Wednesday, December 05, 2007

THE GOLDEN COMPASS aka The Gutless Cop-Out

What does it say about the times we live in that writer-director Chris Weitz has no qualms in having Jason Biggs masturbate on-screen with a warm apple-pie, but doesn't have the balls to depict an atheist's response to Paradise Lost? I don't know what saddens me more: the anti-liberal tyrannical response of my own Church to this movie, or the self-censorship of a studio too timid to respect Philip Pullman's profound artistic achievement. The upshot is that THE GOLDEN COMPASS is a rather feeble film. It looks pretty enough but it lacks the intellectual bravery of the source material. As a result, the viewer has to jump through the hoops of the complicated narrative without the concommitant emotional pay-off. In fact, the bizarre decision to cut short this adaptation before we have reached the final harrowing scenes of the book makes this film a deeply unsatisfying, unengaging experience indeed.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 1995, Philip Pullman published the first novel in a trilogy called His Dark Materials. It is that book - called Northern Lights in the UK and The Golden Compass in the US - that we now see brought to the screen. Pullman's trilogy is nominally a set of books for children, filled with fantasy adventure elements and set in a world that shares many characteristics with our own. A plucky young girl called Lyra Belaqua sets off for the North Pole to rescue her friend Roger from the mysterious Gobblers with the help of a truth-telling golden compass that once belonged to her guardian, an Oxford don called Lord Asriel. On the way, she escapes the clutches of the devestatingly charming Mrs Coulter and benefits from the help of a Gyptian king, a beautiful witch called Serafina Pekkala, an aeronaut called Lee Scoresby and an armoured bear called Iorek Byrnison.

The book works well as an adventure story. The "baddies" are suitably sinister, the good guys are wonderfully drawn, and we really believe in the strenth of the friendship between Lyra and Roger. But there is so much more to the story than that. In Pullman's version of the world, a tyrannical ideological Authority is stamping out free will and free thought. It is true that in the novel this Authority is explicitly religious and adopts some of the terminology of the Catholic Church. However I firmly believe that the Authority can be read as a symbol of all intellectual repression and anti-liberalism rather than any particular set of beliefs. Lyra and her guardian are thus battling for freedom and against tyranny - for truth against self- and imposed censorship.

It is, then, ironic, as well as tragic, to find this film refusing to speak plainly and to defend the intellectual freedom that Lord Asriel seeks to defend. Furthermore, having shorn the movie of its intellectual substance, Chris Weitz might at least have left us the searing emotional climax of the novel. But even here he chickens out - and leaves us with just another wishy-washy luke-warm Hollywood ending.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS is on release in the UK, Belgium, Finland, France, Israel, Norway, the Philippines and Spain. It opens tomorrow in Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia and Singapore. It opens on Friday 7th December in Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey and the US. It opens the following weekend in Serbia, Argentina, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Italy. THE GOLDEN COMPASS opens in Italy, South Korea, Greece, Hong Kong, Brazil and Australia later in December and in Egypt on January 16th 2008. It opens in Japan on March 1st.


  1. Those of you interested in the controversy surrounding Pullman may be interested in this article:

    Laters, Bina007

  2. Loved the article, it summed up the film's cowardice nicely. If you're interested I've written an article detailing some of my dissapointment having anticipated something much greeater.

    Find it at:


  3. Pity, I've been looking forward to it, as I really enjoyed the books. I still might see it out of morbid curiosity.

  4. Atheism? Cowardice? Yeah, that's about right.

  5. Well said. I was bothered when I heard some parents say they wouldn't let their children see "that trash" -- having been led to believe the movie is anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. However, the film is such a rushed muddle it couldn't possibly offend anyone except for those with a liking for narrative.

  6. her mother too eager for power and her father, in turn, issued for her uncle lyra therefore not something good parents little is taken of it and bring together