The Golden Compass

Written by Torey Lightcap

Directed by Chris Weitz
New Line Cinema. PG-13 rating

With all the pre-emptive warnings that church groups circulated about The Golden Compass—advising religious folk to stay away from Christopher Weitz’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s first installment in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy—you’d think the film would be more…relevant.

Instead this misguided endeavor attempts to trade on a vision of church that peaked about 500 years ago, before the balance was tipped and the Church began a long slide of losing its power. The world surrounding this vision of church is a fantastical one, to say the least, replete with talking animals, amazing gadgets, and fun technologies hidden within relics of the recent past. It also worth noting that this is a world parallel to ours, with rules and a cosmology just different enough to get our attention.

Lyra, our young heroine, lives in an orphanage within this parallel world. Like everyone else, she has a spirit-animal, a “daemon” named Pantalaimon, that travels everywhere with her. Her uncle, Lord Asriel, is a crusader who wants to find out about Dust, a mysterious substance that comes into the world at its northern pole. He discovers that Dust enters the human through one’s daemon. This is powerful information for the Magisterium (think Big Brother or the totalitarian government of Brazil), which wants to keep Dust from entering people at any cost: it cruelly separates youngsters from their daemons before they reach an age of accountability.

Without a daemon, the person’s personality and spirit cannot be expressed, yet the daemon can also be seen as the propensity to sin, with Dust a handy reference to sin itself. In the face of the Magisterium’s plan, free will and human agency somehow hang in the balance. But, I’m telling you, this is about all we know even after two hours of globe-trotting, bear fights, and airship adventures.

For the film-goer (such as myself) who has not read the original series, the experience is ultimately deflating. It seems that the picture attempts to do a kind of theology-of-no-theology, or theology-by-redaction, eschewing the reported contents of its inspiration (a 1995 novel) and instead turning in a pastiche of hepped-up action sequences. In essence most of the punches Mr. Pullman packs, get pulled. When the film does choose to alight on the core arguments of its source material—and that, I understand, happens only sparingly—it does so impressionistically, referentially, in a let’s-talk-about-this-later sort of tone.

So where’s the fair fight? Or is this adaptation finally left toothless? Is this inability to bring the source material to light just a way of ensuring commercial success? Sure. And does it indicate a general soft unwillingness within the larger culture to finally broach such subjects as agnosticism and violent religion? Right again, but—and here especially I speak as a priest—many of us are perfectly willing to have those kinds of conversations, their being as relevant as they are to the present condition.

Some to-do regarding “His Dark Materials” apparently has to do with the fact that by its end God (“The Authority”) is dead, which is, um, worth noting. But the adaptation of the series is so far a watering-down. By the third movie, perhaps The Authority will be less an Almighty and Merciful presence, and more of a wet blanket.

But never mind about that, at least for now. All we see of The Authority in The Golden Compass is shadows and reflections, not the original form. The Authority’s minions are simpering, petulant, controlling men in velvet who sport insipid comb-overs and speak in stilted staccatos. (Christopher Lee’s brief typecast appearance as a Magisterium toady brings to mind both George Lucas’ Count Dooku and Tolkien’s Saruman: what more do you need not to trust these people?) They like power because they have it, and have no truck for truth-crusaders that might undermine their virtually absolute stranglehold on information and ideas.

Certainly religion sometimes plies in destroying people’s souls. (Inquisition, anyone? Crusades?) But religion as such is not inherently destructive; in its better moments it is constructive, relational, and missional, with divine revelation, will, and action at its center. Painting religion in general as evil requires an awfully broad brush and a functional ignorance of the fact that lives are being actively changed for the better every day in the name of God.

If this were really the church of today, the film might bear up more under its own load. But it isn’t the church of today—not even the one that actually has a Magisterium. It’s a stylized way of casting religion as poisonous.

Perhaps if further installments in the series ever materialize (for now those prospects don’t look good), then they might attempt to strike the big notes, to lay down cinematically the same gauntlets that Mr. Pullman has in his books. Perhaps they will continue to parry off Mr. Pullman’s questions in the name of commerce. Perhaps they will simply sound weakly and go away. In any case, for now we can say that a $180 million attempt to bring these books to life has resulted in a lot of noise and light and potential conversation deferred—and no matter where you stand, that’s a waste and a shame.


Copyright @ 2007 Torey Lightcap