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The Golden Compass Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Posted by j128 in TV & Movies.
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The Golden Compass promotional poster

The Golden Compass is a 2007 film, based on the first book (The Golden Compass or Northern Lights) of His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. It is not as complex as the book and is, at most, an action-packed film with some sort of action taking place in almost every scene; as such, there isn’t enough time for character development, et cetera – it is essentially a “good versus evil” film, yet it is still viewable – but fans of the trilogy must keep in mind that as it is a film, it is compressed and I do recommend to those that haven’t yet read the trilogy, please do!

Click the hyperlinks below to go to different parts of this review.

Introduction: Dæmons>Dust>Summary>Differences from the Novel>Cast>Official Cast of Some of the Characters>The Golden Compass Trailer”>YouTube Golden Compass Videos of Interest>


Dæmons (pronounced as in demon, but unrelated)

Lyra’s world is a parallel universe to our own and similar to ours in many ways but in this world humans have dæmons – a kind of physical manifestation of a person’s soul that takes the shape of an animal that is usually the opposite sex. (Lyra’s daemon is Pantalaimon and in the film he is voiced by Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)). Everyone has dæmons and to see a person without one is abnormal. The greatest offense in etiquette is to touch another’s dæmon (yet other dæmons are able to touch each other) and if the person or his dæmon is harmed, the other will feel it, too, as people and their dæmons are inseparable. The only exception to this rule are the dæmons of witches and shamans, and their dæmons may be as far a physical/geographical distance from their people as they please, though this is not the case for anyone else. The General Oblation Board practices an artificial way of separating children from their dæmons while their form is still unsettled (see below), and “cuts” the bond between the child and his dæmon, which is essentially removing the child’s soul and turning them into something similar to a zombie.

All people born into this universe have dæmons; the first shape that the dæmon takes is unclear, but upon death it fades away like “atoms of smoke”. When a person dies, his dæmon dies with him, and vise versa. Children’s dæmons have the ability to shapeshift into any form that they please and according to circumstances. Around the time of puberty, the dæmon slowly “settles” into its final form: as it is a manifestation of a person’s soul, the daemon’s final form indicates the person’s personality, i.e. people who conform and obey authority usually have dog dæmons, such as servants, while a cat dæmon indicates a person has a more independent spirit, etc.

According to this concept of His Dark Materials, everyone has their own dæmon, but in our world – our universe – they are non-physical, invisible beings, whom the character Mary Malone (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) is taught that with practice, a person has the possibility of seeing and communicating with their dæmon.


In Lyra’s world, Dust is something that is compared to our dark matter; an elementary particle that is crucial in all of the books within the trilogy. When a person starts to mature and his dæmon “settles”, the Dust becomes attracted to them through their dæmons. Unlike other particles, Dust is conscious, falls from the sky, and is attracted to people. The concept of Dust is explored throughout the whole trilogy. The Church (film: Magisterium) wants to destroy Dust as they believe it is the source of Original Sin, thus their explanation as to why they “cut” the children’s and dæmons’ bonds apart, but they have a lack of understanding of the true nature of Dust.

Dust is a fairly complex concept and it is too detailed to explain it all here, so I would recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on Dust.


Lyra Belacqua is the protagonist and heroine of the story; she’s a young and wild girl who lives at Jordan College, Oxford, and plays with all the local children in the streets rather than sticking to her lessons. She is also a practiced and convincing liar – a trait that helps her in many unexpected ways throughout the trilogy. Her parents were killed – her father was a count – and her only relative is her uncle, Lord Asriel.

In the Retiring Room at Jordan College – a room that is restricted to men only – Lyra looks around and hides in the wardrobe and in this way she witnesses a scholar poison the drink intended for Lord Asriel and she saves her uncle’s life by informing him just in time. Lord Asriel has come to visit Jordan College to get funded for further explorations in the North by presenting the scholars and masters with special photographs of Dust that he took in the North – showing particles called “Dust” falling from the sky and becoming attracted to a man through his dæmon, which is deemed as hearsay by a scholar who is an advocate of the Magisterium – the ruling and dominating power that controls almost everything. Lyra, still hiding in the wardrobe, overhears everything that takes place.

Some time later after these events a young woman named Mrs. Coulter, whose dæmon is a golden monkey, comes as a guest to Jordan College and Lyra takes an initial liking to her. During these events, a Gyptian boy named Billy Costa and Lyra’s best friend Roger, who works in the kitchen, are kidnapped. Billy passes out as his dæmon’s throat is squeezed by the golden monkey.

With the Master’s permission, Lyra goes with Mrs. Coulter as her assistant when she travels North. Before she leaves, he passes onto her a kind of device known as an alethiometer or “golden compass” that tells the truth through the user’s reading of the symbols along the perimeter; Lyra is told she must never show it to Mrs. Coulter. It functions by the influence of Dust. While with Mrs. Coulter, Lyra is pampered, but soon realizes the awful truth of what Mrs. Coulter is really doing: she is the head of the General Oblation Board or “Gobblers” as they were called by the Gyptians and commoners as they stealthily and secretly kidnapped children, particularly the poorer ones such as the children of servants and Gyptians and orphans. The Gobblers kidnapped Roger and Billy.

Lyra and Pantalaimon escape Mrs. Coulter and launch a campaign to recover all the children taken by the Gobblers with the Gyptians, whose forces are joined by aeronaut Lee Scoresby and an armoured bear or panserbjørne named Iorek Byrnison whom Lyra helps recover his armour after it was taken from him by the townspeople so that he would be forced to work for them. He has a contract with Lyra now as he feels indebted to her for helping him.

Over the course of these events, Lyra has been learning how to use the alethiometer mainly by relying on her intuition. Using the alethiometer, she finds an abandoned boy without a daemon and realizes that that is what the Gobblers do. The boy is discovered to be Billy Costa but he doesn’t look anything like his former self. He is barely hanging on to life and wants to know where his dæmon, “Ratter”, is.

Hardly has Billy been reunited with his mother, Ma Costa, when a group of soldiers attack the Gyptian camp, and in the thick of it all Lyra is kidnapped and taken to the bear king Ragnar Sturlusson who is absolutely desperate to be human in any way – including the possession of a dæmon. Acting on this, Lyra lies that she is Iorek Byrnison’s dæmon but she can easily become his if he faces Iorek in single combat. Upon Iorek’s arrival, she tells him all this whereupon she receives her new name: Lyra Silvertongue; this is for using her skills as an accomplished liar for good. Iorek wins the duel, killing Ragnar, and becomes king.

Iorek takes Lyra and Pantalaimon as close as he can to Bolvanger – they are separated after a bridge of snow collapses but he tells her that he’ll go get the others. She continues to Bolvanger, which she can see in the distance. Inside she discovers more about the “experiments” and is caught by some of the personnel. She and Pantalaimon’s bond is almost severed but they are rescued by Mrs. Coulter who takes them to her quarters. When Lyra wakes up, Mrs. Coulter explains the purpose of the intercision: it is necessary because when a child reaches the age of puberty, Dust causes children to have “bad thoughts” as they reach maturity. It was stopped on Lyra because Mrs. Coulter explains that the procedure is not yet perfected and can cause the death of a child sometimes and she is also told about her heritage: her parents never died in a crash – her real mother is Mrs. Coulter and her father is Lord Asriel.

Lyra tricks Mrs. Coulter into thinking that she’s handing over the alethiometer but only to give her the tin case in which one of the spy flies was caught. It attacks Mrs. Coulter and her dæmon and Lyra and Pan take that opportunity to escape – Lyra destroys the intercision machine and the resulting explosions cause the collapse of the Bolvanger building and all the children run outside where the last scene takes place in which they are faced by a large army of soldiers, who are defeated by Iorek Byrnison, the witches, the Gyptians, and Lee Scoresby. All the children go with the Gyptians back to their homes, except for Lyra and Will, who are accompanied by Iorek as he is still in Lyra’s debt, and Serafina Pekkala. Lyra is going to go find Lord Asriel as she learned that some assassins have been commissioned to kill him, and Will is accompanying her. Lee Scoresby gives them a ride in his air balloon and the alethiometer tells Lyra that she is bringing Lord Asriel – her father – something important.

Differences from the Novel

In the book, the bear king was Iofur Raknison – his name was allegedly changed so as not to confuse him with Iorek Byrnison but there is another rumour that his name was changed due to easier pronunciation.

Several key parts of the story are stripped from the film – the film consists of only the major parts of the story with little room for explanations and development in story concepts. The book is fast-paced but in a different style and is richer and in-depth about certain aspects, whereas (I think) the filmmakers expect the viewers to have some prior knowledge of Lyra’s world and it just goes from one piece of action to another.

The most influential theme of His Dark Materials – the rejection of organized religion and general anti-Christian themes including the abuse of power by the Catholic Church have been removed from the film. Instead the Magisterium is shown as being an authoritarian, ruling dictatorship that opposes anything else that is in contrast with its teachings, as an example: Dust, and at its most, the Magisterium represents, as a critique, all dogmatic organizations according to director Chris Weitz. The reasons behind the removal of the religious themes are because it was deemed that to include them the film would be “financially unviable in the US and so religion and God would not be referenced directly”, instead being referenced in euphemistic terms but this has been attacked by some fans, anti-censorship groups, and the National Secular Society (in which Philip Pullman is a member), and the other reason was to avoid a religious backlash that other popular and bestselling series such as Harry Potter and His Dark Materials have received since coming into print. Also, to quote from the Wikipedia article (His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass Movie 2007, provided in the links):

As part of a two-month protest campaign, the Catholic League has called for a boycott of the film, as they believe that while the religious elements of the film will be “watered down” from the source novels, it will still encourage children to read the series. League president William A. Donohue says the series “denigrates Christianity” and promotes “atheism for kids”, citing author Pullman as saying that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” It is the League’s hope that “the film [will fail] to meet box office expectations and that his books attract few buyers.”

There is one scene in the film that was not present in the original story and one that Philip Pullman was interested in including, in which Mrs. Coulter hits her dæmon.

The dæmons themselves don’t play as large a role as they should, as they did in the book. Most of the story is centred on Lyra – Pan hardly speaks unless she is asking him advice or they are in a tight spot. It’s almost like the dæmons are asides; with all due luck I hope they develop them more in the other two movies.

The last two major parts of the story – when Lyra is taken to Bolvanger and when she goes to Svalbard, the home of the armoured bears – are mixed. In the original story, Lyra goes to Svalbard once all the children have been rescued from Bolvanger, whereas in the film version she is taken to Svalbard after being kidnapped from the Gyptian camp and once Iorek defeats Ragnar (Iofur in the book) he takes Lyra to Bolvanger.


When rumours began flying around that there a film based on The Golden Compass and that it would be a New Line Cinema production (The Lord of the Rings), there were rumours that LOTR cast members would star in The Golden Compass roles, such as Liv Tyler as Serafina Pekkala, Viggo Mortensen as Lee Scoresby, etc. The only LOTR actors that actually has a role in The Golden Compass is Ian McKellen, who voices Iorek Byrnison and Christopher Lee as a member of the Magisterium.

Philip Pullman envisioned three particular actors portraying certain characters: Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, Jacob Isaacs as Lord Asriel, and Samuel L. Jackson as Lee Scoresby. He didn’t have a role in the casting but ten years earlier prior to production of the film he and the producer Deborah Forte discussed having Nicole Kidman in the role of Mrs. Coulter, which is probably why at least one of his chosen actors made it. Jacob Isaacs portrays Lucius Malfoy, Draco Malfoy’s father, in the Harry Potter films.

Dakota Blue Richards, who portrays Lyra in the film, was one of ten thousand girls who auditioned for the role of Lyra.

Official Cast of Some of the Characters:

  • Lyra Belacqua – Dakota Blue Richards
  • Pantalaimon – voiced by Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
  • Lord Asriel – Daniel Craig (James Bond)
  • Mrs. Coulter – Nicole Kidman
  • Serafina Pekkala – Eva Green
  • Lee Scoresby – Sam Elliot

The Golden Compass Trailer

If you are further interested in The Golden Compass, you can also watch the first 5 minutes of the film:

YouTube Golden Compass Videos of Interest:

The Golden Compass Featurette: Defining Dæmons

The Golden Compass Featurette: Flying Witches

The Golden Compass Featurette: Creating the Ice Bears

The Golden Compass Featurette: Steampunk

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (more bonus features)

The Golden Compass Deleted Scenes*

*New Line Cinema cut out a number of scenes from the film but some of them were used in the videogame, which came out before the film. Some of the scenes even appeared in early trailers. Enjoy!


The Golden Compass – Official movie website homepage, also check out the Dæmons page in which you can “meet” your dæmon based on a personality quiz and once completed this quiz – based on your answers – your dæmon will be revealed with a name.

The Golden Compass – Watch the whole film at NoCrapPlease.com, 113 minutes in length

Dæmons explained (His Dark Materials) – Wikipedia

Dust (His Dark Materials) – Wikipedia

The Dæmon Page

The Golden Compass (film) – Wikipedia



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