Why 'The Golden Compass' Movie Failed

With the inevitable release of the Hunger Games movie next year, I thought I would take the time to examine The Golden Compass, another popular fantasy series with a scrappy young female protagonist, which made the jump to cinemas, but ultimately fell flat on its face. It’s hard to imagine that a movie based on a book with armored polar bears fights would flop at the box office, but it did. So, what went wrong?

The problems surely didn’t lie in the cast. Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Ian McShane, Ian McKellen and Sam Elliot round out what is on paper, a great cast. They all look the part and generally commit their veteran acting chops to their respective performances.

Tapping director Chris Weitz, who had not previously taken on a project as ambitious as The Golden Compass, may have been a poor choice. There were just too many considerations and concerns with this franchise. They really needed a seasoned director who was familiar with big budgets and better equipped to handle this work load.

But by far, the largest misstep of the film was the decision to sanitize the movies so they would not offend groups like the Catholic League. Religion is one of the larger themes confronted in the Golden Compass series. I won’t spoil anything for you, but if you read on, there are some pretty sharp criticisms against the church, culminating in Pullman’s rather unique depiction of God.

Knowing that they would receive flack for their representations of religious groups within the films, the filmmakers decided to sanitize the story, removing most traces of the church from the story and replacing them with some sort of abstract non-denominational oppressive group of baddies. This may have been a viable option for the first book, but as you get into the later books, it becomes impossible to remove references to the church. In fact, the story would make no sense without them.

And because they were forced to deal in abstracts, the story became confusing and resulted in a muddled narrative that did nothing to ingratiate itself to moviegoers unfamiliar with the source material. The ironic thing is that despite their best efforts to protect themselves from criticism and boycotts, they were protested by the Catholic League anyways.

I am still a huge fan of Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass series. Pullman takes a notably polarized approach to faith and religion compared to that of C.S Lewis’ Narnia books and in the processes creates a unique read. It was different from most of the other YA fantasy series I read as a child, which for the most part were steeped in some form of religious allegory. So, if you were turned off by the movie, I would still give the books a chance.

So, what does the Hunger Games movies need to do to avoid a similar fate? Well, it’s fairly simple. Don’t compromise your books to appease a demographic that probably wouldn’t attend your film anyway and in the process insult/alienate your established fan base.