VIDEO: The Golden Compass (2007)

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Ryan hosts another episode of the Movie Skewer to look at The Golden Compass, based on a novel near and dear to him. New Line scrubbed away the book’s anti-Christian themes when they adapted it into a movie, along with all traces of anything dark or disturbing. Watch as Ryan examines the end result: a bland movie-by-committee where nothing is at stake.

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Ryan Lohner

Ryan lives in Sparta, New Jersey, a quaint little burg without much for kids to do except go to the movies. Thus began a lifelong love affair, as even back then he grew to love examining why a film worked, or didn't. He is a member of the Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society, and currently studying for a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science. His hobbies include running, piano, and annoying people with that damn lowercase forum user name.

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  • Michael A. Novelli


    You’ve done justice in a way I never could. Well, that’s what I get for waiting four years to write that recap…

  • I’ve always felt that if Pullman intended this as an introduction to Atheism (like the Narnia books for Christianty), he fails pretty hard.

    The only reason why the girl can use the golden compass the way she can, something no one else has ever done, is because some unseen, intelligent force GIVES her the skills (and takes them away when it’s done with her). Basically, some god or other has a plan for her. Which doesn’t really make sense if you’re an atheist. Also, the witches and other magical forces don’t fit this worldview either.

    Sure, the Catholic Church takes a broadside or two in the book, but anti-Catholicism (and anti-Christianity in general) is completely separate from Atheism. You can be both, but you don’t have to. In my view, it makes far more sense if you assume it’s an introduction to Wiccanism; the unseen, kind, guiding force, the gentle witches and the complaints about the persecuting Church all fit much better.

    I’m not saying the books aren’t entertaining, they just don’t fulfill the author’s stated purpose.

    Almost forgot about this: Entertaining review, loved it!

    • Olaf_the_Lofty

      Very interesting points. Pullman does come over as a bit of an arsehole, I’m afraid, and the earlier books of his that I tried to read (The Ruby in the Smoke, The Tiger in the Wall) I didn’t think at all good. The “His Dark Materials” trilogy seems to be an outlier. I loved it, though, and was horrified by the story of what was done with it here. I made an effort when the film came out not to discover anything about it. This video was a painless way of learning about it. It looks beautiful (especially Nicole Kidman, who I think was the right choice for this role), but there’s a lot more to it than that. Also, cutting a story to pieces and stitching the bits back together in the wrong order is never a good idea.

      I see what Ryan means about the impossibility of producing the later books without the irreligious themes. What about the scene where Lyra and Will meet God and watch Him die? And I haven’t classed that as a spoiler because, among the many amazing things that happen in the third volume, that is actually quite unimportant! As far as this being a dry run for a proper attempt at the films, the anti-Christian sentiment means that it could never make the money in America it would need to justify the spending required for the special effects. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is that one day the necessary effects will be cheap enough that it will be worth taking the risk of telling the story properly.

  • Thomas Stockel

    Great review, man. The only part of the movie I really liked was the part where Lyra tricks the king bear, and the end credits where the Kate Bush song is playing. Outside of that the movie is largely a waste of time for me.

  • Connie333

    I enjoyed the review. To be honest I didn’t really mind the film even though I love Pullman’s books. It looked beautiful, and I thought every one was well cast (I know the Casino Royale link probably helped when it came to casting, but Graig and Green were pretty much how I pictured their characters, and it’s one of the only films I can stand Nicole Kidman in).
    I can’t imagine the film getting funding if it was true to the books (although the amount of Christians going “arrrgh this film is evil” before it came out was pretty funny given how they cut out pretty much everything that was objectional to them). The bit with Roger being found minus his daemon was seriously mishandled though it’s not like kids aren’t used to death in films.

  • Sofie Liv

    Oh yeas, I did read the books a very long time ago.. and all though I believe I was to young to really understand them, I got through all three of them.
    And then when I saw the movie in cinema.. yeah, highly disappointed.

    Am I the only thinking what they really wanted here was another Harry Potter franchise?
    Only again, the first couple of potter books were actually just really good childrens books, which makes it more sensible to turn them into family movies. So what the hey? know your own material :/
    It’s actually not because the world is lacking good childrens books to pick from, you just need to find them. I for one would love more Neil Gaiman adaptations. Those makes for pretty unique yet old school fairytale stories.

    Great review :)

  • Monoceros4

    What a horrible movie this was. I watched it in the theater with my boyfriend and when we walked out he said, “Was there a single line of dialogue in this that wasn’t exposition?”

    Dull, cartoon bad guys too, strictly schematized so that all the evildoers are either wizened old men or a vamped-up femme fatale. What’s more, it’s not like they’re misguided people who think they’re doing the right thing even though it’s wrong. The first five minutes of the movie makes it thuddingly, obviously clear that the bad guys are wrong, that they KNOW they’re wrong and that their theology is incorrect, but screw that–they’re gonna stay in power by hook or crook. The movie therefore becomes simply an exercise in watching the heroes evade one trap after another with no depth at all.

  • JD

    As a Christian, I read the books several years ago, on the recommendation of my wife (who is also a Christian) and loved them. The “anti-Christian” sentiment in the books isn’t really anything of the sort, and is more an “anti-church” (specifically the Catholic church) sentiment, which touches a lot of issues that frustrate me about the Christian church and how it presents itself to the world.

    If Phillip Pullman really sees the God of my faith in the way he portrays The Authority in the books then that is a failure of Christians across the centuries to properly live out Christian teachings and the Christian life.

    In many ways the outcry against the books and the film reminded me of the outcry against The Life of Brian (one of my favourite films) in that it completely misses the point.

    All that said … this film was a major disappointment, especially losing the jaw-dropping ending of the first book, and the fact that the film-makers didn’t even seem to know what type of “compass” Pullman was intending to refer to in the US title.

  • Cecil_Trachenburg

    Such a shame they completely blew it. I thought with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings that this would be amazing but it was just empty. Hopefully they don’t destroy The Hunger Games.

    Good review!

  • Jonathan Hunter

    I knew someone who supposedly worked on the design of the Polar Bear. He went on and on about how people just needed to see the movie and not worry about the so-called anti-christian message. He blamed that for the movie’s failure rather than the awfulness of the movie.

  • Waelan

    When I was first told about these books, I was told, “DON’T READ THEM. THEY’RE EVIL.” After watching this review, I think I’m going to pick one up, and see what it’s really about.

    • Sofie Liv

      ….Well this maybe just be me, but if I were told that about any book I would go out of my way to find it and read it.

      Even better if I was told some-thing is. “Completely sacrilegious, don’t go there!” I would just wait till that person had his back turned on me and run out the back door to get a copy…. Any-thing able to raise that kind of reactions must be worth some-thing, at least they’ll have to be entertaining..

      • Monoceros4

        *shrugs* You know things don’t actually work that way, right? Reminds me of the time I read bits of Anton LaVey’s “Satanic Bible” because I found it on a bookshelf at some guy’s house I was visiting for a party. “Shocking” and “entertaining” are two different things; indeed, someone who knows he’s assured of an audience just for being shocking probably also knows he doesn’t have to go to the hard work of being entertaining.

        • Sofie Liv

          I actually read around five chapters of that book, just because they had it in the library.. it bored me endlessly.

          Yeah I know, you’ll never really know. But at least you can check it out right?
          There’s stuff which does indeed disappoint, the first twilight movie just feels long and dull, the original Doctor Jekyll and hyde book also surprisingly boring, the original Sherlock Holmes stories, not nearly as genius as just the character himself.
          Then I read Frankensten, expecting it to be long and dull.. it’s brilliant.
          Ed wood movies, really enjoyable bad.

          So you’ll just never really know, life is an adventure.

    • Monoceros4

      I suppose I should give them a try, even though I’m wary of books that only exist because the writer hates some other book. That’s how we got the Mary Gentle’s execrable book GRUNTS for example. From everything I’ve heard about the Dark Materials books, even from sympathetic readers, it’s very much roman a clef stuff, which rarely produces truly great fiction.

  • Whinecooler7

    Nice review, but one minor thing: In the book, the Magisterium isn’t an obvious stand-in for the church. It actually IS the Church, referred to as such.

    • Whinecooler7

      After reviewing it again, they are rather an explicit subdivision of the church.

  • Rhotomago

    I only wish the movie had been half as engrossing as this review ,I remember taking my young nephews to see this when it first came out ( the movie,not your review). While It had visually stunning architechture and incredible steampunky aircraft and vehicles like you said nothing was at stake, basicly it was just Lyra being whisked from one piece of concept art to the other, I would have had the same experience if I’d stayed at home and lurked Devianart for two hours.

  • Sofie Liv

  • Crumplepunch

    Just a note about you saying Pullman was a dick: The Chronicles of Narnia, excellently written though they are, ARE Christian propaganda. CS Lewis was quite explicit about this.

    • JD

      Those two things are not mutually exclusive …

  • DreadfulKata

    Great review, you articulated so many things about why the films missed the point of the books. Like you say, ‘I can’t believe how many ways these people (kept) finding to ruin this story’. One of the heartbreaking things, as you point out, is that you can sense the potential for a decent film amongst the mess. There are one or two scenes or moments that are great (but so many more that really… aren’t).

    I feel it’s unfair to say that Pullman wrote the books as a riposte to Narnia. You say he’s on-record as claiming this – I don’t believe that’s the case. While he certainly likes the idea of having written a fantasy series to balance out Lewis’s Christian propaganda, that’s a lot different from the writing of the series being motivated by that idea. He’s actually on-record talking about the initial inspiration being the idea of writing ‘Paradise Lost for teens’, and about his early thoughts for the story being, well, about the story, not the way in which it would counteract books by other writers.

    The books are more interesting and have far more going on in them than being atheist parables (in fact, they are hardly atheist, and more Gnostic in their outlook in the end) and when even big fans of the books describe the story as being as essentially mainly anti-Narnia it seems not only inaccurate and reductive to the reputation of the books.

    Sorry to rant; it’s because I feel quite strongly about these books being thought of as mean-minded attacks on Christianity and Lewis when they are so much more than that. For the record, I have no problem with his anti-Christian themes, but I do have a problem with works of fiction that are a thinly-disguised channel for an author’s pet tract. Since I love HDM I hate the thought that they would be perceived as this.

    I found your assessment of both film and book insightful, intelligent and wittily explained, and enjoyed hearing your thoughts.

  • David Staples

    Ryan I actually took your advice and read the books and I loved them. Much more than I thought I would. Thanks.

  • Misty

    New comment to an old review, I know I’m horrible. Anyways, I am a fan of the novels and found this adaptation to be extremely depressing in terms of faithfulness. I don’t understand why the fuck the studio allowed themselves to be bullied into rearranging the second half of the movie because test audiences felt there were too many climaxes, or whatever the hell the excuse was. Or why people screamed and stamped their feet while telling the world just how controversial and eeeeeevil the story is, when the end result is every potentially controversial element being left behind in an earlier draft. Unfortunately, safe equals bland, even if you have top-notch special effects at the time.

  • msgundam2

    The Church is corrupting the world’s youth. I don’t see how telling the truth makes you a dick?