Movie Review: The Golden Compass

December 09, 2007

This seems to be the year of movies based on books. Considering the popularity of corresponding books, The Golden Compass is perhaps the most awaited after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Plot for those who haven't read the book yet:

The story is set in a parallel universe, where the "souls" of humans stand next to them as their daemons (familiars). Lyra Belacqua is a young lady growing up in the most prestigious college in Oxford, Jordan College. Her parents were killed in an airship accident, and her uncle, Lord Asriel is a famous scholar in Jordan College and an explorer. Lyra is taught sporadically by Master and other scholars in the college, and is growing up to be rebellious, fearless (and almost barbarous) child. But there is trouble afoot, in the guise of "Gobblers" who are kidnapping children across England, one of them being Roger, Lyra's best friend.

Lyra meets the charming Mrs. Coulter, who takes her up to London. Lyra is supposed to be Mrs. Coulter's assistant, and accompany her on her trip to North (where Lyra hopes she will meet Lord Asriel). But Lyra starts finding out hidden depths in Mrs. Coulter. When Mrs. Coulter finds out that Lyra was entrusted with an alethiometer (known as "golden compass", which is supposed to help you learn the "truth") by the Master of Jordan College, her reaction forces Lyra and her daemon to run away.

Lyra is taken by gyptians who have been following her from Oxford, and learns that gyptians are gathering their forces to rescue the children kidnapped by Gobblers (who Lyra knows by now are connected to Magisterium). She goes to North with gyptians to help rescue her friend Roger. On the way to North, she meets the queen of witches, Serafina Pekkala, an airship captain called Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear. She also starts learning to use the alethiometer, although nobody knows how exactly it works.

Lyra helps the exiled Iorek Byrnison gain his rightful place among the armoured bears, and gains his help for their cause. They go to rescue children held in a station, guarded by Bolvangar armymen with fox daemons. While fighting Lyra learns that Lord Asriel may be in mortal danger, and goes ahead with her companions to save him.

In the movie, Dakota Blue Richards is very good as the rebellious, fearless, devious and curious (over-curious?) Lyra. The only thing is that her look of fear does not suit her properly (it looked to me more coy than afraid). Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel does look like a powerful man, as a scholar and explorer with political connections. Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter is also perfectly cast, charming and dangerous at the same time.

From what I have read of the book, the movie is not so different. The mention of "Dust" (the cosmic uncharged particles which "connect" different universes) may be slightly reduced from the book. Lyra makes the "discoveries" on her own, or gets information (about her parents, about gobblers etc.) from other sources than in the book. She does start using the alethiometer perfectly almost magically, not start understanding it slowly. Yes, the Magisterium (the church, or what stands for church) is corrupt and power-hungry, but the atheist message for which the books are "renowned" seems to be much muted (or at least, it seemed to me). But at least, the changes made will not raise the hackles of the readers, as they don't take away much from the main storyline.

The universe does have zeppelins and ships working on "atomcrafts", with old-school buildings of Jordan College and majestic "London" vistas, and magnificent stretches of ice on the North pole. All these are beautifully created. But don't compare the movie to Lord of the Rings, at least not in battle scenes (Is it just me or did the Bolvangars look like computer animations?). As a fantasy tale, the movie is pretty good, easily understandable even if you haven't read the books.

Before I finish, there really are circles (or spheres) in every scene, right?

Fleiger is a book-lover by hobby. Favorite genre include fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, mystery, and almost everything you can read. His books reviews and other thoughts can be found at Lazy Habits.
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December 9, 2007
01:08 AM

Seeing this tomorrow so let's see if there really are speheres in every scene. :) I didn't expect this movie to be as faithful to the books as all the hullabaloo suggested so my expectations are sufficiently low for me to have a good time I think.

December 9, 2007
01:13 AM

@Amrita: My impression was that the almost every scene (at least set in "civilized" world) has at least one circle or sphere in it, and I am not counting the Golden Compass.

Do see the movie and tell me. I usually take my own recommendations on fantasy movies with a pinch of salt. ;)

December 9, 2007
02:12 AM

I just came back from watching the movie this evening, and enjoyed it. The movie seemed a bit rushed and crammed into 2 hours, when it could have been expanded to 3 hours with more appropriate exposition and pacing.

But the story universe seems rich and intriguing, based on the acclaimed novels by Philip Pullman. He actually then draws from various ideas like anima, dumbed-down quantum physics, as well as the classical conventions of the fantasy genre.

The casting and acting were nice, and the visuals and special effects were gorgeous.

I also agree that the anti-theocratic message has been heavily stifled in this movie. I'll say "anti-theocratic" rather than atheist, because I'm an atheist, and I don't believe in talking bears, flying witches, magic compasses or animal souls. Nor do I believe that Pullman's work is "anti-God" just because it portrays tyranny of the Church (aka. the "Magisterium" in the movie).
But anyway, the movie tends to avoid the sharper issues raised by the novels, most likely due to pressure by investors/backers/etc. It would be nice if a "Director's Cut" could be released later on, inserting scenes that could have been filmed but cut out from the original release.

I don't want to provide too much of a spoiler, but the movie stops short of the ending of the first novel, in order to avoid ending on a dark moment (Hint: It's uglier than the Death of Boromir). If you actually watch the movie itself, you'll see that quite a lot was cut out, as compared to what's been shown in the preview trailer.

Here's the preview trailer for the movie:

LOL, btw, it's "daemon" and not "demon". ;)

December 9, 2007
02:54 AM

The movie gives away all the secrets of the book at the very beginning, spoiling some of the pleasure of discovery, but has a rich and sumptuous look

December 9, 2007
11:21 AM

@Sanjay: I caught the demon/daemon mistake when I was publishing the article on my blog :(

I am not sure even the extended version would have as much "anti-theocratic" content in it as the book. But yes, the movie does seem edited (I read it is perhaps the shortest of the fantasy biggies including HP and LotR). The scene of John Faa telling the assembly about the revenge they will take looked like a sudden change, coming out of nowhere.

As for the end, all three LotR movies were shot, and were going to come out sooner or later. AFAIK, this is the only film of the trilogy yet. So I guess they had to end on a positive note.

@Aaman: I agree about the secrets. But as I said, that just helped film stand on its own apart from the book. And some secrets (about Lyra's parents, mainly) were kept a bit longer.

December 9, 2007
11:36 AM

fixing the daemon thing now

Ruvy in Jerusalem
December 10, 2007
02:06 AM

I've read the first book and tried to get a hold of the second. As for seeing a movie - NIS 35 plus 22 to and from Jerusalem - NIS 57 all tolled, it's a bit pricey for me (570 rupees per person) not included the overpriced candy and beverages.

We'll we'll stick with the books.

And given my experience with the Harry Potter movies (downloaded from the internet), I'll definitely stick with the books.

I can't judge your review of the movie, not having seen it, but I do remember reading the first book.

I wouldn't say that the book's message is atheistic, so much as it is anti-Vatican, and against the idea that religious officials should control science. Given what happened 500 years ago when the Catholic church hierarchy actually did try to squelch scientific advances, the view of the book makes sense.

December 18, 2007
07:53 PM

@Aaman: Danke...

@RUvy: Rs. 570 per person? Well, I did watch it for Rs. 300 odd, (which come to think of it would not be that much more than any multiplex in India).

I liked the word Sanjay used (anti-theocratic) for describing the content. I guess what really irks people is not that the church is shown plotting murders (which I think many books show in recent times), but that the callous hurting of children. At least, that's in my opinion.

Which movie do you think really did justice to the book?

December 18, 2007
09:31 PM


I think what really upset people were the quotes being handed around by the faithful of Pullman claiming his books were "about killing God".

No, Pullman's books aren't about killing God, and God does not get killed in the books. Pullman's quote was just hyperpole taken out of context, as he was making a defense of the Harry Potter books.

All this rumour-mongering about "killing God" is ridiculous. In the 3rd book, The Amber Spyglass, there's a scene where the children manage to free The Authority from the chamber he's been imprisoned in. After they do this, he then dies/evaporates while they are helpless to stop it. That's not really like some shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho, so that you have God being stabbed in the shower while uttering high-pitched screams. (What would he scream, anyway? "Oh G-- ME!!")

Furthermore, it turns out that The Authority isn't really God, but rather just the first angel created by God, who then vainly pretended to the other angels that he was God. The Authority is later overthrown and imprisoned by his right-hand man, Metatron, who then rules wickedly in his name. As previously mentioned, the children eventually liberate him, and that's when he evaporates/dies.

So in the 3rd book, there is a "God-like" being that dies, but he's not really God, and he's not really murdered. The religious zealots are up in arms because Pullman is a public atheist. (Actually, he's an agnostic, as he's said that while he doesn't believe in the God of the Christian Church, he doesn't rule out the possibility of some greater being existing out there in the cosmos.)

I see a lot of interesting symbolism in the story, including around the outwardly gruesome killings of the children. There's scene where Lyra's dad Asriel kills her best friend Roger is shown in the movie preview, as per what I posted above. But it's removed from the movie itself (they claim to have deferred it until the second movie, but who knows if that will even get made, given the poor box office showing). Roger's death turns the aurora into a giant rip in the sky, which is a gateway to an alternate universe. So there's a symbolic triangular created between knowledge, choice and sin. Knowledge leading to freedom of action (aka. choice), and choice leading to sin, and then sin leading to more knowledge. But it's quite an irony that Asriel, as the scientist who opposes the Church, is the one who kills Roger, and not the "big, bad" Church.

This tells me that Pullman is, at least initially, trying to make a wider point than just merely criticizing religion. He seems to be trying to criticize grown-ups in general for trying to tamper with children, and harming them in the process. Religious authority is then one aspect of this, but then the author continues to veer farther and farther in this direction as the story progresses.

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