The Tarnished Compass

December 10, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has been widely reported that New Line Cinema staked a lot - perhaps even its solvency - on the success of The Golden Compass. Without applying any spin, the truth is that the movie underperformed. New Line may cheerlead about the film being #1 for the weekend, but that's not saying much when you consider how few people went to the multiplexes this weekend. And, not only did The Golden Compass tank in the United States, it didn't to bang-up business internationally. If this proves to be the ruination of New Line Cinema, I have only one question: What happens to the right for The Hobbit?

One thing is clear: there will be no more filmed chapters from His Dark Materials. This was a one-and-done, series interrupted. Anyone who wants to know what happens will have to read the books. Then again, so few people saw the movie (about 4 million in the U.S.) that there won't be a loud enough cry of despair about the fact that the movie ends part-way through the story. By the way, if you intend to read the series, don't skip the first book. The movie does a lot of cutting and condensing, and ends with about three chapters left to go. This is sort of like Peter Jackson leaving Shelob's Lair out of The Two Towers - except we knew we'd see it in The Return of the King. Here, the best we can hope for is that a director's edition DVD will include the footage that properly closes the first book.

One overwhelming question remains: Why His Dark Materials? New Line's stated goal with The Golden Compass was to provide an heir to The Lord of the Rings. What made them think this was it? When New Line initially announced that The Golden Compass would be their next major fantasy endeavor, I had to consult my library shelves before I realized I had read the series in early 2001, shortly after moving into my then-new house. It didn't leave much of an impression. Philip Pullman's novels contain some interesting ideas but, as fantasy, they're marginal. Thinking they could be converted into something with mass cinematic appeal was a flawed notion from the start.

What did New Line want? A family-friendly series like The Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter? Or a classic epic fantasy tale like The Lord of the Rings? Apparently, they thought they got both. In reality, they got neither.

It goes without saying that the best available property was The Hobbit, but the ugly situation surrounding that book has been well chronicled. Nevertheless, had New Line tried a little harder to make nice with Peter Jackson, they might have been looking at a $100 million weekend instead of a $27 million one. Still, even acknowledging that there were major problems with bringing The Hobbit to the screen near-term, there are still many, many better choices than His Dark Materials. David Eddings' The Belgariad is tailor-made for the audience New Line wanted to woo - likeable characters, no atheism, lots of magic, and a rather unoriginal plot that borrows liberally from Tolkien. (Ordinary young boy discovers his destiny is being controlled by a prophesy; he goes on a quest that will end with a showdown with The Dark God.) Because the protagonist is young, it would also have some appeal for the Harry Potter crowd. Or how about the Tolkien-esque Shannara books by Terry Brooks. Or some of Piers Anthony's early Xanth novels (before the puns got in the way). A Spell for Chameleon would seem to be an excellent choice.

Not all fantasy novels/series can be made into compelling movies. In fact, many can't. But there are some that, given a commitment from a studio, could. In addition to choosing the right material, there's something else New Line needed to provide that they didn't: the backing to make the entire series. It's a risk they took for The Lord of the Rings and it paid off big. One wonders if the reason it didn't happen with The Golden Compass is that the studio was privately concerned from the beginning about the viability of the property.

Does this represent a nail in the coffin of significant fantasy movies? No, but analysts look at this and the awful Eragon and see that the genre isn't as bullet-proof as it appeared when The Return of the King was cleaning up at the Oscars. The key is the same as it has always been: find the right story, tell it the right way, and people will come. The Lord of the Rings did that; The Golden Compass didn't. It's that simple.