The Golden Compass (The Northern Lights outside of the U.S.) was written by Philip Pullman and published in 1995. It is the first book in the His Dark Materials best-selling trilogy. The movie was released in 2007 but was considered a box-office disappointment. How did such a popular book fail as a movie? Read on for some of the reasons why.
The Ending was Abrupt
The last three chapters of the book were cut out of the movie. The director, Chris Weitz, did this because he thought it would provide “the most promising conclusion to the first film and the best possible beginning to the second.” These were not the only scenes left out, but they were the most notable. Many scenes couldn’t be added because of time constraints; the additional scenes would have made the movie close to three hours. Most movies were between two and two-and-a-half hours, so three hours would have been too long.
While the decision did make the movie shorter and more palatable, many complained that the ending was rather abrupt compared to the book. The last scene shows Lyra and the other characters going to find Lord Asriel, and then it cuts out. Asriel’s betrayal, the source of the Dust, and the other worlds are absent from the film. The book has a full, if depressing, conclusion, while the movie ended on a more upbeat note but was incomplete.
Info Dumping Rather than Showing
Pullman only gives relevant information when necessary, such as a brief explanation of daemons at the beginning of the book. Readers learn as Lyra does despite the point of view being third-person omniscient. We are left to wonder about much, such as the Dust, until close to the end. It isn’t all explained in the end — that’s what the rest of the books in the series are for — but much of it is.
This wonder and slow revelation are hard to recreate in movies, which are centered on dialogue rather than description. It can still work, but it didn’t for The Golden Compass. Information was quickly revealed through the spoken introduction and dialogue that explained the plot. By explaining everything upfront and as soon as possible, there was no chance for readers to experience the same wonder and curiosity as there was in the book.
Magisterium Doesn’t Represent Catholicism
The Magisterium is the ruling authority and headquarters of the Holy Church in Geneva. They heavily censored information that would have any impact on their doctrines and abused their power to suppress any news that would challenge them. This depiction of the Magisterium is considered a “thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church.” This is in line with two of the book’s major themes: the abuse of power prevalent in Catholicism and the rejection of organized religion.
The movie, however, doesn’t directly criticize the Catholic Church. Instead, the Magisterium is meant to represent all organized religions, not just Catholicism. This may have been done to avoid backlash from Catholics, but doing so steers the conversation away from specific issues and makes it more vague and unclear than in the book. It makes the Magisterium less sinister and more confusing because movie watchers don’t have the same context.
While the movie isn’t terrible, it falls short compared to the book. Staying closer to the source material and not being afraid to take a few risks would have made it a box office success rather than a failure.
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