Film Review: The Golden Compass

Forget the religious controversy. The most striking thing about The Golden Compass is that it’s a dud.

The Odeon cinema on Oxford’s George Street is a dull, uninspiring place.

The route there isn’t: over Magdalen Bridge, up High Street, down New College Lane, under the Bridge of Sighs, past the Sheldonian Theatre, and along beside the massive walls of Balliol. This is Philip Pullman’s real Oxford, and one wonders what Oxford’s second most famous atheist has been missing all these years in the shadows of the dreaming spires.

You see in Oxford, things are surely just as we would want them. In the real Oxford, Pullman’s Church (depicted in the fictional Oxford as the oppressive Magisterium) and University (the noble, free intellect of the don-ish Lord Asriel) are manifestly not at odds. It’s true that down the road from the Odeon a memorial reminds passers-by of the Oxford martyrs, Protestants burned at the stake by Bloody Mary, but this is all ancient history. Good old (non-oppressive) Anglican Oxford has sponsored a church-university détente which extends back as far as is historically useful. In Christian England at least, Pullman’s atheistic polemic is unnecessary — there is no Magisterium here. Religion does not poison everything and it certainly does not poison Oxford. Which is all to say that I’m glad that the movie version of The Golden Compass has blurred the book’s anti-religion edges.

Shame, then, that the movie is otherwise rubbish.

The Golden Compass narrates Lord Asriel’s (Daniel Craig) quest for Dust and the Magisterium’s mission (led by Nicole Kidman’s Mrs Coulter) to eradicate it. With the golden compass in hand, a young Oxford girl called Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) finds herself drawn into a world of gypsies (“gyptians”), polar bear-kings, witches, and parallel worlds in an attempt to thwart Coulter and the Magisterium. Dust is the residue of the Fall and represents the effects of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Dust, according to the Magisterium, is bad.

Northern Lights (the book’s British title) is rich in Miltonian mythology and cosmology. The film offers us a Spark Notes version, annoyingly shallow and told only via awkward snippets of expositional dialogue. For no good reason, characters blurt out lines of back-story in a clumsy attempt to educate the viewer as we rush from one limp set-piece to another. Believe me, kids who haven’t read the books will have no idea what is going on.

Visually, Chris Weitz has delivered only a mediocre affair. The steampunk world of Lyra’s England is interesting at first, but quickly, um, runs out of steam as we move to the Arctic. And the movie ends so abruptly that you fear they ran out of money.

On the bright side, Richards is brilliant as Lyra and you suspect she’ll be even better in the The Subtle Knife (although she’ll look weirdly older). I hope they make more films if only because Pullman’s story is a good one. And there’s no question that despite the film’s shortcomings, TGC is a much better choice than Fred Claus this Christmas. Just don’t expect the Peter Jackson touch.


A note to Mormon parents: the movie is spiritually benign, if a little violent and cruel for little ones. If you’re worried that your kids might read the books, and if you find it offensive that someone should rail against the oppressive priestcrafts of religion, glory in the Fall, and mock the pathetic Nobadaddies invented by the uninspired mind, you are betraying the very soul of Mormonism. Boo. Pullman may be histrionic, but he is not your enemy.


  1. I’m so glad I’m not the only Mormon who liked the Dark Materials trilogy. (Okay, I exaggerate–I had at least one very Mormon cousin who really loved the books, too) I’m sorry to hear the movie isn’t very good–I was really hoping.

  2. Watch it anyway would be my advice. Just lower your expectations.

  3. Amen and amen on your final graf. I wanted to wring our RS pres’ neck on Sunday when she started a histrionic tirade against the books. I’ve recommended them in the past and I’ll recommend them again. Except the third book, which is only bad because it’s comparatively lame (as in, Pan achieving his final, static form after Lyra discovers sexuality feels cheap and shallow compared to the rest of the books’ deep imagination). I will have to borrow the “rail against the oppressive priestcrafts” line.

    Sheesh, my comment makes me sound like I have ADHD. I don’t. Sorry about that.

  4. BTW, if anyone hasn’t waded through our previous TGC discussion, they should.

  5. jw,
    There’s a way to see His Dark Materials as deeply Mormon, but I suspect we’ve lost the imagination to do it.

  6. Ronan, I’ll presume your “we” to mean most of the sad masses who don’t read BCC, I hope.

  7. jw,
    Whilst I truly feel that all people’s lives would be greatly enriched by reading BCC, I cannot quite bring myself, alas, to describe BCC non-readers as the “sad masses.” I’m sure they are busy reading Sumerian poetry instead, or some such.

  8. Thanks for the review Ronan. Now that I see it is basically a dud, I’m probably not going to watch it. (With little time and a toddler, I wouldn’t have seen it on the big screen anyways). That said, the first book, Golden Compass, is quite good. But I really can’t read the third book again. I guess he does push some of my buttons.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I greatly appreciate the review, Ronan. I was curious about it in light of the tepid 38 or so it got on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ll probably still see it anyway, because there’s just not much else coming out this weekend. (I was hoping for a sneak peek at Juno or Atonement, but it looks like I’ll have to wait at least one more week for one of those.)

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Kev, I think Juno should premiere within a week in Chicago.

  11. There are themes that run parallel to Mormonism, but finding Mormonism in it is more an exercise in eisegesis than exegesis. Which is to say, you can do it, but I’m not sure what the point would be.

    That said, The Golden Compass/Northern Lights is a ripping yarn in its own right and it is sad to see it given a mediocre setting on film.

  12. John,
    You and your ex’s and ei’s. Nerd.

  13. Kevin – I’d forgot Atonement’s wasn’t out in the US yet. I saw it here in the UK in September. Weird – it’s usually the other way around.

    I already have my ticket to see TGC on Friday. I’m sad that it won’t be great. I had high hopes as I loved the book.

    I’m wondering about the rating difference too. It’s a PG here in England, but I saw that it has a PG13 rating in the US (our equivalent would be a 12A). Should it have the higher rating?

  14. Ronan, I love the final paragraph of this post. I’m going to use it against all the people sending me emails railing against this film and advocating boycotts. It’ll be like holy water to vampires.

  15. Ronan,

    I found Northern Lights while I was doing a study abroad in England during college. I came home and looked for the sequel for years before I realized the book had a different title in the U.S.

    I did wonder how the book could possibly be made into a decent film…

  16. If you’re looking for that eisegesis, I’ve got it covered here. Another interesting example of Pullman’s approach (from a completely different source) is the anime Scrapped Princess. You can view the relevent scenes on YouTube. (Go here and scroll down.)

  17. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Ronan, somehow while reading the exact same book, you and I read very, very different books.

    You betray something of the Mormonism not in your support of the man who happily calls himself the “Anti-C.S. Lewis” but in your condemnation of those who see differently than you.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    PDoE, somehow while reading the exact same post, you and I read very, very different messages from Ronan.

  19. PDoE, Steve beat me to it.

  20. I had a comment on this thread but it’s disappeared somehow. Oh well.

  21. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 17

    C.S. Lewis was no Mormon, not by a long shot. Are there ANY religious people who don’t claim alliance with him these days? Maybe the Scientologists.

    Are you commuting to Oxford these days, Ronan?

  22. Mike,
    I live in Oxford during the week.


    I will admit to feeling catty towards those Mormons who are joining the lame boycott calls. Uncharitable of me, yes, but I’m not feeling apologetic.

    It is more PG-13, I think. Some scary moments for little ‘uns.

  23. I was also irritated to discover there were email campaigns by Mormons against this film.

    Although Mormonism and Mormons surely fall squarely in the camp criticized by Pullman, the same Mormons writing spam emails relating to TGC are probably making comments in Sunday School classes relating to the “priestcrafts” and “false doctrines” (e.g. original sin) that constitute the Apostasy of much of creedal Christianity. That they are joining their voices with Evangelical creedalists who hate Mormons as much as they hate Pullman is astounding. One can disagree with Pullman’s religious chioces without acting like he is going to ruin Western civilization by writing kid’s stories based on Voltaire rather than St. Matthew.

  24. Just finished the first book. I found it uninspiring and tying Dust to Original Sin lame. I found I really didn’t care for most of the characters. It reminds me somewhat of G.R.R. Martin.
    For context, I have read Thomas Covenant books, Twilight, New Moon Eclipse, Don Quixote, Confessor (ugh!), Restoring the Ancient Church, To Ride a Rathorn, Vorpal Blade, With a Single Spell, Cowboy Feng’s Bar and Grill, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Fearless in the last 2 months.
    Oh well, at least if the movie is bad I won’t have to take the kids.

  25. Pullman may be histrionic, but he is not your enemy

    No, Pullman is our enemy, since he’s out to get all religions, which includes us. He is, however, an annoyance and not worth the time of a boycott.

    If you like the books, more power to ya. If you don’t, then don’t read them. Let others know how you fell, sure, but a boycott or whatever is rather silly. Pullman is rather unworthy enemy.

  26. Pullman is our enemy, since he’s out to get all religions[.]

    Isn’t that what the First Vision is all about? I don’t see any exceptions noted in Joseph Smith’s account. But I guess we do have a lot to fear, after the huge popularity of The Da Vinci Code turned most of the population into a bunch of Opus Dei-bashing, first-century Gnostic followers of the Priory of Sion. Oh. It didn’t?

  27. I think the boycott is great. Like most boycotts it will probably call attention and money to the movie and book, thus doing exactly what the whiners don’t want it to do.

  28. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 27

    Oh for sure. There’s nothing better for a movie’s revenues than having the conversative Catholics and Evangelicals call for a boycott. It will increase attendance significantly; always does. Don’t those people get that ???

  29. Ivan Wolfe says:

    Eugene Woodbury-

    If you’re going to argue that Pullman is mormon, that argument works. He’s not. He’s out to get us. That makes him our enemy.

    I just think it’s not that big of a deal, and that we should worry more about other things besides Pullman. He’s not a threat, really. (So, your blatant mischaracterization of my post doesn’t work, since I never claimed that Pullman was going to lead to Mormon burnings – you really need to avoid those logical fallacies).

    However, just because he is not a threat does not mean we should pretend he’s really on our side. He isn’t. And frankly, the bizarre defenses of Pullman as some sort of pseudo-Mormon or potential Mormon ally mystify me.

  30. Thanks for the warning.

    I kind of enjoyed the second book (which I read first) and found the first filled in some puzzles I’d had, but he just can’t pull it off in the third book and there is a reason the fourth has been delayed for so long.

  31. Ivan Wolfe says:

    Stephen M (Ethesis):

    I feel the same way. Pullman wrote 2/3 of a good trilogy, only to have the third book short circuit and nearly (but not quite) retroactively ruin my enjoyment of the first two. But the first two were good enough to overcome that.

  32. Adam Greenwood says:

    I’m betraying the very soul of Mormonism? Imagine. Little ol’ me.

  33. Ivan Wolfe — Philip Pullman’s out to get you? What, he’s waiting outside your door with a mallet? Lurking in the bushes? People who express opinions contrary to yours are “out to get you?” You can’t use rhetoric like that and then turn around and say he’s not a threat and it’s no big deal. Only by trivializing language does that argument work.

    And I never claimed that you claimed that Pullman was going to lead to Mormon burnings–you need to get over this persecution complex. Even extremely popular works of art rarely convert anybody to anything. Dan Brown isn’t my enemy. He isn’t the Catholic Church’s enemy. He wasn’t out to “get” anybody. Neither is Philip Pullman.

    Read the Time Magazine interview. I take him at his word. Then again, I don’t think Christopher Hitchens is out to “get” me, either, and he’s not my “enemy.” Mormons (if anyone) should think twice before so cavalierly tossing that stone about.

  34. Eugene –

    you clearly don’t read your own comments. I have no paranoia, but you clearly have a blind side to your obvious contempt for all things that don’t agree with you. You clearly accused me of being of a kind with those that thoughtthe huge popularity of The Da Vinci Code [would] turn . . . most of the population into a bunch of Opus Dei-bashing, first-century Gnostic followers of the Priory of Sion. Oh.

    You should think before being so cavalier as to engage in the fallacy of equivocation (along with several others).

    At the very least, stop ascribing views to me I clearly don’t have.

    Pullman is an enemy, just not an important one. In any “war” or “battle” or what have you, there are always people who are your enemy that you really shouldn’t concern yourself with. There were hundreds of Orcs in Lord of the Rings that were Frodo’s enemy, yet it would have been impractical for Frodo to worry about every single Orc in existence. There were several he would never, ever meet, or who would die before he ever met them – yet they were still his enemy. Most of the Orcs were “unimportant” enemies, but it would have been foolish to say “well, this Orc isn’t right in front of Frodo, so therefore he’s not an enemy, and is in fact an ally.”

    Be careful who you consider to be your allies.

  35. Bro. Jones says:


    I feel the same way. Pullman wrote 2/3 of a good trilogy, only to have the third book short circuit and nearly (but not quite) retroactively ruin my enjoyment of the first two. But the first two were good enough to overcome that.

    Ditto. I’m all about literature that engages in thought experiments, even when those experiments might run counter to my beliefs. But they should be good and handled with a soft touch. “The Amber Spyglass” was like a brick to the head, and I didn’t care for it much.

  36. FYI, I went to the movie last night with our 19 year old, and have been mulling this over in my head a little today. This movie got off to a good start, but started to sputter for me after about the first hour.

    I did not think the representation of the Magisterium was that obvious (at least to kids or casual observers) an attack on religion. However, coming at it with the foreknowledge of the subject matter of the later two books, you have to wonder how subtle the sequels can be.

    For those of you who have read the books, the “dust” reference to the fall may be more obvious, but I only caught one casual reference to that, and the theology behind the statement certainly was not clear.

    I might read the books, but in spite of a good cast, the film came off as pretty flat. My son thought parts of it were okay, but he also said “I can see why the Catholics are so upset”.

  37. Saw the movie over the weekend. My expectations were significantly lowered because of the poor reviews. Boy, was I surprised when it was awesome! I can’t believe how well it was done. I thought the acting and the animation was so great. I didn’t know how they would fit everything in from the book but they did it pretty well. I took two friends that hadn’t read the books and they thought it was great too. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the music in the end credits.

  38. Am reading the books. LOVE them (and I don’t generally like fantasies.) They’re very profound philosophically–a lot more sophisticated and “meaty” than most books for teens.
    Saw the movie, and thought it was very well done. VERY good acting, great special effects and a fairly good condensed version of the novel.

  39. the novel that this is based on is aimed at teenagers. now either the directors underestimate the intelligenge of adolescents theese days or have decided to aim it at younger children because it completely over explanitory this alone ruins the film not to mention difference in the story line and chronoligy, missed scenes, unnesessary added scenes and no ending 1 OUT OF 10 DONT SEE THIS FILM