Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Review: The Golden Compass

I went to go see the movie the Golden Compass last night with a few friends, and was phenomenally impressed by it at every level. As someone who has not read the books (The Golden Compass was based on the book ‘Northern Lights’, renamed ‘The Golden Compass’ in America) I don’t have a basis to compare whether it followed the book exactly or not. But the movie did succeed in making me really want to read the book, part of a trilogy. The Golden Compass first came to my attention through Facebook, specifically through a “Boycott the Atheist Movie!!!” Facebook group that a few old friends were trying to get me to join. After checking out the Facebook group and a synopsis of the movie, I actually became extremely intrigued and decided to go see it. It sounded like a beautiful story.

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While I won’t give away all the details of the plot (you can go find spoilers elsewhere if you are intent on it), the movie’s themes had nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with being a free-thinker. The heroine (and yay for having a heroine!) is a precocious girl named Lyra who doesn’t quite fit into the rigid and dogmatic school where she is being taught. She’s inquisitive, adventurous, and *gasp* questions the status-quo. This includes the ‘rulers’ of her world, the Magisterium, who wish to stifle individuality and free will as a means to maintain their stranglehold of control. Lyra becomes unwittingly mixed up with the Magisteriums plans, as she and her golden compass are at the center of a prophecy about the fate of her world.

In addition, another major theme is friendship and how love binds us to one another. Every person in Lyra’s world has a spirit animal (called a ‘daemon’) which follows them everywhere and embodies their soul. This animal changes shape as a child grows up, settling on a form in puberty as a sign that the child’s personality has solidified. The bond between the daemon and the person is a uniquely close one–they feel what the other feels and when the person dies, the daemon vanishes into dust.

This is a beautiful story with awesome special effects and terrific acting (a string of A-listers.) While the controversial stuff has been gutted from the movie, likely to avoid such banal boycott calls like are occurring anyway, what remains is still a captivating fantasy about one child who decided not to be ordinary, to question authority, respect friendship and to make her world a better place through wit rather than force. In the end, I joined the “Support the Golden Compass” Facebook group. Hope my friends don’t mind.

For more about the Facebook hullaballo, this blog covers the issue nicely.

Comments

  1. #1 Dan
    December 9, 2007

    I’m looking forward to seeing this movie.

    The funny thing is, I don’t recall atheists calling for a boycott of The Chronicles of Narnia. I suppose one has to wonder just how fragile someone’s faith has to be in order to feel threatened by a collection of books or a movie.

    Ah well…

  2. #2 Rich
    December 9, 2007

    I think this is the first positive review I’ve read. I was really starting to worry…

    (By the way, it’s “Lyra” not “Lira”.)

  3. #3 SAM
    December 9, 2007

    I haven’t seen the movie, but from the trailer, I never understood why this campaign against it!

    Now, maybe, I got it! Some self-alleged religious movements seem to believe that we cannot believe in God and be different at the same time, i.e., not being a clone of everyone else or, like what I understood from your words: “not to be ordinary, to question authority”.

    I think I am going to like it, despite the fact I am a religious person ;-)

  4. #4 Charlie (Colorado)
    December 9, 2007

    Uh, sweetness, I think the movie The Golden Commpass was based on the book The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. I’ve got his Paradise Lost gloss, too. Both (or all four, really) excellent.

  5. #5 Joe
    December 9, 2007

    I’ll go ahead and speak for the educated faithful before the partisan “debate” begins.

    The author of the His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman – has repeatedly said that he was attempting to write the “anti-Narnia” and undermine Christianity. I’ve read the books, and I don’t think he accomplished either of those goals. The writing/story telling simply is not on Lewis’s level.

    Never-the-less, I’d rather not give any of my money to support a man that intended to attack me and my beliefs.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think many of the people boycotting the movie actually understand what it is they are against; they just know that “someone told them…”

  6. #6 tbell
    December 9, 2007

    The trilogy is called ‘northern lights’ and the film actually says that it is based on ‘The Northern Light’s’. Excellent use of the condescending term of endearment though Charlie! 10 points.

  7. #7 Coturnix
    December 9, 2007

    Support The Golden Compass group has 5907 members right now. I just came back from the theater where I saw it. I loved it. I do have the trilogy on the self, which I have not read yet, but seeing the movie makes me want to read it immediately.

  8. #8 synapse
    December 9, 2007

    @tbell and Charlie: The British and American versions of the books were published under different names. The North American version is indeed entitled The Golden Compass.

  9. #9 Kevin
    December 9, 2007

    Unfortunately, it is not doing well at the box office.

    link The Golden Compass is doing very poorly at the box office on its opening weekend. It’s being referred to as a “disaster”,

    The Golden Compass opened on Friday (December 7th) in 3,528 screens but only made an estimated total of $8.8 million on Friday. The film is expect to top out at $27 million for the weekend. It’s expect to be the #1 movie for the weekend, but it’s a very weak opening for the second weekend of December

  10. #10 Chris Rippel
    December 9, 2007

    I liked Pullman’s Dark Materials series much more than the Narnia series or Tolkien’s trilogy.

    Both Narnia or Tolkien failed to hold my attention long enough to complete even one of their books.

    I take that back. I did read The Hobbit 30 years ago, but by the time I get 50 pages into Tolkien’s trilogy, I have had enough of Hobbits.

  11. #11 Charlie (Colorado)
    December 9, 2007

    TBell, if you follow the link, you’ll find the books. And I call Shelley “sweetness” because she’s a sweet pretty friend who I very much enjoyed going to dinner with not long ago.

    Now that you’ve made a fool of yourself doubly, perhaps you could change your internet cognomen and hope to live it down.

  12. #12 Kurt
    December 9, 2007

    The Golden Compass first came to my attention through Facebook, specifically through a “Boycott the Atheist Movie!!!” Facebook group that a few old friends were trying to get me to join.

    Wait a minute…were your friends interested in subverting the group, or did they actually think that was the kind of action you would support?

  13. #13 Shelley Batts
    December 9, 2007

    Well, I grew up Southern Baptist, sooooooo yeah, a lot of my older friends from high school still are. There’s a story in my sidebar called “On Religion and Taking the Red Pill” which describes that.

  14. #14 Graeme Elliott
    December 9, 2007

    I really liked this movie, and as anyone whose read the books will probably appreciate, I was a bit suprised by the ending. I didn’t really see what the fundies were getting so scared about, given this book merely sets the scene for the later ones. I rather liked it, and I think it was as interesting as Narnia, and probably more easy to sink into. Anyway, that’s my $0.02…. :)

  15. #15 Paul Schofield
    December 10, 2007

    The Golden Commpass was the US title of the book, Northern Lights. They changed it (I think) to be more in line with the three ‘materials’ (or artifacts would be more accurate), with introduced through each book and named in the title (the compass, the knife and the spyglass).

    I quite enjoyed the books when I read them, but am wavering between going to see the film (possibly with my Catholic housemates and Christian girlfriend later this week) or just re-reading the books in the new year. I have a feeling the books would be more fun.

  16. #16 Demond Jackson
    December 10, 2007

    The Golden Compass does seem like a great movie. My son is really interested in seeing it and we will probably go this weekend. I hope it’s as great as everyone says it is.

  17. #17 tbell1
    December 10, 2007

    I stand corrected…trilogy called ‘His Dark Materials’…two names for the first book, though the credits in the movie are in fact for ‘Northern Lights’. Apologies to Charlie, I thought I was deflecting a snark. The internets of full of them…all ready to fire off with the least provocation.

  18. #18 windy
    December 10, 2007

    The writing/story telling simply is not on Lewis’s level.

    I tried rereading some of the Narnia books that I last read as a child and strangely, Lewis’s writing didn’t seem to be on Lewis’s level anymore…

  19. #19 Alexander
    December 10, 2007

    I’m not a big moviegoer, but I specifically went to see this one just because of the controversy. To spite the fundamentalists, if you will. But I was disappointed. Not only did it lack any real controversy, but it just wasn’t a very good movie.

    The only unique concept seemed to be the daemons. Other than that you had your generic fantasy genre settings, plot, and characters. As far as the characters go, none of them were especially convincing or likable. The exceptions were the father guy, who had like no parts and the evil girl with the monkey.

    I could go on and on. Anyway I just didn’t like it.

  20. #20 Ex-drone
    December 10, 2007

    The Pullman books/movie take on oppressive authoritarianism. If these protest groups are volunteering that their religion is being attacked, then the logical conclusion is that they are identifying their religion as being oppressively authoritarian. Thanks for that. The atheist message is getting through. The next step to becoming independent thinkers is to ditch the religion.

  21. #21 Mike
    December 10, 2007

    I’m looking forward to seeing this film with my family over Christmas. I’ve read the trilogy and really enjoyed them – I also really like the Narnia books and Tolkien’s books.
    Pullman’s books do have an obvious anti-organised religion and more specifically anti-catholic message to them but I believe this has been toned down in the films so as not to offend – and to increase the takings. Doesn’t sound like it’s working too well for them though.
    Shouldn’t have that problem here in the UK, we don’t really do religion…

  22. #22 Dr Aust
    December 10, 2007

    The film is based on the first book of the trilogy “Northern Lights”, retitled “The Golden Compass” for the US market. The subsequent books are “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”.

    If you liked the film, or even if you were a touch disappointed, but you haven’t read the books, dial up Amazon and buy all three. They are utterly brilliant, especially the final one, “The Amber Spyglass”.

    For the deeper roots of Pullman’s conception, the literary-minded might try John Milton, plus a touch of William Blake.

  23. #23 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 10, 2007

    Read the books, they will explain a lot. Such as why a young girl is being raised in an Oxford college, how Lyra can be credited with Iorek Bjornisen’s victory, etc.

    In the movie, some scenes are cut, some are shortened, some are switched in order. That’s the reality of fitting a novel-length book into a 100 minute movie.

    Nicole Kidman was quite good as the wicked Papist mother.

    The fervent religion-bashing doesn’t really take off until books two and three.

  24. #24 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 10, 2007

    Joe: The author of the His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman – has repeatedly said that he was attempting to write the “anti-Narnia” and undermine Christianity. I’ve read the books, and I don’t think he accomplished either of those goals. The writing/story telling simply is not on Lewis’s level.

    Never-the-less, I’d rather not give any of my money to support a man that intended to attack me and my beliefs.

    At least you’re honest about your partisanship. You’re taking a side. Most of the pundits I’ve seen are SHOCKED! Shocked I say, to find a children’s book that is promoting an ideology. They do not seem to have been similarly shocked at the ideology behind the Narnia series, which raises the spectre of hypocrisy.

  25. #25 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 10, 2007

    I think it’s rather entertaining that Bill Donohue of The Catholic League is spearheading the boycott movement, but was undercut when the film reviewer for the U.S. Conference of (Catholic) Bishops gave a glowing review to the movie. Donohue immediately lashed out at that reviewer, John Forbes.

  26. #26 Dr Aust
    December 10, 2007

    For those who haven’t read the books, “His Dark Materials” is actually quoted from John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.

    I’m vaguely encouraged by peoples’ reactions to the film as a “film of the book”. With any movie-isation of an epic, the best you can hope for is that they don’t screw it up completely. Philip Jackson’s LOTR Trilogy wasn’t exactly how I would have seen Middle Earth in my mind’s eye, but he did a heck of a job. I’m hoping when I get round to the film of The Golden Compass that I feel the same way about that.

    But like I said above, the books are the real deal.

    Re the reaction: are people in the States really “boycotting” the film because it “attacks their beliefs”? The comments above on this thread suggest they are. How very depressing.

    Like Milton’s work, Pullman’s book has a lot of “pondering the nature of existence and what we call God” in it. If the reaction of the Fundies to this is simply to boo and hiss it just shows their beliefs preclude any actual thinking. It is clear enough that Pullman is an atheist, but that doesn’t stop him grappling with the “Big Issues” in a way that lots of religious people would probably find interesting.

    People who need to suppress the expression of views opposite to their own are simply pawns for one or other version of dictatorship – which is another aspect of what Pullman is writing about.

  27. #27 Suricou Raven
    December 10, 2007

    “I suppose one has to wonder just how fragile someone’s faith has to be in order to feel threatened by a collection of books or a movie.”

    Those running the boycott do not feel their faith is threatened at all. They feel that the faith of *other people* is threatened, and espicially children. Vulnerable people who, for their own good, must be protected from the atheist abomination that seeks to send them to Hell.

  28. #28 Shelley Batts
    December 10, 2007

    I was just thinking that I will have the unique oppertunity of reading His Dark Materials books as an atheist (now), and I read all of CS Lewis’ works as a conservative Christian (as a child). I suppose you could say that at each point in my life I was pointedly biased to like the storylines and themes. Comparing them will be something interesting (gotta get Pullman’s books first).

  29. #29 ian findlay
    December 10, 2007

    I was wondering why they cut short the end of the book when they made the film – until I remembered that a child had to die to construct the bridge between the worlds.
    Too much for the US audience I suppose.

  30. #30 Dr Aust
    December 10, 2007

    I enjoyed the Narnia books a lot as a (lifetime non-believer, then as now) child (aged 6 or 7), but when I wised up to the rather clunking Christian allegory (aged about 11) I kind of felt that I had been sold a pup. The books still stand up as stories without the heavy-handed religious stuff – aged 6 or whatever I just used to think that Aslan was a magical talking Lion. In some ways I think Lewis set out to write a Christian allegory but wrote a good kids’ story rather despite himself. However, the ending of the final Narnia book is completely lame and totally baffling to a non-Christian – remember being baffled by it as a kid. So I just never re-read that one, though I used to re-read the others annually between 6 and 11.

    I never felt the same sort of “you’ve been fooled” thing about Tolkien, though Prof JRR was every bit as religious a man as CS Lewis, and the moral underpinning of his universe is just as Christian-themed as Lewis’ Narnia once you know where to look. The difference being, of course, that Tolkien loathed allegory and consciously avoided it.

    Re Pullman’s Universe and morality and all that, I’m with the reviewer from the Catholic Union (or wherever), which is a definite first. Books like His Dark Materials (and even the Harry Potter books) are chock full of Big Moral Questions and, like, Values, so I cannot see why they get the Fundies so worked up about “Demonology” and “Witchcraft” and so on. This is partly why Pullman’s books are so widely used in school English classes here in the UK, because they are a marvellous story AND deal in Bigger Themes.

    In fact – here’s a theory – a large part of ALL the things kids would watch on TV or at the movies that actually deal in moral choices and Big Issues are shows themed on the Supernatural, or with elements thereof. Think Buffy.

    Here’s another theory – for a really good fantasy epic, the last book / film has to be the best one. You have to leave ‘em on a Big Finale. True for His Dark Materials, the LOTR films, the original Star Wars trilogy… not true for the Narnia books.

  31. #31 tom B
    December 10, 2007

    “Vulnerable people who, for their own good, must be protected from the atheist abomination that seeks to send them to Hell.”

    Souls (Narnia) or Daemons; neither can be said to be atheistic.

    One trashy SF series that probably needs to be a movie is Hyperion (Dan Simmons). The bad guys in that series were decided similar to Catholic clerics.

  32. #32 Nathan Myers
    December 11, 2007

    If you haven’t read “His Dark Materials” yet, let me recommend skipping the third volume, “The Amber Spyglass”. Anything you imagine will probably be more satisfying than what you find there, and infinitely less likely to poison your favorable impression of what came before. (In particular, the portrayal of angels in the third volume sharply contradicts everything in the first two; they become more akin to spoiled children than transcendental “sentient architecture”.) My impression is that he just got tired of the whole concept by that point, and just wanted to get it finished and sent off.

    Really, Pullman made a profound mistake introducing armored bears in the first volume; nothing could possibly compete with them for intrinsic interest. Once he got the armored-bear concept worked out, he might better have tossed the whole Milton notion in favor of spending the rest of his life writing about the bears. Toss the compass, toss the knife, toss the daemons, toss the Magisterium, toss the Dust. Armored bears! Do you hear me? Armored bears!

  33. #33 The Flying Trilobite
    December 11, 2007

    I thought the Amber Spyglass was an excellent cap to the story. It brought all the farthest-flung travelling back together and didn’t shy its way into a happy-Disney-ever-after-ending. But I should halt before saying too much and ruining Shelley’s reading experience.

    Can’t wait to see the film this week – Nicole Kidman is so perfectly cast. Bah about the dark hair mentioned in the book. It’s only mentioned like, twice.

    Interesting about your friends on both sides, Shelley. The shocking things we find out about friends on Facebook.

  34. #34 Nathan Myers
    December 11, 2007

    I suggest a compromise. Start reading volume 3. The first time it starts to seem disappointing, know that it will only get moreso from that point on. Then you may decide precisely how much disappointment you want to experience before you drop it.

    The worst book I read (all of) in recent years was Chindi, by Jack McDevitt. It is execrable from the very first line: “The Benjamin … was at the extreme limit of its survey territory.” Chapters start with quotes from crushingly dull works of the 23rd century. The ship’s captain is gorgeous but unfulfilled. Every character is bored with his or her life and life’s work. I couldn’t stop reading, because I couldn’t believe it could keep getting worse. Reading The Amber Spyglass was a ghost of that experience, but the worse for having started out well.

  35. #35 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 11, 2007
  36. #36 Kagehi
    December 15, 2007

    Ok. Finally went to see the movie. Some stuff out of order to the book, bits left out that would have been neat to see, some bits blurred together, for the sake of fitting it into the time available. My only real major complaint about it is… Where the fracking El is the rest of the movie? I mean, I suppose its possible they accidentally sent the screen writer a copy that was *missing* the entire last chapter of the book, or something, but seriously… Did I not stay long enough, and they added it in after part of the credits had rolled? This is like if they had made Star Wars, and for budget reasons, or time constraints, had opted to cut to closing credits **right as** Hon Solo tells Luke, “Lets blow this joint and go home!”, and the audience (which in my case consisted of only one other person… I hate this town some times), was just left staring blankly at the screen and wondering, “WTF!?”

    Mind you, in this case, if you hadn’t read the book, you would never notice, given how they did it. But, if they *did* make the second movie, what are they going to do, open with her friend being severed from his daemon, and her vowing to follow her father into the other world for revenge? If they wanted to defang the bloody thing, they could have done the severing bit, but left him alive, but unable to continue with her, or something, and *kept* the critical moment of her father’s evil, her mother staying to keep doing her evil, and her vowing the stop the whole mess. This was a decent movie, right up until the ending that just leaves anyone, that knows what it should have had in it, staring at the credits in complete incomprehension.

  37. #37 Shelley Batts
    December 15, 2007

    I agree about the ending, although at the time I wrote this review and saw the movie, I hadn’t read the book. So, of course I didn’t notice the omission. However, this week I bought all three books and already finished the first one and halfway through the second. In retrospect I felt that the movie left out something crucial: that her father was not a benevolent father figure or an altruistic explorer. He wasn’t a *good* guy at all (although thats still muddled a bit). In fact he’s making out with Mrs Colter at the end after killing Lyra’s best friend, and then treks off to the other world leaving his daughter in the snow.

    I assume that the making of the bridge will be shown in the next movie, assuming its made, but it might be an awkward starting scene. Either way, I did like the movie and it succeeded in making me run right out and buy all three books which I’m enjoying immensely.

  38. #38 Dave Godfrey
    December 21, 2007

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but according to everything I’ve read from the directors/producers/etc so far they left out the end of the first book because it means this film ends on a climax (Iorek’s victory), and the death of Roger then provides the starting point and Lyra’s motivation in the next film. They also won’t need to do the “previously…” bit to remind people why Lyra’s is trying to get to the land of the dead.

    Whichever way they start the next film its going to be awkward- they’ll either have to start with either an adult killing a child or a child killing an adult.

  39. #39 Site Ekle
    January 5, 2008

    The British and American versions of the books were published under different names.