The Golden Compass Movie: What Went Wrong?

Now that His Dark Materials is an HBO TV show, we look back at what went wrong with the Golden Compass movie.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

With His Dark Materials currently making waves on HBO, we’re taking the time to look back at what went wrong the last time someone tried to adapt Philip Pullman’s beloved trilogy of fantasy novels to the screen in the 2007 flop The Golden Compass

Pullman’s His Dark Materials was much praised for its rich, imaginative fantasy world, nuanced and ambiguous characters, and powerful anti-religious themes. Critically acclaimed, award-laden bestsellers with a young heroine in the form of Lyra Bellacqua, the trilogy seemed an obvious choice to follow Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings and become a blockbuster movie series. New Line bought the rights after bringing Lord of The Rings to the screen, hoping for a similar success. The two stories are very different high fantasies, however, and The Golden Compass contains concepts less familiar to audiences than wizards, monsters, and swordplay. His Dark Materials was also occasionally categorized in shops as a children’s book, unlike Lord of The Rings.

read more: His Dark Materials Season 2 Already Greenlit

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This is an important factor when it comes to the adaptation. Say something is for children and for a lot of people you automatically impose limitations on what it can be. Consider how many times “for kids” is used as a derogatory term, even if that means you have to ignore the sheer abundance of brilliant stories that match that description.

It’s self-perpetuating in many ways. So long as products for children have an air of complacency and simplicity their superiors will be tarred with the same brush, lending children’s films a reputation that means some creators feel they don’t have to try so hard.

The Golden Compass is one of those movies that taints other children’s films by virtue of being compromised by an adult’s idea of what children can cope with. With its unique aspects neutered, it becomes an anemic dirge at times, with exposition as subtle as a Michael Bay in the face. One character literally flies in just to explain a plot point before immediately leaving again.

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Derek Jacobi almost salvages lines such as: “If we can save our children from the corrupting influence of Dust…” but ultimately can’t do anything to stop it sounding like a line from Brass Eye. Christopher Lee is brought in to say a new line by New Line, whose own dust-strewn fingers are all over the final edit and some of the casting. Ian McKellen was also brought on board to have a fight with Lovejoy, but like the rest of the film it was a bloodless affair. With Rogue One writer Chris Weitz both writing and directing, you’d be forgiven for thinking he should take the bulk of the blame, especially when he chose not to use a draft by renowned playwright (and Star Wars prequels dialogue polisher, yes, I know) Tom Stoppard. Weitz, having co-wrote and directed About a Boy, seemed a sensible choice after producing a seemingly light film punctuated by moments of melancholy and darkness, and got the job after making an unsolicited pitch.

read more: His Dark Materials’ Major Differences From The Golden Compass Book

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Daniel Craig was cast well, as were Nicole Kidman and Sam Elliott. The child actors are occasionally guilty of being child actors, though it feels harsh to criticize them at all when their dialogue has the ring of a production enclave asking: “But are we sure people will get that Lyra’s feisty and intelligent?”

The end result is dialogue telling us that Lyra is special in a film that doesn’t always remember to show us the same thing. This is partly down to a studio imposed running time of two hours, cutting around an hour from Weitz’ first draft. This came despite Harry Potter being successful with lengthier running times. You’d have thought that the studio who made Lord of The Rings would have more faith. But faith was another issue altogether…

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Weitz trod lightly around the religious aspects of Pullman’s books, but still found himself having to remove even mentions of “sin” from the script, leaving an important part of the story flailing amid woolly and ridiculous euphemisms. He left the project—replaced temporarily by Anand Tucker (Red Riding, Indian Summer), who himself then left over creative differences—before Weitz returned to finish the movie he’d started.

According to Vulture, the faults of the film do not lie with Weitz. He apparently turned in a more faithful draft than Stoppard, whose script was apparently less about Lyra and more about meetings (according to a Philip Pullman interview with The Atlantic, which is well worth a read).

read more: His Dark Materials TV Series Creator Discusses Religion in the Adaptation

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While only a hint of the religious subtext was left in that script, much of what made Weitz’ first draft work was cut to bring down that running time. Actor Tom Courtenay confirmed that his role was drastically reduced in post-production, with the studio editing the full-length version down, removing its original ending and staging reshoots to exposit information now lost. Ultimately, there were problems as a result of religious pressure and the studio being unwilling to risk wrath (wrath that would probably have descended on them at any rate), but this was far from unsalvageable. What really killed the film off it seems was the drive to get it under two hours, and the ensuing studio-imposed reworking of the movie. In short, it feels more like a bullet point list of things half remembered from the book than an actual film.

And we come back full circle a little here. The change in running time came because of a limited notion of what a children’s movie can be, and what a younger audience can cope with. It’s even more obvious in hindsight with the raft of young adult adaptations that the audience could have coped with a three-hour long version of The Golden Compass with its bleak finale, had New Line opted to go that way.

It’s hard to imagine a film in a New Line trilogy ending at a point that leaves the next film with a flapping tendril of leftover story, I know, but that’s what happened in 2007: the finale of The Golden Compass was to be left over for the next film in the series, based on the book The Subtle Knife. Obviously, this film never came to pass, and we have two books unfilmed. Is this a bad thing? I’d argue that it is not.

Harry Potter had to leave out a lot of details from the books over its eight films, but His Dark Materials are books that are trying to do different things, richer still in just three novels, and so there’s an inevitable loss of nuance even in a good film adaptation. 

read more: What Year is His Dark Materials Set?

There’s no need to adapt every single remotely popular story, as if things don’t exist until they’re moving pictures on a screen, so if there’s going to be an exception, it’s good that it’s something that rewards multiple readings. That uses prose to tell stories more effectively than cutting edge CGI even could.

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Meanwhile, at New Line, the additional shoot and post-production on The Golden Compass not only increased the cost of the film, but stopped it from being good enough to recover costs. Indeed, it contributed to a financial situation at New Line that required a surefire hit from one of their properties, and lo: Peter Jackson was brought back onboard, and The Hobbit began to happen.

The decision to make three films certainly paid off in that respect…

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