The Golden Compass (2007)

the golden compass

“One compass remains, and only one who can read it.”

The Scoop: PG-13 2007, directed by Chris Weitz and starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman and Sam Elliot.

Tagline: There are worlds beyond our own. The Compass will show the way.

Summary Capsule: Little girl takes on villains who are definitely not the Catholic Church with the help of a cowboy, a witch, some gypsies, a bear and her soul.


Lissa’s rating: All the subtlety of a meat mallet.

Lissa’s review: Hollywood is dumb. Not only that, Hollywood thinks that people are dumb. Of course, there are days I firmly believe that they might be right, but they still think people are dumb. And occasionally, so do the people who sell books. So answer me this, will you? Who the heck decided that His Dark Materials, the series by Phillip Pullman, should be heavily marketed and billed as a Young Adult book?

Okay, it’s not that I think that young adults can’t or shouldn’t read them. The atheist messages really don’t disturb me, because come on. First of all, there’s a huge difference between religion and morality, and Pullman’s books have the latter in spades. And secondly, if people became everything they read, I’d finally be a wizard casting spells as I flew on a dragon and suddenly discovered I was a princess and took over for Death when he went on holiday, okay? I have a little more faith in young people than that. But I’ve read the trilogy, and I found it complex, fascinating, and probably a bit above your average 12-year-old, which is who I generally think of as the target audience for “young adult.”

To be fair, when I bought the books, I did locate them in the regular fantasy section in my favorite bookstore. But for some reason, people seem to think that a book that has a child protagonist in it must be geared towards children. Now, anyone who’s read A Song of Ice and Fire, The Poisonwood Bible, or even Ender’s Game will tell you that this is not always a bright idea. (Would you give a twelve year old A Song of Ice and Fire? If you’ve never read it, the correct answer is “absolutely not.”) So at least some of the bookstores realized that this series is complex enough to be sold to adults. But Hollywood missed that part, and assumed that because the book had a 12-year-old girl as the protagonist, adults definitely didn’t read it, and therefor the movie must be geared towards the younger audience. Especially since there are polar bears!

The story focuses on a world where our souls exist outside our body as animals called daemons. The shape of the daemon reflects something about the person’s nature, but that’s never addressed in the movie except for the fact that children’s daemons continue to change shape until they hit puberty. It’s these daemons that fascinate the Magistrate – the organization that Is Clearly Not the Catholic Church. (Okay, in the movie it really clearly isn’t. Duckie’s never read the books, and when I mentioned that it was supposed to be the Church he was quite surprised.) ANYWAY. The Magistrate has a rather nasty experiment going… and they are stealing Gypsy children and orphans to be their lab rats.

One of the orphans they steal is Roger, a good friend of our 12-year-old protagonist Lyra. Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards, looking pretty much exactly as I pictured Lyra) is ostensibly an orphan being raised in Jordan College, is naturally shocked when her friend disappears. At the same time an elegant, beautiful, and clearly evil woman named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) comes to take Lyra to the North to be her assistant. Lyra cottons on that Mrs. Coulter isn’t all hugs and puppies pretty quickly and escapes, and thus begin her adventures up north.

The truth is, this story is very hard to sum up, because it’s not incredibly direct and there are some very fantastic elements and side plots to it, and some of them seem kind of stupid when they’re put into words, but they work in the story. (Talking polar bears and cowboy types in balloons come to mind.) Nevertheless, it’s a nice, complex plot that holds the interest – although I’d warn fans of the book that it ends well before the ending (i.e., the ending is happy.) I wouldn’t expect a young child to really be able to follow along, but I think adults would enjoy it.

Oh, heck. The Golden Compass is actually a pretty decent movie. The plot is well-paced, the acting is good, the dialogue is pretty reasonable, and the effects are excellent. It’s beautifully imaged, and the costumes and sets are amazing. Even as an adaptation, I have little quibble in terms of plot. I agree with where they made cuts plot-wise, and despite my smart-aleck crack about the ending, I actually agree with where they chose to end it. The book’s ending is much darker, but it’s also a real cliff-hanger and sets the stage wonderfully for The Subtle Knife. If New Line Cinema decides not to make the next one, movie audiences are still left with a satisfied feeling. If they do, the ending of The Golden Compass can easily be put onto the beginning of The Subtle Knife. So yeah, it’s a decent movie. The disappointment is that it could have been a lot better.

Here’s where the whole children’s books/adult’s books thing comes in. The books, while controversial, are fascinating, and yes, part of their fascination is the atheist themes. It’s a huge part of what Pullman has to say, and it really drives a lot of the story. If the makers had not been so determined to make this a “children’s movie” (although why kids old enough to see this movie must be so protected from the concept of atheism is a whole other debate), the movie would have fared far better. Right now, the movie is a pretty veneer of the substance of the book. If it had been allowed to keep its layers, it would have been a richer and more interesting and substantive piece of work.

It’s something we’ve said time and time again here at MRFH, and Hollywood gleefully ignores us and continues to assume that the average moviegoer never wants anything to challenge their brain. So I don’t know what the point of railing about it would be – you guys would agree and Hollywood will say, “That means Mary Malone the nun-turned-physicist should be a blonde bosomy bimbo type and giggle lots, right?” But it would behoove them to listen, because gosh darn it – we’re right. Just look how well shows like Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, and Lost fare on television. They’re all sci-fi/fantasy type, and they all do extremely well. People want to think – let’s let them, okay?

So, yeah. It could have been a lot better, but it also could have been a lot worse. Not the most ringing endorsement ever, but I’ll take what I can get.

For every bear that ever there was is gathered there together because today's the day the teddybears have their picnic... of little girls!
For every bear that ever there was is gathered there together because today’s the day the teddybears have their picnic… of little girls!


  • What was up with Nicole Kidman’s eyes? Ouch!
  • Bond. Lord Bond.
  • Philip Pullman, the author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, had originally wanted Jason Isaacs to play Lord Asriel (which would have been awesome), Nicole Kidman to play Mrs. Coulter and Samuel L. Jackson to play Lee Scoresby (which isn’t how I pictured him, but hey, I’m not the author here). But the author has no role in casting.
  • Dakota Blue Richards’ mother (Mickey Richards) made a cameo appearance as a diner in the scene at the restaurant with Nicole Kidman.
  • Daemons are pretty cool – I wouldn’t mind having one.

Groovy Dialogue:

Lyra Belacqua: [upon receiving the alethiometer] What is this?
Master: It’s an alethiometer. It tells the truth. You are meant to have it. You keep the alethiometer to yourself, it’s of the utmost importance to yourself, to all of us, and perhaps to all creation.

Ragnar Sturlusson: Is that all?
[hits Iorek]
Ragnar Sturlusson: Is that all? IS THAT AAAALL?
[Iorek swings at him and breaks his lower jaw off, then bites him in the throat, killing him]
Iorek Byrnison: Yes, that is all.

Serafina Pekkala: So many worlds. But connecting them all is Dust. Dust was here before the witches of the air, the Gyptians of the water, and the bears of the ice. In my world, scholars invented an alethiometer – a golden compass – and it showed them all that was hidden. But the ruling power, fearing any truth but their own, destroyed these devices and forbade the very mention of Dust. One compass remains, however, and only one who can read it.

If you enjoyed this movie, try:

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Inkheart

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