|The Golden Compass|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Chris Weitz|
|Produced by||Deborah Forte
|Written by||Philip Pullman (novel)
|Starring||Dakota Blue Richards
|Music by||Alexandre Desplat|
|Editing by||Anne V. Coates
|Studio||New Line Cinema
Rhythm and Hues
Depth of Field
Ingenious Film Partners
|Distributed by||New Line Cinema|
|Release date(s)||5 December 2007 (UK)
7 December 2007 (U.S.)
|Running time||113 minutes|
|Country||United States/United Kingdom|
|Budget||US$180 — 205 million|
The Golden Compass is a 2007 fantasy film based on Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in the U.S.), the first novel in Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, and was released on December 7, 2007 by New Line Cinema. Directed by Chris Weitz, it stars Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green and Dakota Blue Richards. The project was announced in February 2002, following the success of recent adaptations of other fantasy epics, but troubles over the script and the selection of a director caused significant delays. At US$180 million, it was one of New Line's most expensive projects ever, and its middling success in the US contributed to New Line's February 2008 restructuring.
The story concerns Lyra, an orphan living in a fantastical parallel universe in which a dogmatic theocracy called the Magisterium threatens to dominate the world. When Lyra's friend is kidnapped, she travels to the far North in an attempt to rescue him and rejoin her uncle.
Before its release, the film received criticism from secular organizations and fans of His Dark Materials for the dilution of the religious elements from the novels, as well as from some religious organizations for the source material's anti-Christian and atheistic themes. The studio ordered significant changes late in post-production, which Weitz later called a "terrible" experience; though film's visual effects (which Weitz has called the film's "most successful element") won both an Academy Award and a BAFTA, critical reception was mixed.
In a parallel universe in which a person's soul resides outside the body in an animal-like form called a "dæmon", the planet is controlled by an authoritarian organization called the Magisterium. In Oxford, orphaned Lyra Belacqua, a ward of Jordan College along with her dæmon Pantalaimon (nicknamed "Pan") tells tales of the "Gobblers", whom she and her friends believe are responsible for several local children's disappearance. Visiting the college is Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel, who, against official Magisterium doctrine, is presenting evidence that particles called "Dust" exist. After Lyra saves Asriel from an assassination attempt by a Magisterial representative by knocking a glass of tokay—poisoned by the representative—out of Asriel's hand, the college funds his expedition to the far north to investigate the Dust substance. He believes it originates in a parallel universe and enters a person's body via their dæmon. Fearing the effects of Dust, the Magisterium has been experimenting on children to discover a way to inoculate others against it.
After Asriel departs, the college is visited by Mrs. Coulter, who offers to take Lyra north as her assistant. Before leaving, the college Master entrusts Lyra with an alethiometer (the film's titular Golden Compass). This device is able to reveal the answer to any question asked by a trained user. It is the last one in existence since the Magisterium had them destroyed (except the one that the college saved). Though unable to operate it, Lyra accepts the gift, promising never to reveal she has it, and takes it with her to Mrs. Coulter's home. When Mrs. Coulter arouses Lyra's suspicions by delaying their journey, Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is head of the General Oblation Board, the "Gobblers" who have been kidnapping local children. She also discovers that her best friend Roger Parslow and her Gyptian friend Billy Costa have been taken by the Gobblers to the north.
Mrs. Coulter learns of Lyra's possession of the alethiometer, but Lyra escapes. The "Gobblers" pursue her, but she is saved by the Gyptians: a nomadic boat people. They are travelling north by sea to rescue the kidnapped children, among them many Gyptians. Lyra travels with them and begins to understand the alethiometer's use with help from a Gyptian wise man, Farder Coram, and a witch queen, Serafina Pekkala, who appears during the journey and tells Lyra that the children are being held in a research facility, known as Bolvangar, now shunned by all living things. During this journey, Lyra and Pan are chased by two insect-robots sent by the Magisterium, one of which is caught and sealed into a tin box. At a Norwegian port, Lyra befriends aeronaut Lee Scoresby, who advises her to hire Iorek Byrnison, an exiled prince of armoured polar bears. Iorek is employed as a metalworker after he was tricked out of his armour by the local townspeople. Lyra uses the alethiometer to discover the armour's location, which Iorek recovers. He pledges his service to Lyra's cause, and the Gyptians hire Scoresby to aid their trek north.
The alethiometer guides Lyra to Billy Costa, who has escaped from a Magisterium research station. She finds him dazed and lacking his dæmon, and returns him to the Gyptians. The group is attacked by Samoyeds who capture Lyra. She is taken to the armoured bear king, whom Lyra tricks into fighting Iorek for the throne. Iorek kills him and reclaims his kingship. He carries Lyra to Bolvangar, but the two are separated by a collapsing ice bridge. Lyra pretends to be lost and is welcomed into the station by Magisterium scientists. She locates Roger and instructs him to have the other kidnapped children prepare for escape. Lyra discovers that the Magisterium scientists, under the guidance of Mrs. Coulter, are performing experiments to sever the bond between a child and their dæmon. After being caught spying, Lyra is taken to a room where they begin performing the separation procedure, causing Lyra and Pan to enter a panicky frenzy. Before the cut is completed, Mrs. Coulter enters the room and rescues Lyra, taking Lyra to her quarters.
When Lyra wakes up in Mrs. Coulter's bed, Mrs. Coulter comforts her and is the most gentle and reassuring she's ever been with her, although Lyra wants Mrs. Coulter to be the kind and caring woman she thought she was but later realises that Mrs. Coulter has ulterior motives and isn't surprised when she's reveals herself as her mother. When Mrs. Coulter grabs her and later tries to take the Compass, Lyra pulls out the spy fly which attacks Mrs. Coulter and her daemon. Lyra climbs out of the bed and runs from the room, shaken and horrified by her mother's actions.
Lyra destroys the separation machinery, leading to a series of explosions that begin to tear down the facility. Lyra leads the other children outside, where Magisterial guards block their escape. A battle ensues when Iorek, the Gyptians, and a band of witches led by Serafina Pekkala arrive. The guards are defeated and the children are rescued. Rather than returning south with the Gyptians and the rescued children, Lyra and Roger instead travel north with Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison and Serafina to find Lord Asriel. Serafina posits that the Magisterium does not just want to control their world, but "every world in every universe"; however, Lyra is certain that, once she delivers the alethiometer to her father, the two of them will be able to make things right.
|"Peter's operation was so impressive that, well, I realized the distance between me and Peter Jackson... At that moment, I realized the sheer scope of the endeavor. And I thought, 'You know what? I can't do this'."|
|— Director Chris Weitz on his initial departure from the project|
On February 11, 2002, following the success of New Line's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the studio bought the rights to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. In July 2003 Tom Stoppard was commissioned to write the screenplay. Directors Brett Ratner and Sam Mendes expressed interest in the film, but a year later, Chris Weitz was hired to direct after approaching the studio with an unsolicited 40-page treatment. The studio rejected Stoppard's script, asking Weitz to start from scratch. Since Weitz was a fan of Stoppard, he decided not to read the adaptation in case he "subconsciously poached things from him." After delivering his script, Weitz cited Barry Lyndon and Star Wars as stylistic influences on the film. In 2004, Weitz was invited by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson onto the set of King Kong in order to gather information on directing a blockbuster film, and to receive advice on dealing with New Line Cinema, for whom Jackson had worked on Lord of the Rings. After a subsequent interview in which Weitz said the novel's attacks on organized religion would have to be softened, he was criticized by some fans, and on December 15, 2004, Weitz announced his resignation as director of the trilogy, citing the enormous technical challenges of the epic. He later indicated that he had envisioned the possibility of being denounced by both the book's fans and its detractors, as well as a studio hoping for another Lord of the Rings.
On August 9, 2005, it was announced that British director Anand Tucker would take over from Weitz. Tucker felt the film would thematically be about Lyra "looking for a family", and Pullman agreed: "He has plenty of very good ideas, and he isn't daunted by the technical challenges. But the best thing from the point of view of all who care about the story is his awareness that it isn't about computer graphics; it isn't about fantastic adventures in amazing-looking worlds; it's about Lyra." Tucker resigned on May 8, 2006, citing creative disagreements with New Line, and Weitz returned to direct. Weitz said "I'm both the first and third director on the film ... [B]ut I did a lot of growing in the interim."
According to producer Deborah Forte, Tucker wanted to make a smaller, less exciting film than New Line wanted. New Line production president Toby Emmerich said of Weitz's return: "I think Chris realized that if he didn’t come back in and step up, maybe the movie wasn’t going to get made ... We really didn’t have a Plan B at that point." Weitz was attracted back to the project after receiving a letter from Pullman asking him to reconsider. Since his departure, blueprints, production design and visual effects strategies had been put into position, and while Weitz admitted that his fears did not vanish, the project suddenly seemed feasible for the director.
Filming began at Shepperton Studios on September 4, 2006, with additional sequences shot in Switzerland and Norway. Filming also took place at the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, Chiswick House in London, and in Radcliffe Square, Exeter College, Oxford, the Queen's College, Oxford and Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire.
Production Designer Dennis Gassner says of his work on the film: “The whole project is about translation – translation from something you would understand into something that is in a different vernacular. So, it’s a new signature, looking into another world that seems familiar but is still unique. There’s a term I use – called 'cludging' – it’s taking one element and combining it with another element to make something new. It’s a hybrid or amalgamation, and that’s what this movie is about from a design perspective. It’s about amalgamating ideas and concepts and theoretical and physical environments.”
Numerous scenes from the novel were not featured in the film. On December 7, 2007, New York Magazine reviewed draft scripts from both Stoppard and Weitz; both were significantly longer than the final version, and Weitz's draft (which, unlike Stoppard's, did not feature significant additions to the source material) was pronounced the best of the three. The magazine concluded that instead of a "likely three hours of running time" that included such scenes as Mrs. Coulter's London party and Lyra's meeting with a witch representative, the studio had opted for a "failed" length of under two hours in order to maximize revenue.
On October 9, 2007, Weitz revealed that the final three chapters from Northern Lights had been moved to the film's potential sequel, The Subtle Knife, in order to provide "the most promising conclusion to the first film and the best possible beginning to the second", though he also said less than a month later that there had been "tremendous marketing pressure" to create "an upbeat ending". Author Pullman publicly supported these changes, saying that "every film has to make changes to the story that the original book tells — not to change the outcome, but to make it fit the dimensions and the medium of film." In addition to excising Northern Lights' ending, the film reverses the order in which Lyra travels to the Gobbler's outpost of Bolvangar and Svalbard, the armoured bears' kingdom. (Neither deviation from the book features in Scholastic Publishing's The Golden Compass: The Story of the Movie novelization.) In July 2009, Weitz told a Comic Con audience that the film had been "recut by [New Line], and my experience with it ended being quite a terrible one”; he also told Time.com that he had felt that by "being faithful to the book I was working at odds with the studio."
Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club argued that through the use of a spoken introduction and other exposition-filled dialogue, the film "bowdlerizes" Pullman's vision by "baldly revealing up front everything that the novel is trying to get you to wonder about and to explore slowly." Youyoung Lee wrote in a December 2007 Entertainment Weekly that the film "leaves out the gore," such as the book's ritualistic heart-eating that concludes the bear fight, "to create family-friendlier fare." Lee also said that the film "downplays the Magisterium's religious nature", but Robinson argued that the depicted "hierarchical organization of formally robed, iconography-heavy priests who dictate and define morality for their followers, are based out of cathedrals, and decry teachings counter to theirs as 'heresy'" while doing "ugly things to children under cover of secrecy" would make "most people" think of the Catholic Church.
Series creator Philip Pullman suggested a scene not included in the books, in which Mrs. Coulter hits her dæmon. Although the character has black hair in the novel, Pullman responded to the blonde Kidman's portrayal by saying "I was clearly wrong. You sometimes are wrong about your characters. She's blonde. She has to be."
Several key themes of the novels, such as the rejection of religion and the abuse of power in a fictionalised version of the Catholic Church, were diluted in the adaptation. Director Weitz said "in the books the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots," but that the organization portrayed in his film would not directly match that of Pullman's books. Instead, the Magisterium represents all dogmatic organizations. Weitz said that New Line Cinema had feared the story's anti-religious themes would make the film financially unviable in the U.S., and so religion and God ("the Authority" in the books) would not be referenced directly.
Attempting to reassure fans of the novels, Weitz said that religion would instead appear in euphemistic terms, yet the decision was criticised by some fans, anti-censorship groups, and the National Secular Society (of which Pullman is an honorary associate), which said "they are taking the heart out of it, losing the point of it, castrating it..." and "this is part of a long-term problem over freedom of speech." The Atlantic Monthly said also "With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul." The changes from the novel have been present since Tom Stoppard's rejected version of the script, and Pullman expected the film to be "faithful," although he also said, "They do know where to put the theology and that’s off the film." A Christianity Today review of the film noted that "'Magisterium' does refer, in the real world, to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the film [is] peppered with religiously significant words like 'oblation' and 'heresy'", adding that when one character smashes through the wall of a Magisterium building, the damaged exterior is "decorated with [Christian] Byzantine icons."
On October 7, 2007 the Catholic League called for a boycott of the film. League president William A. Donohue said he would not ordinarily object to the film, but that while the religious elements are diluted from the source material, the film will encourage children to read the novels, which he says denigrate Christianity and promote atheism for kids. He cited Pullman telling the Washington Post in 2001 that he is trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. The League hoped that "the film [would fail] to meet box office expectations and that [Pullman's] books attract few buyers," declaring the boycott campaign a success after a North American opening weekend which was lower than anticipated. One week after the film's release, Roger Ebert said of the campaign, "any bad buzz on a family film can be mortal, and that seems to have been the case this time."
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed that the broad appeal of the film was a dangerous lure to the novels, which he criticized for carrying a clear agenda to expose what [Pullman] believes is the "tyranny of the Christian faith" and for "[providing] a liberating mythology for a new secular age." The Rev. Denny Wayman of the Free Methodist Church made the assertion that The Golden Compass is a "film trying to preach an atheistic message."  Other evangelical groups, such as The Christian Film and Television Commission, adopted a "wait-and-see" approach to the film before deciding upon any action, as did the Roman Catholic Church in England & Wales. Some religious scholars have challenged the view that the story carries atheistic themes, while in November 2007, a review of the film by the director and staff reviewer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting appeared on the website of the Catholic News Service and in Catholic newspapers across the country. The review suggested that instead of a boycott, it may be appropriate for Catholic parents to "talk through any thorny philosophical issues" with their children. However, on December 10, 2007 the review was removed from the website at the USCCB's request. On December 19, 2007, the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published an editorial in which it denounced the film as godless.
Pullman said of Donohue's call for a boycott, "Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers? Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world." In a discussion with Donohue on CBS's Early Show, Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said that rather than promote atheism, the film would encourage children to question authority, saying that would not be a bad thing for children to learn. Director Weitz says that he believes His Dark Materials is "not an atheistic work, but a highly spiritual and reverent piece of writing", and Nicole Kidman defended her decision to star in the film, saying that "I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic". Some commentators indicated that they believed both sides' criticism would prove ultimately impotent and that the negative publicity would prove a boon for the film's box office.
Reviews of The Golden Compass were mixed. As of January 4, 2009, review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 42% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 188 reviews, with a 48% rating from 32 selected "top" critics. At the similar website Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film has received an average score of 51, based on 33 reviews.
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times said that the film "crams so many events, characters, [...] twists and turns, sumptuously appointed rooms and ethereally strange vistas [...] that [it] risks losing you in the whirl" and that while The Golden Compass is "an honorable work," it is "hampered by its fealty to the book and its madly rushed pace." James Berardinelli of ReelReviews gave the film 2½ stars out of 4, calling it "adequate but not inspired" and criticizing the first hour for its rushed pace and sketchily-developed characters. James Christopher of The Times was disappointed, praising the "marvellous" special effects and casting, but saying that the "books weave a magic the film simply cannot match" and citing a "lack of genuine drama."
Time rated it a "B" and called it a "good, if familiar fantasy", saying "The find is Dakota Blue Richards [...] who's both grounded and magical." Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rated it four stars out of five, praising Nicole Kidman's casting and saying it had "no other challengers as [2007's] big Christmas movie." Leonard Maltin gave the film three out of four stars, and said that "Richards is persuasive" and that it " does a good job of introducing us to an unfamiliar world." Critic Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars and called it "a darker, deeper fantasy epic than the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia or the Potter films," saying that it "creates villains that are more complex and poses more intriguing questions. As a visual experience, it is superb. As an escapist fantasy, it is challenging [...] I think [it] is a wonderfully good-looking movie, with exciting passages and a captivating heroine."
Pullman himself was described by a Times interviewer as sounding "ambivalent" and "guarded" about the film, saying in March 2008: “A lot of things about it were good... Nothing's perfect. Nothing can bring out all that's in the book. There are always compromises”. He hoped, however, that the rest of the trilogy would be adapted with the same cast and crew. In July 2009, after this possibility had been exhausted, Weitz told Time.com that he thought the film's special effects ended up being its "most successful element."
The Golden Compass won the 2008 BAFTA Award for Special Visual Effects and an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. It was also nominated for two Critics' Choice Awards in 2007 ("Best Family Film," and "Best Young Actress" for Dakota Blue Richards), five Satellite Awards, and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.
The North American opening weekend return was "a little disappointing" for New Line Cinema, earning US$25.8 million with total domestic box office of $70 million compared to an estimated $180 million production budget. Despite this, the film's loss rebounded as its performance outside the United States was described as "stellar" by Variety, and as "astonishing" by New Line. In the United Kingdom, the film grossed $53,198,635. In Japan, the film was officially released in March 2008 on 700 screens, ultimately grossing $33,501,399; but previews of the film between 23–24 February 2008 earned $2.5 million. By July 6, 2008, it had earned $302,127,136 internationally, totaling $372,234,864 worldwide.
Overseas rights to the film were sold to fund the $180 million production budget for the film, so most of these profits did not go to New Line, though they gained considerably by selling the foreign rights, and 60% of the film's budget was already recouped by the film's release; by the time the film had earned a global box office of $330 million in March 2008, it was estimated that the decision had cost New Line 75% of the film's return. This has been cited as a potential "last straw" in Time Warner's decision to merge New Line Cinema into Warner Bros Pictures.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats in the United Kingdom on April 28, 2008 and the United States on April 29, 2008. The extra material on the single-disc DVD consists of previews of upcoming New Line Cinema films. The two-disc edition includes a commentary from writer/director Chris Weitz, eleven "making-of" featurettes, a photo gallery, and theatrical and teaser trailers. The Blu-ray disc features the same extras from the two-disc DVD edition. Exclusive to Blu-ray Disc is Visual Commentary Picture-in-Picture feature which enables users to view behind the scene feature while watching the movie.
Shortly before the film's release, Weitz suggested that an extended cut of the film could be released on DVD, saying "I'd really love to do a fuller cut of the film"; he further speculated that such a version "could probably end up at two and a half hours." This proposed cut would presumably not include the original ending: MTV reported in December 2007 that Weitz hoped to include that material at the beginning of a possible The Subtle Knife adaptation, and that a Compass Director's Cut might feature "a moment" of it as a "teaser". Cast members Craig and Green have echoed this hope for such a DVD cut; so far, however, no official announcement has been made.
The video game for this film was released on December 4, 2007 for the PC, Wii, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS, and the Xbox 360. It was developed by Shiny Entertainment and published by Sega.
Players take control of the characters Lyra Belacqua and Iorek Byrnison in Lyra's attempt to save her friend Roger from the General Oblation Board. As this game does not fully take into account the changes made by the final version of the film, a small amount of footage from the film's deleted ending can be viewed near the end of the game, and the order in which Lyra travels to Bolvangar and Svalbard follows the book and not the film.
New Line Cinema commissioned Hossein Amini to write a screenplay based on the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, potentially for release in late 2009, with the third book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, to follow. However, New Line president Toby Emmerich stressed that production of the second and third films was dependent on the financial success of The Golden Compass. When The Golden Compass did not meet expectations at the United States box office, the likelihood of a sequel was downplayed by New Line. According to studio co-head Michael Lynne, "The jury is still very much out on the movie, and while it's performed very strongly overseas we'll look at it early  and see where we're going with a [sequel]."
In February 2008, Chris Weitz told The Daily Yomiuri that he still hoped for the sequels' production: "at first it looked like we were down for the count because in the U.S. [the film] underperformed, but then internationally it performed [better] than expectations. So, a lot depends on Japan, frankly... I think if it does well enough here we'll be in good shape for that". And though producer Deborah Forte expressed optimism that March that the sequels could be made, and that she intended to see them realized, the studio decided against producing them, with The Independent speculating that December that the uncertain economic climate may have contributed to their cancellation.
At the time of The Golden Compass' theatrical release, Chris Weitz pledged to "protect [the] integrity" of the prospective sequels by being "much less compromising" in the book-to-film adaptation process.