Although I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first read The Golden Compass (sometime in late elementary school, probably), I can pinpoint the exact sentence that ignited my interest. It appears early on – the second page, in fact – when the heroine, Lyra Belacqua, sneaks into the Retiring Room of her home, Jordan College:
It was a large room, with an oval table of polished rosewood on which stood various decanters and glasses, and a silver smoking stand with a rack of pipes.
I assume you’re thinking some variation of “why?” or “really?” For sure, in an epic fantasy tale that explores the nature of evil and free will, this sentence seems unremarkable. Who cares about furniture when you have talking, armor-clad bears? Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity, the wording has an almost poetic quality to it – the soft alliteration of “silver smoking stand”, the way “glass” sounds as clear as the object to which it refers. It perfectly evokes the elegant austerity of academia. And like the best literary descriptions, it conveys not only the look of the room but also the texture. You believe that you could slip inside this place and wander around, touch the furnishings like a kid in an antique shop.
That meticulous world-building formed the foundation of my love for the initial volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, more than the rip-roaring plot or even the notion of dæmons. (To be honest, I didn’t get past a chapter of either sequel because they felt too detached from the original.) It’s also what drew me to fantasy in general. Realism has its own rewards, but nothing quite compares to the thrill of venturing into a completely unknown world. Fantasy is pure fiction, concocting narratives out of figments, myths, and dreams. Ordinary things – a glass, a photograph, electricity – seem lit with an otherworldly aura.
So, maybe the movie was bound to disappoint. By rendering a fantasy onscreen, you necessarily make it concrete and thus dilute the magic; it becomes, on some level, real. I saw Chris Weisz’s The Golden Compass when it came into theaters in 2007, which is slightly embarrassing to admit since I was starting high school then and like to think I had developed sounder judgment and more discerning taste by that age. At least I managed to curb my excitement, having already been disillusioned by Eragon, an adaptation so dire that I retroactively disowned the book. I wound up being underwhelmed but not outraged, quickly abandoning the movie to the attic of memory.
It moldered there until January this year, when I revisited His Dark Materials for the first time as an adult. To my pleasant surprise, the series not only holds up, its sense of adventure and romance as beguiling as ever, but it’s improved. Having now finished all three installments, I can properly admire the thematic complexity and emotional depth, the way it balances incisive religious commentary, which essentially argues in favor of original sin, with an intimate coming-of-age narrative. Afterward, I decided to check out the movie again – for curiosity’s sake. Really, how bad could it be?
It turned out to be a reverse of my experience with the books: while my fondness for Pullman’s trilogy intensified, so did my aversion to Weisz’s adaptation. What I previously dismissed as just one of many page-to-screen conversions that fail live up to their source material now appeared to be a debacle of mind-boggling proportions. As a standalone work, The Golden Compass is sloppy, making you long for the bland competence of the Hunger Games and Harry Potter films. As an adaptation, it’s unforgivable, actively depriving the story of its power. It epitomizes Hollywood’s clueless approach to fantasy, which mistakes spectacle for vision and platitudes for ideas.