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The Golden Compass Is Some Seriously Cool Steampunk

I realize my blogs have been on a bit of a book spree lately. It's kind of the theme for this week. Anyway, I was thinking back to one of the better books I read recently. Maybe you've heard of The Golden Compass before. A lot of people view it (somewhat correctly) as anti-religious, but I was curious about the story itself and what it was like. Was it a good book or movie?

So, on a whim, I decided to borrow The Golden Compass (book, not movie) from my friend. I needed some reading to keep me occupied, and Compass seemed like a good way to do that. I didn't know much about the series, just that it had a reputation for being decidedly unkind to religion but very generous to steampunk and fantasy.

I was reading it for the steampunk, to be honest, and boy did The Golden Compass deliver. The story takes place in an alternate universe with a sort of "gilded sci-fi" aesthetic. There are no airplanes; people travel instead by golden blimp. Polar bears are an intelligent race of warriors, and the Christian church has collapsed into an endless hierarchy of Offices and Enquirers.

The book that anti-religious, actually. It barely even mentions the Church before focusing on more important things like adventure and lands filled with strange wonders. This is what The Golden Compass does best: taking our boring old world and recreating in in a shiny steampunk fashion. The classic elements of a fantastical adventure story are all there, and they make Compass a fun book to read.

The movie, on the other hand, does not fare quite as well. The most egregious offense is that the filmmakers decided to take quite a few liberties with the story. Instead of being a well-written adventure through an amazing land, the movie makes it into a battle between the heroic free thinkers and the evil Catholic Church that tries to stifle all free will to stop dissent. The book is about the magical journey, but the movie tries to be a "subtle" message against organized religion.

That offends me more than anything else. I'm not a religious person, but even I know not to treat religion with the casual contempt that The Golden Compass movie does. The movie doesn't even try to make a point; it just paints organized religion as evil without any real reason. The whole thing feels like the filmmakers were going out of their way to offend religious people, and that is a stupid idea.

Not to mention the movie takes quite a few liberties with the book that I didn't really appreciate. It just kind of ends right before the book's big finale. I'm curious why they decided to cut it out (obvious sequel set up, maybe?) but what remains is at best a sloppy translation of an excellent book into a mediocre movie.

At least the movie had a lot of famous people in it. Clearly the people behind the film adaption of Compass had some serious cash. This movie has Daniel Craig (James Bond), Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut), Ian McKellen (Gandalf/Magneto), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku/Saruman), and even the legendary Sam Elliot (every cowboy movie ever). The CGI bears are look nice, too. The Golden Compass was clearly planned to be a big-budget trilogy with that many famous names.

I don't really see them making any sequels. Honestly, when you go out of your way to offend a large part of your audience (religious people), I can't imagine that they'll want to come and see another one of your movies. I belong to the other group offended by the movie, people who read the book and found the adaption lacking. There's a right way to do an adaption (Game of Thrones) and a wrong way (Eragon).

So, if you do decide that The Golden Compass sounds interesting, do yourself a favor. Read the book and don't go see the movie. Well, maybe the movie. I did enjoy seeing the various steampunk sights from the books. Still, the original form of the story was much better written.

Chalk up one more thing the book does better than the movie. In its written form The Golden Compass isn't quite so strongly anti-religion. However, the two sequels are that strong. By the end of the third book the tone is pretty stridently atheist. Please, please don't let that stop you from reading these books, though. As long as you're secure in your beliefs and not easily offended, The Golden Compass and its sequels are excellent fantasy adventures. The final book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, contains some of the most beautiful, heartfelt prose I've ever read.

What do you think? Have you read/seen The Golden Compass? If not, does it sound vaguely interesting?

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