How They Got Lost with The Golden Compass


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With the first part of Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy now in shops and a TV adaptation of its parent series of His Dark Materials novels in the works, it seems like a good time to revisit The Golden Compass. This 2007 movie marked the first attempt to bring this world to the screen and it should have been great. It was easy, the material was there and the time was right, yet it just didn’t work out the way it should have. It could have been the new Lord of the Rings but in reality it made about as much impact as Mike Myers version of The Cat in the Hat. What, one has to wonder, went wrong?

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His Dark Materials is one of the most successful book series of all time selling around 17 million copies and dominating the literary conversation for a while right in the middle of the period in which the Harry Potters were being published. The release of the first novel, Northern Lights (called The Golden Compass in the US) actually came two years before J.K Rowling’s first work but there is no doubt His Dark Materials rode the wave of interest in young adult fantasy adventures that followed the introduction of the famous boy wizard. The film adaptation clearly had every potential to do the same. 

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While Pullman’s books didn’t come close to Harry Potter in terms of sales (510 million copies and counting), it was voted number 3 in the BBC’s Big Read survey, behind Lord of the Rings and Pride & Prejudice and two places ahead of Potter, as well as winning The Whitbread Prize and The Carnegie Medal and then, after a public vote on all of books to win that award, The Carnegie of Carnegies. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell publicly thanked Pullman on behalf of the government for the work’s contribution to contemporary British society, the Observer put it in their all time 100 list and Sweden gave it the lucrative Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which in that country is second only to the Nobel Prize for Literature. Frankly for any film studio looking to start up their own magical adventure series with built in brand recognition, this was absolutely the smart choice.

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Yet the film that was intended to be the first in this wonderful new series was also the last. Going by the current trend the three books could well have been stretched out into at least four movies but The Golden Compass is the only one we ever got. 

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The normal thing that puts the kibosh on sequels is box office but actually The Golden Compass did okay here. It didn’t get strong reviews but plenty of film series have survived that; Transformers is currently working on its sixth instalment and a spin off. Conspiracy theorists favour the idea that the whole thing was killed by the Catholic Church but it might be more accurate to say that it was killed by writer/director Chris Weitz’s desire not to have it killed by the Catholic Church.

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Pullman’s original book, like much of his work, is critical of organised religion. The shadowy organisation behind a series of child kidnappings and mutilations in the novel is the Magisterium, an authoritative and ridiculously well financed spiritual institution with historical power and influence over all of society. It is a very thinly disguised version of Catholicism that was frankly fooling no one (which was okay, Pullman didn’t intend it to). Unfortunately in trying to water this down Weitz wasn’t kidding anyone either and in terms of the fan base he was letting them down and winding them up. He later stated that he would not be doing this in any subsequent films as this would be shameful dilution of the source material so why did he do it with the first one? It takes the edge off the story and just seems like a clumsy and redundant compromise. The film was trying to bottle magic but didn’t because it bottled out.

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Similarly Weitz lacked the courage to go with the book’s incredible denouement. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it but everything is turned on it’s head in the novel’s final pages. All that you think of one character in particular is suddenly torn away, everything the protagonist is striving for is lost and it leaves you absolutely reeling. It was a brave move for Pullman but it is absolutely brilliant and so powerful. Nothing I have ever read in a piece of fiction has effected me in quite the same way and I was in a daze for hours after closing the back cover. The film on the other hand ends with cliche, presumably thinking it would save the shock for the beginning of the sequel that never came. 

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Even with all of this though the film could have succeeded. The real reason it didn’t go anywhere is actually a lot more straight forward. It wasn’t the church, it wasn’t the disappointments of a faithful readership, it wasn’t the weak critical reception, it wasn’t the cast or the special effects or the direction. It was the screenplay. The script for this film is just terrible and in writing terms it is an insult to what Pullman can put on the page. Yes there is more in the book than a two hour film can comfortably accommodate but a skilled screenwriter could certainly have made something great of it. Weitz (who after seven years away has since penned Branagh’s Cinderella and Rogue One) gave the waiting world the most leaden and explanation heavy dialogue imaginable. I’ll give you a few examples.

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A sophisticated woman arrives at a dining table next to our young hero who shows no sign of recognition and strong indications of curiosity. The set up told us everything but it is punctuated by the following unsophisticated and pointless exchange:

“Who is she?”

“I don’t know.”

Then immediately afterwards the two characters are introduced making the words all the more unnecessary.

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Then later as the camera zooms in on a magical device, the golden compass of the title, to show loads of pictures around the edge, we get the line – “Look, it has loads of pictures around the edge.” Yep, I’d got that.

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At one point Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel is wandering across the frozen north and randomly says to his companion, “We must be careful, you can bet that Mrs Coulter woman has hired every bandit from here to The Pole to hunt us down.” Then immediately he is attacked and snatched away. Phew! He just got that line in in time so that we would all understand what was going on. Thank you laboured screenplay.

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These are only a few of the instances where the script awkwardly announces what is happening and elsewhere it constantly flags important information for later like a full armoury of Chekov’s Guns. Don’t even get me started on Eva Green’s exposition witch. 

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Scenes constantly lack power like the first meeting with the legendary ice bear or the discovery of a boy with his soul cut out. Nearly all of Pullman’s fantastic ideas are fumbled or rushed and the whole thing is just a criminally wasted opportunity. 

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Personally I imagine a scenario in which the studio challenged Weitz on all of this and he petulantly suggested that there was no film without him only for them to respond that they were fine with that. They messed it up and the only thing they could reasonably do was wait and try again. 

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So ten years later we have Jack Thorne working on an eight part series with the BBC of which he has said while writing that they were ‘just throwing things at the page and trying to work out what works and what doesn’t’ because he wanted to ensure ‘they are being loyal to the books’. It certainly sounds like he’s learnt from other’s mistakes so let’s hope he has.

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I’m the meantime head to Waterstones for a copy of La Belle Sauvage.

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