Golden Compass Review

I went to see The Golden Compass on Sunday morning, a nice heathen way to spend the hours when so many Americans would be in church, I thought. Sunday morning is a great time to see new releases. There are no crowds, even on opening weekend. And you usually have the theater almost to yourself, amazed to see the lines queued up at the doors to the individual theaters, at the restrooms and concessions, and at the ticket booths outside as you leave the theater a bit after lunchtime.

The Golden Compass was the number one film this weekend, but it grossed only about $26 million, a long way off from recouping the production costs of $180 million. Still, there are overseas and DVD sales to be added into the mix before we’ll know if the movie was a financial success or not. I do hope they will continue the franchise and make the next two films. Somehow when only the first part of a trilogy is presented, it seems like a half-baked pie or a half-built bridge. The anticipation of the middle and the end being part of what makes the beginning good.

As usual, I went to see this movie with my husband, who, as usual, hadn’t read the book. I was interested in hearing his perspective on several issues, as a virgin viewer unbiased by preconceived notions of the story. As far as the controversy goes, Mr. Writerdd thought it was completely clear that the Magesterium represented organized religion, in the guise of the Catholic church. He said the story line was easy to follow, and he didn’t feel like anything was left out, and he was not confused by any plot elements. Although many reviewers have mentioned that the film felt rushed, he didn’t share their opinion and actually thought it lagged in a few spots, although he thought the ending seemed to be cut short and was confusing. He actually said, “What just happened?” when it was over.

I had most of the same reactions, but since I have recently read the novel, I was glad to have my impressions backed up by someone who wasn’t unconsciously filling in back story. Alghough I agree that the changes to the religious authority in the film were not as drastic as many viewers have supposed (and I wasn’t surprised at them at all given the way other film adaptations of books, such as Chocolat, have been relieved of their religious criticisms.) I thought the ending of the movie, cut short to provide a Hollywood happy ending, lacked the suspense and climax of the final scenes in the book. I also though the film failed to show how the cutting away of the daemons is like lobotomizing the children, thus making the actions of Mrs. Coulter and her compatriots less chilling. The combination of these two flaws gutted the movie, in my opinion, and made it much less compelling than the book had been.

Neither the book nor the movie, I’m sorry to say, grabbed my imagination the way my favorite fantasies have in the past. I really wanted to love both as much as I loved the Narnia books when I was nine (the movie didn’t impress me), and the Middle Earth books when I was 13 (I loved these films). I thought, perhaps, the lack of magic was because I’d read these other books when I was so young, in that special period when almost everything you read gets forever burned into your psyche, but I had to admit that The Golden Compass didn’t capture my imagination as much as the Harry Potter and the Weetzie Bat books had over the past decade, either. I wanted to love Lyra in Pullman’s North more than I loved Harry and Hermionie in Rowling’s England and Weetzie in Francesca Lia Block’s Los Angeles, but I didn’t. I enjoyed reading and watching the story, but although the dust sparkled magically on the screen, it didn’t shine in my mind in the same way. The trilogy has a huge readership, however, and my reactions to the book seem to be far from typical.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy both the book and the film. And Pullman is to be applauded for having a strong female protagonist, a free-thinking child, fighting for the freedom to think and live on her own terms. And as a writer, I am in awe of all fantasy authors who so inventively create alternate universes and fill them with fascinating characters who are almost like us, but not quite. I also know that The Golden Compass is only the first part in a trilogy, meaning that it’s just the door into this universe of Pullman’s and I have every intention of following him and Lyra through that door to discover what other adventures and secrets I might find on the other side. I may yet fall in love with Lyra and her world.

Although this wasn’t my favorite film, I am sorry to see that the Catholic League and some other Christian groups are actively trying to boycott it. All they are doing is showing us that Pullman’s depiction of them through the fictional Magesterium is correct. They are only interested in maintaining their own power, even when to do so requires them to stop people from thinking for themselves and they’ll do their best to suppress any free speech that criticizes their flaws. In my opinion the religious boycott of this film has nothing to do with the number of ticket sales. The only reason this film made less in the opening weekend than The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe did last year is that American readers are far less familiar with the novels.

Here are a few other interesting reviews and notes about the film and the controversy surrounding it:

Roger Ebert (4 stars)
The Friendly Atheist
Approved for FAMILY VIEWING by US Catholic Bishops
New York Times


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

Related Articles


  1. When I first read The Golden Compass I had a similar reaction, I was really interested in the character of Lyra, but I felt like the first book wasn't quite as gripping as I would have liked it to be. Fortunately, I also didn't give up there and read the last 2 books of the series; The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are amazing. It's almost as if, in the first book, Pullman is getting to know the characters himself, and in the last two he writes about them with a lot more emotional depth. I promise it's worth the commitment to read all of them, once you see the whole picture, you'll be able to appreciate The Golden Compass a great deal more in hindsight. At least, that's how it felt to me.

  2. I second that. I heard all sorts of praise for it. I was drawn more into Harry Potter. However, I will make the effort to read the next two as well.

  3. I really loved His Dark Materials and I shuddered with horror when I heard they were making The Golden Compass into a film. Especially when I learned that Nicole Kidman had been cast as Mrs Coulter. For Pete's sake.

    Seriously, I hope the film tanks so they feel that it's not viable to make the other two books. Some things are just not meant to be turned into pre-digested cinema pap.

    Call me old-fashioned.

  4. its good to hear that someone who hadnt read the book wasnt totally confused by the plot of the movie. i was frustrated throughout the whole movie thinking… how could anyone follow this if they hadnt read the book? i felt that they tried to include so many characters in the movie, that they lost sight of the actual plot. there was one fight scene where the witches seemed to appear out of nowhere, knowing somehow that lyra and kin were in need of backup fighters!

    overall, i was pretty disappointed with this movie. they made lord asriel seem like a victim whereas in the book i was unsure of what to think about his overwhelming presence.

    evenso, i just finished reading the subtle knife and i definitely plan to finish the trilogy!

  5. I am just so glad that I wasn’t the only one not to fall in love with this book. I wanted to love it, to be gripped by it, but I was just left confused. I will soldier on and read the other two, but right now I am reading [i]Magyck[/i], and enjoying it immensely.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button