EDITORIALS

The Golden Compass: Shoo-In for Shallow Sequels?

by
March 9, 2008
Source: Variety, EW.com

Golden Compass

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."

The Subtle KnifeOf 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.

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  • Good read but the failure fo Compass was its generic look and NICOLE KIDMAN AND DANIEL CRAIG ARE NOT STAR POWER NAMES TO DRAW IN TEENAGERS! As a high-schooler, Kidman and Craig are recognizable names but NO ONE will go to a movie just because Kidman and Craig are in it and they were the stars mainly marketed. The only way I can see sequels being made is by it being financed by overseas production companies because in US it does not click. NO WAY will a sequel to an unsuccessful film be successful all of a sudden.
  • I thought the movie was very faithful to the first book. There is VERY little in the way of religious commentary in the first book; aside from some narrative streamlining and not using the word "church," it's very apparent that the Magisterium is a stand-in for the Catholic Church. And Metatron is not "God" in the book; Dust is. The books are not about trying to kill the idea of a Creator, but the ludicrous idea of "God" as Santa Claus in the sky (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200712/religious-movies). (One of the last two books even states explicitly that Metatron is NOT the Creator, leaving the origin of the universe completely untouched by the trilogy.)
  • Rob
    The reason this filmed failed in the U.S. was due to poor marketing, plain and simple. It was extremely well done. And one of the best fantasy films I've ever seen.
  • ha1rball
    I actually really really liked it too! i thought it was better then narnia
  • Martie
    I most not have seen the same movie some of you did. It was choppy & incoherent. I read the book & still thought the movie was difficult to follow. If you have to read the book to understand the movie, the movie is poorly made. This movie WAS marketed as a family movie/fantasy, dolls included.
  • louise
    loved this movie and dying to see the other when they come out. will also buy the dvds too.
  • Craig
    Interesting take. I do not know if the movie was faithful to the book or not because I did not see it, although I have read the entire trilogy. I do know that the trilogy is clearly an assault on my faith and the faith of the some 1.5-2 billion Christians in the world. The administration of this country has nothing to do with my faith or the fact that I don't want my children introduced to this world, and I find it humorous that you actually seem to think that the president of this country could affect individuals that way. However, I actually agree with you that it sucks to water the books down, if that is what happened. Be what you are. Pullman is an unapologetic atheist. Fine. I am more offended at the books trying to water that down than just standing up and embracing it. Marketing issues aside, you should have the balls to be accountable for what you are. Part of the reason the movie failed at the box office is because Christians don't care how watered down it was, we're not going to introduce our kids to stories that have as part of their ultimate agenda the denigrating of our faith. New Line et al. were naive to think we're so stupid as to fall for their, "Oh, we took all the anti-faith stuff out," line. So, ultimately, they lost us AND they lost those of you who might have not cared about the anti-Christian sentiments but did like the books. Stupid marketing. So, ultimately, I agree with the commenters who blame the failure on poor marketing. I mainly take exception with your implication that the practical actions (avoiding the movie) directed by the faith of Christians depends on who is the President.
  • Drew
    QUOTE: "Of course, such questions aren't exactly well regarded in the US, especially under the current, heavily conservative administration." The poor performance of this movie had nothing to do with the administration. It had to do with a grass roots stand against it's anti-Christian agenda. Spread by word of mouth and e-mail.
  • ha1rball
    oh boo hoo its just a damn movie if the kids are raised right it shouldn't influence them in any way!
  • Craig
    @ha1rball I agree 100% with what you say. It's just a movie. The only effect it had on my kids was actually quite positive in that it gave us the opportunity to discuss folks who don't "get" our faith. And I certainly would never want to compromise Pullman's right to write the stories nor any studio's right to make the movies, just as no one should want to compromise the ability of a group to make it's feelings about the movie/books known. I only comment because the article popped up in my feed reader and made a weird assumption about the US administration and Christians, and because as a life long fan of fantasy literature (the classics of which all have obvious Christian underpinnings - Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia) I made a point of reading the Pullman novels (before I even knew he was an atheist) and maintain an interest in them.
  • ha1rball
    okay fair enough i understand :) sometimes it just makes me upset when some people say no way can i go see it cause of whats its about or my kids will be compromised like its a war or something, Its like saying because there is a talking polar bear in it that the kids will grow up and think that polar bears can really talk ya know? but thanks for clearing it up :)
  • skylights
    First of all, you should know that the director, Chris Weitz, wasn't responsible for the movie's choppiness. New Line is responsible for that. Good evidence for this is provided by the Golden Compass movie book, as well as extended scenes in the Golden Compass video game. Hopefully, we'll see a director's cut DVD with Weitz' original edit restored. Second, Weitz has said the next two movies will not be watered down. He compromised a little with the religious elements in the first movie, but that was just to draw people in. And now that we know that Christians in the U.S. freaked out about the film anyway, there is no reason to try to draw them in. The film should be tailored toward an international audience. The Potter movies have gotten darker and darker too, but their box office has been terrific.
  • Craig
    "Weitz has said the next two movies will not be watered down. He compromised a little with the religious elements in the first movie, but that was just to draw people in." I know you probably think that Christians are paranoid and that we spend every free second trying to proselytize nonbelievers, but a statement like that does at least recognize that their is an agenda at work in the stories. Just as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are attempting to convert the religious to atheism, so too is Pullman in a more subtle way in these books. "He compromised a little in the first movie but that was just to draw people in." Sounds like a Baptist minister throwing a pizza party to draw folks in then dropping the fire and brimstone hammer during the second hour. Saying Christians "freaked out" may be overstating it. I think that any self-respecting atheist would warn his friends not to let their kids read or watch The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Ring or Harry Potter since those have clear Christian underpinnings and introduce concepts of religion that the atheist should want to make sure don't sway his children, or at least if he let his kids read or watch them, he'd be sure to explain to them how the Christian ideas were not real. However, when Christians warn their friends not to watch the movie, they have "freaked out." Just because there's a lot of us and our warning subsequently makes a lot of noise doesn't mean we've freaked out. We're just warning that Pullman (and maybe Weitz) have laid a benign appearing trap and we should be wary. Sorry we're so loud, we're numerous. I agree that Pullman fans should be able to get a more realistic portrayal of the books in the next two movies now that we Christians have been warned and there's no reason to seek our dollars. Good for you. Anyway, I realize I'm far afield from the issues of the original post, but it's kind of a fun dialogue.
  • Love the conversation on the topic. It's interesting that Pullman wrote these books at this point in his life, after a pretty noteworthy career. It definitely seems like he was bucking convention and typical ideas of what will sell, and used the material as an exercise to ask questions and explore ideas important to him. As I mentioned, it seems the studios are now faced with molding this into something that will sell to the masses. However, EW mentioned the series of books was a sensation in Britain. I wonder how they've done here, and why they did so well across the pond (in arguably more religious countries (e.g. Italy)). Even with more family-centric marketing overseas, the film was still reviewed very well. It's quite a confusing situation.
  • Craig
    I don't really think Europe is more religious than the United States at all. Even Italy, where the seat of the Roman Catholic Church is, grows increasingly less Christian. A bit of googling will point you to many sources which confirm that Europe grows ever more secular, although the same googling offers hints at a bit of a resurgence in some areas. Still, the consensus seems to be that while Christianity continues to grow in the world overall, it shrinks in Europe (although somewhat interestingly Islam is growing in Europe - I could speculate as to why that is, but I think I'll spare you).
  • Jay
    Wow. People are strange. I am an atheist, and if I had kids I wouldn't shelter them from religion. It'd be pointless, both in terms of 'protection' and inculcating my values. What kind of faith do you have if you believe a movie will rob your children of theirs? The thousands of years of judaeo-christian tradition to be upset by computer-animated fantasy? It is faith made of glass that fears the strength of others' convictions. So protect your children, and hide from them as long as you can the weakness of your faith. And then we atheists will convert them and rule the world! It is our undying agenda to steal your children's souls and teach them to hate all that is good. Or not. Speaking of good, I thought the movie was just that. I really hope that they make the other two. The movie isn't atheistic at all. If anything, it's a celebration of it. Robbing the children of their demons (dust, thus god), seems to be the work of the church. It's about the church twisting the true meaning of god. No wonder the religious right hated it. Too close to home methinks.
  • Ann
    I am a Christian. I have no problem with the "fiction" that Pullman wrote in this trilogy nor do I have a problem with the movie. The movie was good (a typical fantasy), and has very little (if anything at all) to do with religion anymore so keeping your children from watching it is truly a moot point. I look forward to seeing the sequels. If they are made.
  • christian
    its funny that the christians always have to point out that the pullman trilogy is "fiction" and act like their stories of burning bushes, ressurections, virgin births, cities destroyed by god, splitting red seas, noahs ark, adam and eve are OBVIOUSLY fact. the bible is a typical fantasy. if it werent for all the killing and predjudice toward other people and their beliefs it would be a perfect bedtime story....
  • Flare
    I simply wonder why people care so much? I dunno about you guys, but I go to watch a movie in order to escape this reality. Yea, as an adult, I can recognize parallels and when serious themes are being incorporated, (After reading the Chronicles of Narnia and with my limited knowledge of the Bible, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it wasn't modeled after those stories. I still thoroughly enjoyed the series though.) but that doesn't mean that what I recognize is going to make me hate or like the movie any more or less, it simply allows me a better understanding of what's going on. Simply put, I don't care what kind of religious overtones or undertones are present, they won't change who I am because I'm watching the movie for entertainment. Likewise, I don't believe it's right for people to say that because they're Christian or Athiest or whatever that they should chose what their children are exposed to, that they have the right to chose what to allow or disallow their children to be exposed to. What happened to people growing up as individuals with their own ideas and reasons for doing things? Just like my instructor in my Poli Sci class reiterated to us, that no one should choose our political path for us, that we shouldn't be swayed by the political views of our parents or teachers; shouldn't children have those same rights with their religion? Religion is definitely more about a personal decision than what your parents are into or what's expected of your from your community, or at least it /should/ be. I think a lot of Christians get a bad rep more because of the ways some of them strictly force their religion down the throats of their children and unconsciously (or consciously in some cases) impose their religion upon everyone around them. How many times have I helped people at work (customer service, Walmart) only to have them hand me some pamphlet and give me a mini sermon about how I need to attend their church and accept god into my heart (if I haven't done so already)? Really? I mean... it's not necessary, let me make my own decisions; if I decide I want to go to church, I'll be an adult about it and do some damn research and decide for myself which church I want to go to. Religion is about your soul in the end, people (regardless of age, children or adult) should be free to do as they please and make their own decisions about it, they should be free to explore their options and discover their own paths. Many Christians and Christian families are simply too close-minded and/or fearful of the world to allow such a thing though, and that's why they often-times get a bad reputation. I've also found through personal experience, that many of them, because of their narrow mindset, are of the opinion that anything other than the views that they've grown up with are wrong and anti-religious. One of my grandmothers went so far as to tell me once that, "[the 'gods' of] other religions are all fake. People that believe in anything other than Jesus and God will not be permitted into heaven, because they have not atoned for their sins properly and accepted Jesus as their savior." I had to bite my tongue. It completely blew me away how narrow this comment was and how wrong it was. Just as different people in different parts of the world grow up looking differently, so too is God represented differently in those countries. Why should it be wrong for people to believe in God as a man or a woman, as one being or many beings, as a tangible, physical presence or something more abstract and surreal? Why should a child's, or a country's eyes be shielded from a movie because it's awesome cgi effects and story portray something underneath that contradicts a particular belief? Is it wrong for people to be exposed to something that might intrigue them into exploring a new idea? I don't think so, but I desperately hope that they make the other two books into movies. I haven't read the books yet, but I do plan on it, and I loved The Golden Compass; as a fantasy movie and an alternate reality to this one, it was an amazing adventure! (And I simply love the idea of your soul being a tangible form that you can communicate with, I'm sorry!)
  • arnica
    I loved the film and I also desperatly hope that they make thother two books in to films. The way the first film ended kept you wondering. It's wrong to leave it up in the air and not make the other two. I have bought the trilogy but as yet haven't got around to reading it yet. It's just nice to get away from the real world for a while It's fantasy and should be treated as such religon should be left out of it.
  • Kittenfish
    Thank you, Craig and Thank you, Flare...what's wrong with something that entertains as well as makes you think? It was well done. How many other movies have gotten this much dialogue without being top grossers?!? Also, Europeans tend to like a movie for itself, not the hype, and tend to think for themselves instead of wondering/worrying what others think or do. Refreshing.

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