Ten years ago was one of the most eventful years in young adult fantasy. Harry Potter fans rejoiced at the release of the seventh book and fifth movie in the same year. Fans of another fantasy series, His Dark Materials, sat down in theaters to see their story come to life. But afterwards, they found themselves wondering just what went wrong.
The answer is quite simple. They toned it down “for kids.”
Released by New Line Cinema (known for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy), The Golden Compass is an adaptation of the book of the same name (also known as Northern Lights), which is the first book in author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The series follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her friends as they try to understand the mysterious particle called Dust in a quest that takes them across multiple parallel universes.
Although these books have many fantasy elements, including armoured polar bears and clans of witches, religious themes such as faith and theology are also touched upon. This allowed a large audience across multiple age groups to connect with the books. Unfortunately, New Line Cinema wanted to market the films more to families, so they removed most of the book’s teeth.
The first three minutes of the film reveals one of its most glaring problems: the film explains everything to the audience. Where Harry Potter began with an old wizard leaving a baby on a doorstep, Golden Compass begins with an ambiguous narrator telling the audience about the nature of Dust, the parallel universe, and the animalistic daemons that follow humans around. In the book these topics were sprinkled through the narrative and talked about when it suited the plot—or there were enough clues for the readers to figure out. This handholding is especially noticeable with a witch character, who was given a new scene in the middle of the movie that is nothing more than a fly-by expositionist.
Another example of this movie’s pandering is how it handles the villains, known as Magisterium. In the books the Magisterium is a religious organization, but to avoid possible controversy, New Lines Cinema removed all mention of religion from the film and added new scenes of Magisterium leaders sitting in dark rooms and talking about evil things next to a green fireplace. However, the film kept the organization’s plans and motivations the same as in the books. So the religious controversy New Lines was hoping to avoid came anyways.
Perhaps the biggest offender for how the movie talks down to its audience is how it whitewashes so many events from the books. These include removing the emotional and poignant death of a child from the middle of the film, and completely scrapping the book’s original ending for a more ambiguously happy one. The film also removes much of the morally grey decisions characters are forced to make, such as the head of Lyra’s college reluctantly trying to poison a man to protect his college from the wrath of the Magisterium. The film simplified this by creating a new Magisterium agent to be the poisoner, because kids won’t be able to understand making a hard choice to keep your friend and loved ones safe, right?
Compared to all the bad book adaptations out there, the Golden Compass is not the worst, but it does feel like it wants nothing to do with the author’s original vision. By dumbing the story down for kids, the film has a skeleton of what makes the books so good, but it lacks the thought provoking questions of spirituality vs free will that made readers of the book question themselves with each flip of the page.
But in a new scene, Nicole Kidman hugs a CGI monkey, so all is forgiven.