie for people who …
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About this movie


The Golden Compass is an adaptation of the first book in the beloved but controversial fantasy series by Phillip Pullman. The story opens with Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) an orphan girl who lives in an alternate world that is similar to earth, but where people's souls exist outside of their bodies in animal form. The people are ruled by a shadowy and oppressive council known as the Magisterium, which is doing it's best to keep everyone from getting information about what is called "Dust." Lyra's Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) has been researching Dust, and he has seen to it that Lyra is given safe shelter at Jordan College. But when the visiting Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) arrives, she asks Lyra to accompany her on a trip to the North to meet the Panserbjorne, a race of armored bears. Before Lyra leaves, the Headmaster gives her a golden compass, a device which only she can read, and from which she can intuit the truth. Lyra leaves with Mrs. Coulter, but when she learns that her friends have been ...
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