The Golden Compass: Shoo-In for Shallow Sequels?
The Golden Compass was the first of three books in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. With the film's weak domestic showing (released last December with a $25.8 million opening weekend box office), most everyone thought the prospect of adapting the follow-up two books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, was circling the proverbial drain. Thanks to the good ole profit equation, however, now it seems very likely the entire trilogy will come to the big screen. Unfortunately, you can expect the subsequent films to depart even further from Pullman's original material.
Compass has become a pretty notorious film. Initially the infamy stemmed from the overtly anti-Christian air of Pullman's materials. More widely reported than that is the $180-million production's miserable $70 million domestic showing, proving one of the final nails in New Line Cinema's coffin. (You can read more about our timely speculation last December, and the most recent news dealing with the studio's absorption into Time Warner). Current numbers show the film doing well oversees, however. Very well. In fact, the domestic-dud is estimated to pull in close to $300 million through international distribution alone.
This isn't exactly surprising. Interestingly, fantasy films do much better overseas for a variety of reasons. For instance, films of this ilk are usually culturally and geographically agnostic and often heavily cast as fun for the entire family. Remember Stardust? It took in $39 million domestically and $96 million overseas. A similar ratio can be seen with all of the Harry Potter films released to date - international grosses are more than double domestic.
Producer Deborah Forte told recently told Variety, "The perception of this movie as a family film was not as great as in other territories. It did not get the heart of the family demographic that it was intended to… all the press was about whether it was the next 'Lord of the Rings,' a lot of the press was about very heady issues, none of the press was about the movie itself. It was not clear to a lot of family audiences that this film was for them."
Unfortunately, she's right. Compass was adapted such that it would have more family appeal, which is really disappointing (more on that in a bit). Despite this molestation, domestic marketing still got it wrong, hyping the star power of Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, along with the "epic-ness" on the level of Rings. Complicating its performance further was wide reporting on the negative religious undertones of Pullman's original material.
Sadly for New Line, they sold off international distribution rights early on to help cover the monster budget and will reap little of the reward. I suppose this works out for the best (financially speaking), since those who acquired the international rights have done a better spin-job, positioning the flick squarely at families.
But as I mentioned, this family-centric positioning really…err…sucks. Not the most sophisticated of descriptions, I know, but it's accurate. Compass was heavily altered from its original text to eliminate such explicit references to the church, the bible and God. "If we said 'church' and put them as the enemy, it would be unnecessarily insulting to religious people," said director Chris Weitz of the adaptation.
This is sad. Pullman constructed the Materials trilogy after a long publishing career, having felt he reached the age and level whereby he could really explore interesting ideas and questions. His queries largely dealt with whether God exists. "I am preoccupied by those questions," he's quoted as saying. "I found I was able with the help of the story to explore these ideas for myself."
Of course, such questions aren't exactly well regarded in the US, especially under the current, heavily conservative administration. Pair this environment with the need to Americanize a film - just read some of the many instances in which film endings have been changed to satisfy American audiences - and you have a severely neutered version of Pullman's work. Gone are the existential inquiries and the questioning of religious dogma, and in its place fun adventures and flashy, entertaining CGI. (Compass actually won the Academy Award for Visual Effects).
This isn't unusual, however. Oftentimes stories are adapted in such a way so as to be pulled from the deep end of the pool to more shallow waters. I suppose this means most Americans aren't adept (or interested) enough to "swim" with a compelling story. Weitz told EW.com last year that, "It's a very expensive undertaking, and you want as wide an audience as possible… In a way, one wishes that was why people went to movies, to get ideas. But they really go to be entertained."
And be entertained they will with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. With the increasing numbers associated with Compass, there's little to think the other two won't be released. In fact, a script for Knife has already been written. Compass' producer, Forte, leaves little room to doubt. "I will make 'The Subtle Knife' and 'The Amber Spyglass'…I believe there are enough people who see what a viable and successful franchise we have."
And that's what it really boils down to: viable and successful. So while Pullman's trilogy will be pushed, shoved and squeezed into the Hollywood machine, the resulting product will bear little resemblance to the original inspiration. "I don't think they promote anything — except the good qualities of kindness, courage, curiosity, open-mindedness," Pullman has said. Too bad this won't translate on screen.
While Compass presented a number of challenges with its content, I can't wait to see what happens when the two remaining stories are adapted. The material gets increasing darker - hence the name - and in the last book God is declared dead. Not that you'll ever know that through watching the films.