Movies and TV

Story Compass

Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards in "The Golden Compass" (2007), courtesy of New Line Cinema

Several years ago I read an article in The New Yorker about Philip Pullman, a fella who was apparently both a famous children’s book author and a notorious atheist. This unusual combo piqued my interest right off the bat, and, when I learned that Pullman’s goal in writing the bestselling “His Dark Materials” trilogy was to show that you can teach morals without organized religion, I moved Pullman to the top of my reading list. Over the course of the interview, Pullman basically explained that in his view you don’t need religion to teach children morals; what you need are good stories. And, as I delved into the trilogy’s first book, “The Golden Compass,” I quickly found out stories are precisely what Pullman delivers. I read the entire trilogy in less than two weeks, utterly gripped by the page-turning plot developments and the way the main character learned lessons that were so uncannily similar to the ones I remember shaping me throughout my childhood. Heck, I could even relate to these lessons as an adult, and the books instantly became some of my favorite works (not just of young-adult fiction, but of fiction in general).

With such a compelling plot and the little firecracker of a female protagonist known as Lyra Belacqua, I was so excited to see what became of this story when “The Golden Compass” journeyed to the big screen in 2007. The problem was this: the story I loved got left behind on the page. The story that millions of others and I had become enamored with was that of a young girl who must track down her best friend and save him from a band of serial kidnappers. This pushes her into a world of fantastical characters and she eventually learns the kidnappings are more than first met the eye, but the urgency of finding her friend and getting to the bottom of that mystery is always what keeps us reading. Despite the fact that this simple thread is what keeps the book moving, the movie ends up placing most of its emphasis on a spectacle of special effects, its big-name adult stars, and lackluster allusions to the “evils” of religion. Some have said that the movie emphasizes religious messages too much and still others say it doesn’t emphasize them enough, but I say both these arguments are missing the point…

Philip Pullman’s aim was to tell a story through the eyes of a young girl that would also teach the reader valuable life lessons, and the movie version of “The Golden Compass” simply forgot to tell this little girl’s story. Since so many complicated things go into making a film, I have no desire to chide this movie adaptation for its shortcomings; but, I will say that rewatching it a few weeks ago reminded me of just how important point of view is in any form of storytelling. If we’ve got a strong character with a mission, we’ve got an automatic hook into the emotional worlds or our readers, and it’s our job as storytellers to follow that character through thick and thin until his/her journey is complete. I know I’ll be applying this lesson as I hone in on the heart and soul of a couple new projects, and I hope it has some bearing for you as well – whether you tell stories with a pen, paint brush, or calculator…Did you learn similar lessons while watching or reading “The Golden Compass?” Do you have any tricks for staying focused on the things that really matter to you about a project? I would love to hear your story! Leave a comment.

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