His Dark Materials HBO
"His Dark Materials" gets ready to shine on screen once more, but this time it's getting done right. (Image via Instagram)

The Failure of ‘The Golden Compass’ Could Spell the Success of HBO’s ‘His Dark Materials’

HBO’s remake of the Philip Pullman trilogy will embrace the controversy at the series’s heart, rather than sidestep it.

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His Dark Materials HBO

HBO’s remake of the Philip Pullman trilogy will embrace the controversy at the series’s heart, rather than sidestep it.

“His Dark Materials,” a best-selling fantasy book series by Philip Pullman, is a trilogy in its original set, including “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass.” Currently, HBO and the BBC are co-producing a television show called “His Dark Materials,” based on Pullman’s books.

The series, which follows in the steps of the epic disaster that was the first attempt at an onscreen adaptation, hopes to rewrite history and begin anew. Despite the fact that the television show hasn’t aired yet, in anticipation of its success, a second season of “His Dark Materials” has already been ordered.

Before Pullman’s book series was revamped for the small screen, it became a major motion picture. The production company New Line Cinema attempted to create a film franchise, turning the first book of the series into a movie, also named “The Golden Compass.” Unlike the television series, which is prepping for a second season, the movie didn’t take off.

The sequels never materialized, despite the movie’s stellar casting: Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter and Ian McKellan voicing the polar bear, Iorek Byrnison. “The Golden Compass” should have become a three-part movie franchise, with “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” following the first production, but the film failed both critically and at the box office.

There were mixed critical responses to the “The Golden Compass.” It received a 42 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and its Metacritic score was an average of 51 out of 100; the movie became a box office disaster. It cost $180 million to make, but it fell short of financial expectations, bringing in only $27 million on opening weekend and a total of $70 million. Any hope that the following books would get adapted were gone.

Where did the “The Golden Compass” movie go wrong?

The most notable complaint among critics and fans was that the movie removed the book series’s most important elements, namely, the overtones of religious criticism.

“Hollywood can tweak and polish and recast even the darkest message until it would seem at home in a Fourth of July parade,” wrote Hanna Rosin of the Atlantic, in response to the movie. “In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable.”

The book series’ main theme is an anti-religious one.

“His Dark Materials” is a young-adult fantasy series that follows Lyra Belacqua in a parallel universe where everyone has a physical manifestation of their soul in the form of an animal, called their daemon. In this world, a dictatorial religious body called the Holy Church is determined to rid the world of Dust, a substance they believe is associated with original sin.

Daemons are the physical manifestation of a person’s soul, touching someone else’s daemon is taboo and it feels repulsive to the person being touched. Because of this bond, if a person and their daemon were to be separated from each other it would be unbearably traumatic and potentially lead to death. However, officials of the church, called the General Oblation Board, start kidnapping and experimenting on children, separating them from their daemons.

In the book series, the Holy Church has major parallels to the Roman Catholic Church. Pullman’s Holy Church is a formidable religious organization, and, much like the Catholic Church’s Vatican, the Holy Church has a headquarters called the Magisterium. It is evident that the General Oblation Board’s experiments on children are equivalent to the abuses that children have faced at the hands of the Catholic Church, from castrations that occurred centuries ago, to the sexual abuses of today.

“The Golden Compass” removed the dark theme of the book series.

In “The Golden Compass” movie, the powerful religious organization that is the Holy Church, instead, became a mysterious fascist organization called the Magisterium. No one in the movie mentioned the Church or God, and the Magisterium was referred to as just “The Authority.” The lack of a religious overtone meant that everything that happened to the children and their daemons had no significant meaning in the movie.

However, religion is a main theme in the book series; remove religion from the plot, and the movie is no longer about “His Dark Materials.” Unfortunately, New Line Cinema did exactly that. The production studio was trying to recreate the success of the “Harry Potter” franchise by adapting a young-adult fantasy series but, at the same time, they were afraid of receiving backlash for producing a film that would come across as anti-Catholic.

In an effort to please both Christian groups and book lovers, New Line Cinema removed the religious theme of the books from the movie and created another baseline fantasy movie about a child saving the world against a great evil.

The Catholic League, a civil rights organization that defends the rights of Catholics, aware that the source material of the “The Golden Compass” movie was anti-religious, launched an attack against the film, calling for its boycott.

The Catholic League would have boycotted “The Golden Compass” no matter how watered down the material was, but by trying to appease both Christian and secular groups, New Line Cinema offended everyone. The toned-down film annoyed book lovers and moviegoers because it wasn’t a good movie, or anything like the books. “The Golden Compass” was just nice effects, good acting and a plot that meant nothing and went nowhere. New Line Cinema had a lot of controversy and a critical and financial failure on their hands.

How HBO’s “His Dark Materials” could be great.

Even though the church still wields a powerful influence, media that has examined the atrocities of the institution, such as “Deliver Us from Evil” and “Spotlight,” have been critical darlings. Like Pullman did with his books, New Line Cinema could have embraced the controversy, using the easily accessible perspective of a fantasy world to create an illuminating story that took a close look at the abuses of the Catholic Church.

HBO and the BBC are remaking the book into a television show later this year, despite the movie missing its mark in 2007. James McAvoy cast as Lord Asriel, Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter and Dafne Keen as Lyra.

What HBO needs to do with “His Dark Materials” is exactly what New Line Cinema chose to shy away from in “The Golden Compass.” Children being separated from their daemons will have a significant impact on viewers if the Holy Church is more than just the shadowy, nonreligious Authority. The television remake of Pullman’s book series could be an influential show, if it includes all of the religious aspects of the book.

HBO has seen its fair share of controversial uproars with shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Girls,” and controversy is not something the network is known for shying away from. “His Dark Materials” now has the chance to reach the full potential of its source material. The network has eight episodes to turn the first book into a revealing fantasy series about how religion can be used to justify evil.

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