When The Golden Compass (based on the novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman) first made the rounds in theaters, I remember most of the buzz focused on the more controversial aspects of the story. If The Chronicles of Narnia were the Christian benchmark for children’s fantasy stories, then Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is its antithesis. Many writers have already thoroughly dissected these aspects (I’ll link to a few at the end); what I want to do is look at the craft of the film itself. If the film failed to connect with audiences, it wasn’t because of its subversive elements. Compass achieves an impressive amount of world building, fills the space with a strong assortment of characters, but it doesn’t fill their souls with enough life to make it all matter.
Lyra Belacqua lives in an alternate reality where the souls of every person exist in the form of an animal companion (called a “daemon”). She makes her home at Oxford University’s Jordan College where her uncle, the Lord Asriel, has just returned from an expedition to the north, and he brings with him scientific proof of something the ruling Magisterium considers blasphemy.
Someone’s also after the children of England. They’re called the Gobblers, and two of Lyra’s friends are their latest victims. Perhaps that’s why she chooses to leave with Marisa Coulter, a woman full of charm who drips enough malice to make any clever child nervous, but away Lyra flies in her company. Before she leaves, however, the Master of Jordan College gives her a small device—an alethiometer, also called a Golden Compass.
After a short time under the charm of Mrs. Coulter, Lyra learns of her evil secrets and flees. Her adventure takes her to the north where talking polar bears, flying witches, a heroic Texas aeronaut, noble gypsies and slimy Magisterium agents will engage in an obligatory battle set against the frozen snow banks of the arctic.
The world of the film brims with imagination and beauty. The overall execution of the film, however, jumps between competency and urgency so much that it loses its substance. Like a pack horse carrying a great weight, it drives over the landscape so fast that some of its important cargo tumbles off and into the dirt.
The story gets its name from Lyra’s alethiometer—a device that’s supposed to give the reader insights into the truth of things. It’s little more than a convenient plot driver. While it’s function appears at first fascinating, any indication of its inner workings, including Lyra’s ability to use it, are all conveyed in glitzy CGI animation that fails to give us any real insight into why or how it does what it does. Therefore, the device from which the film gets its name only serves as a flashy prop. “Northern Lights” would have been a better title. That would have at least pointed toward the film’s ultimate resolution.
Lyra has the makings of an interesting heroine. Her relationship to her daemon Pan makes for some of the story’s most compelling moments, and gives some of the story’s later reveals the proper weight they need to really stick. Yet the story moves at such a blistering pace that it can’t allow its characters to really live and breathe. Everyone walks on, delivers their lines right on cue, and everything plays right on the tip of the nose. Some supporting characters walk into the story and immediately earn our attention, but they don’t have enough to do. Where Peter Jackson somehow allowed each of the large company of players in The Lord of the Rings trilogy room to become alive, Compass suffers from claustrophobia.
At last, when the heroes come together to face-off against the villains, there’s a sense of moral complexity that tries to assert itself, but then the credits roll and the story is suddenly over. Part of this is due, perhaps to the fact that the film cuts off the book’s ending, and a (somewhat) startling reveal doesn’t receive near the attention it deserves. The film fails to achieve any real sense of closure, even for a film with a cliffhanger.
The film tries hard to dodge the book’s more controversial elements, especially its ending. Pullman admittedly wrote the novels to subvert the approach C.S. Lewis took with his Narnia stories. The film, in order to avoid any negative attention, sheds as much troublesome fat as it can before cutting into the meat. Maybe those excisions cause the story to fumble and maybe they don’t, but all stories, subversive or not, have to hit certain beats to resonate with an audience, just ask Joseph Campbell. Compass—in spite of its more troublesome elements, blatant or otherwise—reaches for epic and only just about gets there.
Dakota Blue Richards
Based on the novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Screenplay by Chris Weitz
Directed by Christ Weitz
For more on His Dark Materials:
Jeffrey Overstreet’s commentary on the trilogy
“An Almost Christian Fantasy” by Daniel P. Molony
“The End of Magic” by Sarah E. Hinlicky