Getting Our Bearings: A Review of "The Golden Compass"

gcbears.jpg“When Polar Bears Attack” is not the name of a new Fox Television reality show. It is instead the only remotely interesting part in an otherwise confused, tiresome, and overly-hyped film. The Golden Compass directed by Chris Weitz, was billed as another Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy epic film. It falls far short.

For months we’ve been hearing, reading, and talking about the dangers of Philip Pullman’s atheistic children’s literary trilogy His Dark Materials. In particular we’ve been hearing about these books, which came out in the late 90s but are only now gaining American publicity as New Line Cinemas produced the film adaptation of the first of the books. Christians were preparing for protests, evangelical authors were publishing books intended to give insight to Christian parents, and theologians were talking about Pullman’s atheism on the airwaves.

But in all the hype and concern it never seemed to occur to anyone that the movie might actually be bad. And it is. On opening night The Golden Compass bombed in North America. And for those of us who did have the misfortune of suffering through this film we can probably all agree that it fails because – much like atheism itself – it has no heart.

The story is of an orphan, Lyra Belacqua, who resides at the prestigious Jordan College. She and this college are in a parallel world, one much like our own but a bit more dated. In this world every human being has a “daemon” which is somewhat like their soul in animal form walking and talking alongside them. Also in this world is the Magisterium, the ruling authority (in the books this is blatantly identified as the church, though in the film this concept is almost completely lost). The Magisterium have been in control for centuries, but when Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel begins a quest to discover the power of “Dust” it sends the Magisterium into a frenzy and they send their most fearsome agent, Miss Coulter, to seize Lyra, who possesses the alethiometer (the one remaining “truth compass”) and to put a stop to Lord Asriel’s endeavors. There’s a host of other interesting characters, including water gypsies, aeronauts, and, of course, the armored bears.

What makes a good fantasy (book or film) is the awe and wonder of it all. That fantastical aspect that draws you into another world, creates deep affections for characters, and contains the elements of the grandiose and inspiring. The Golden Compass lacks all of these things. The story, which in the books is actually very well written, loses its audience throughout the film. It feels confusing and unsure of itself. It made my companions and I feel as though we walked in on a conversation that had already been taking place for five minutes. What did we miss? The books carry a back story that amazingly crafts a world of intrigue, mystery, suspense, and, yes even, affection. The movie, for the sake of time (which I appreciate), attempted to pull the most important scenes from the book and adapt them for film. This is common for any film adaptation (see both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter for examples). But for some reason the screenplay writers of Compass lost the logical flow of the story itself in the midst of their compressing. There is no heart to this film. It is cold and stilted.

While I will heartily disagree with Philip Pullman’s atheism, his ridiculous picture of the church and Christianity, and his pathetic arguments against God, I can at least say he wrote an intriguing story (one that kept me on the edge of my seat quite frequently throughout reading all three volumes). Chris Weitz, however, will have trouble keeping anyone in their seats at all for this film. If Polar Bear attacks are as good as this film gets then I don’t think Christians have much to worry about. This film will entice few to read Pullman’s books, and even fewer to accept the arguments for atheism. Perhaps if Weitz had possessed an alethiometer prior to making this film he would have learned the truth the easy way, and avoided making such a terrible film.

About Dave Dunham
  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Why do people keep saying that the books are very well written? They aren’t. They are mediocre at best.

    The Golden Compass was acceptable if a little flat, but the latter two books are painful to get through. They’re trash fiction, meant to be read while you’re on the pot. And honestly, there’s much more worthwhile reads to occupy “throne time.”

    I was sold a bill of goods by all the people who kept on about how good these books were despite their atheism (I’m looking at you Overstreet and Mohler). I have ninety pages to go in the last book and if I finish it, I’m going to hate myself for wasting the lunch break it’ll take me to finish it.

  • Rich Clark

    I’ve heard secular book critics say the first one is great, but they decline quickly starting with the second one because of all the preachiness.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    The thing is, the first one isn’t even great. While the world he created is clearly a development of a powerful imagination, Pullman is definitely not a strong writer. His characters are uniformly flat, without development or depth. In the space of the first book, the only character I ever grew to take interest in was the bear, Iorek Byrnison. Everyone else exists wholly as pale plot devices. The books, even the first, are entirely forgettable.

    I am very far from thinking Rowling’s stuff is the best out there, but even her work is leagues ahead of Pullman. One wishes that he had more interest in Tolkien or Lewis, because then, even if he disagreed with their worldviews, he may have learned a thing or two about writing.

  • David Dunham

    Dane,

    I agree that his prose is often childish and melodramatic. He can be rather ridiculous, tedious, and, as Rich said, “preachy.”

    The books, however, have won numerous literary awards in Children’s fiction, and I tend to agree with those awards that he has done a masterful job of creating a world and an overall story that is compelling and attractive.

  • Alan Noble

    “When Bears Attack.” Ha.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    That they won so many awards is evidence of the deplorable state of children’s fiction, I guess.

    I’d certainly give Pullman an award for world building (at least for Lyra’s world), but the overall story (if we include Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass) really just wasn’t that compelling. I imagine a more competent author (and perhaps a more engaged editor) could have taken the direction of Pullman’s story but crafted something honestly engaging, but The Subtle Knife was just boring (with brief glimmers of inspiration) and The Amber Spyglass has just been painful as it moves from uninteresting storyline to uninteresting storyline (with brief glimmers of inspiration). And the especially contrived that makes up the last 300 pages of book three… oy.

  • Rich Clark

    Seth, what children’s fiction have you enjoyed?

  • http://scottedwardschultz.blogspot.com/ Scott

    I think he hinted at that here.

  • Rich Clark

    Ah, yes. Excellent.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Three cheers for Scott with the good memory. I didn’t even remember that I had put that together.

    I think I’d also note that Pullman isn’t really even writing children’s fiction, but more teen fiction. He uses all sorts of themes that probably wouldn’t be either appropriate or understood by even juniour highers (things like terrible violence and subtle sexuality and intrigue and religious zealotry and science). And once you hit the kind of themes he’s using, you might as well read actual literature (or regular fantasy, if you really feel the need for a fantasy novel).


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X