Arts and Culture

Golden Compass Movie Doesn’t Capture the Spirit of the Novel

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 12/07/2007

Not that I’m complaining, of course.

Gone is the wildness, the almost animal-like portrayal of characters that have no moral anchor, where person after person is praised for his (or her) power, not his virtue; where, as an example, Lyra, the main character, is suspicious of a boy she meets until she’s told he’s a murderer. “A murderer was a worthy companion” because he had proved himself to be strong, able to overcome others. Gone is the harsh, brutal, ugly world where Lord Asriel displays a severed head to the scholars, where Lyra has turned lying into a proud art form, or Iorek has to be talked out of biting someone’s head off.

This is the tamed, children’s version. Here, Lord Asriel isn’t feared by Lyra because of his anger and instability (though still admired for his power), he’s a kind, brave, father. Mrs. Coulter didn’t decide she wanted nothing to do with her baby, the baby was taken away from her against her will. There are frequent moments of tenderness between the characters that I never saw in the book. Everyone is more likable, more human, and there is certainly more warmth (although not enough to explain why Lyra doesn’t freeze death within five minutes, dressed the way that actress was dressed).

This movie gave the characters more soul than they ever had, though I can’t decide whether this is an improvement or simply a lightly-sickening, sappy twist that doesn’t belong in this story. It’s just...less objectionable. And unlike the novel, this world does have some beauty in it, added by both the stunning locations and the sense of a moral reality that the novels lacked. So, where the first couple hundred pages of the novel were difficult to get through—what with being unable to tell whom we should be rooting for (since all the characters seemed untrustworthy and/or dangerous), all the political blah, blah, blah, and the lack of life and joy in the story—the film version moved along more quickly.

The anti-religious aspect of the trilogy is very well disguised in this film. I’m not sure anyone would even notice it unless they had read the book. What I don’t understand is how the filmmakers plan to keep up what they’ve started in terms of both tone and content for the sequels, as the next two books are more starkly brutal and necessarily become more explicit about original sin, the Fall, and the new Adam and Eve. How are they going to explain what Lord Asriel does next (shudder) in the context of this kinder, gentler Asriel? There’s no way to hide these things without changing the very essence of the story.

As I was explaining the difference between the novel and film to a co-worker here at STR, he said, “Ah, so they’ve decided to use the seeker model for creating the film series.” Exactly! This film was not made for the fans, it was designed to reel new people in, as the director, Chris Weitz, explains:

The whole point, to me, of ensuring that “The Golden Compass” is a financial success [by playing down the whole “the Church is evil and we must kill God” thing] is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful, more literal adaptation of the second and third books. This is important: whereas “The Golden Compass” had to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books.... I will not be involved with any “watering down” of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third films.

Well, I guess this is good news for us because we all know how these things work out: Sure, you “just start out” seeker sensitive and promise all sorts of rewards to the faithful in the future, but somehow, you never get around to giving them what they need because you’re too busy trying to tempt others to join you by giving those people what they want.

Regardless, I’m not sure they can ever get back to the original tone of the novels after playing a song like this in the credits:

“Ly-r-a-a-a-a . . . L-y-y-y-r-r-a-a-a-a
And her soul walks be-side he-r-r-r-r-r-r
We have all our love to gi-i-i-ve he-r-r-r-r-r” (etc., etc.)

Are you kidding me?

I’m not a fan of the books, but even I know that the real Lyra wouldn’t stand for that. Face it, Weitz, The spirit of the books has already been destroyed...not that there’s anything wrong with that.