Why didn't The Golden Compass movie work?
We live in an age of franchises. This year alone brings no fewer than four movies and two new television shows based on Marvel superheroes, as well as the third new Star Wars movie in as many years. The hunger for franchises is so deep, even unconnected properties like old Universal monster movies were being hastily stitched together in hopes of kickstarting a new cinematic universe. (It didn’t.) It’s interesting, then, to look back at franchises that didn’t materialize — such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book trilogy (consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). As we approach the 10th anniversary of New Line’s The Golden Compass film, which coincidentally matches up with Philip Pullman launching a new companion series to His Dark Materials, it’s worth asking: Why didn’t this dark and principled fantasy saga become pop culture’s next big franchise?
On paper, the cast seems almost perfectly suited to their roles. Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, and Eva Green seem like the literal living embodiments of the Arctic explorer Lord Asriel, the enigmatic manipulator Mrs. Coulter, and the witch queen Serafina Pekkala. Dakota Blue Richards made her debut in the film as protagonist (and daughter of Asriel and Coulter) Lyra Belacqua, and capably captures Lyra’s imaginative wit. But after that, things start to fall off. Casting Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby is a little too on-the-nose, taking the Texan aeronaut so far into the banalest Texas stereotypes that he never feels like a real character. Worse than that, Ian McKellen is a strange fit for the armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison. McKellen was actually recast in the role by New Line against Chris Weitz’s wishes (the director had originally cast British theater actor Nonso Anozie), and you see the studio straining for The Golden Compass to be another The Lord of the Rings. But it’s hard to take McKellen seriously as a noble warrior when everyone already associates his voice with the wise wizard Gandalf. Christopher Lee is also in the movie for some reason, playing a vaguely Saruman-like church bureaucrat, for all of like five minutes.
There were other indications that New Line wanted the movie to be something it wasn’t. Though Pullman has claimed (especially around the movie’s release) that His Dark Materials is not a specific critique of the Catholic Church, it’s hard to think otherwise. Lyra’s world is dominated by a powerful theocracy, known in the movie solely as “the Magisterium” but referred to as “the Church” quite often in Pullman’s books. The main plot of The Golden Compass involves church officials committing monstrous abuses against children. Though the massive Catholic sex-abuse scandal is now something that can be openly discussed on shows like Netflix’s The Keepers and Oscar-winning movies like Spotlight, it wasn’t like that when Pullman was writing his books. So the author addressed the issue (which is at the center of his novels’ critique of corrupt religious orthodoxy) from a sideways angle. His fantasy world imagined everyone having “daemons” that embodied their inner essence in the form of animal companions. The main plot of The Golden Compass focuses on agents of the church systematically kidnapping children and forcibly tearing them from these daemons. Since the daemons stand in not just for characters’ personality but also their sexuality, this is a pretty subtle metaphor for priest child abuse. But since The Golden Compass doesn’t even say “the church” once, the story’s central metaphor becomes almost incomprehensible. Despite New Line’s attempts to dial down the religious critique, the movie was still protested by organizations like the Catholic League; years later, best picture winner Spotlight renewed a global conversation about abusive priests and was met with near-universal praise.
Maybe the timing was just off in general. The Golden Compass arrived at the end of 2007, just a few months before the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight would kickstart the golden age of superhero movies and further center Hollywood filmmaking around pop-culture franchises. Two years later, in fact, director Chris Weitz would steer the first Twilight sequel, New Moon, to more than $700 million at the box office. Perhaps the difference in success there highlights one big reason that The Golden Compass didn’t take off: It’s not quite YA, the genre that has dominated millennial pop culture nearly as much as superheroes. Twilight was a fixture of teen culture not just because it had monsters in it but also because it conjured a riveting love triangle of young people that felt real to fans. By contrast, The Golden Compass focuses on children. Though Lyra is undoubtedly charming in the way she outwits even the most calculating adults, she’s focused more on saving her friends and retaining her own youthful imagination than she is deciding what romantic partner to choose or what classes to take. After all, Harry Potter became a cultural behemoth (and remains so, years after the original series’ conclusion) because it presented a magical, idealized version of school experiences that were relatable to anyone who’s ever attended high school or college. His Dark Materials has fascinating metaphors too, and understanding them explains Pullman’s focus on child characters. But since the film adaptation mostly blunted the story’s sharp edges, The Golden Compass lost much of the darkness that makes it what it is.
Though The Golden Compass kept most of the book’s plot intact (with the aforementioned reductions and dial-downs), it made one big change to the ending. The film ends with Lyra in her friends sailing off in Scoresby’s hot-air balloon, eager to reconnect with her father and save the world from the church’s evil plots. That is not how the book ends. In Pullman’s novel, Lyra and her friend Roger (Ben Walker) make it to Asriel’s keep, where they soon find out he isn’t much more scrupulous than his enemies. Asriel kills Roger in order to open a portal to another world, a brutal move that haunts Lyra for the rest of the series, and shows that the books’ central struggle is not as clear-cut good-vs.-evil as, say, The Lord of the Rings. That moral grey area is not a balance Hollywood is good at striking, especially these days. After years of dark, gritty, and violent superhero movies, we’re now swinging all the way around back to the colorful, playful fare of Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s never an in-between, but that between space (between adults and children, between humans and God, between this world and the next) is where His Dark Materials lives.
Thankfully, this may not be the last time we see The Golden Compass on screen. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playwright Jack Thorne has plans to adapt His Dark Materials for television, which might better fit the length and complexity of Pullman’s saga. Though there’s not much information yet, here’s hoping that the next attempt at adaptation better appreciates the book’s strengths.