Christian writer and journalist Peter Hitchens, younger brother of anti-God apologist Christopher Hitchens and in many ways his ideological opposite, has alluded to a similar opposition between Christian writer C. S. Lewis and novelist Philip Pullman, “the anti-Lewis” as the younger Hitchens has called him.
The juxtaposition of Lewis and Pullman has become a familiar one. Both are Oxford-educated authors of fantasy stories about parallel worlds with magic, talking beasts and witches in wintry landscapes, in which religious ideas are not so much allegorized as imaginatively depicted. The Lion Aslan of Narnia, and the Authority of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, are not merely God-figures; they are each meant as fictionalized representations of the actual Judeo-Christian God. The great difference is that the Christian Lewis presents Aslan as all-powerful, benevolent, and triumphant over death and evil, while the atheist Pullman presents the Authority as a fraud, an emergent being falsely claiming to be the eternal creator of all, ultimately reduced to a frail, pitiful thing killed finally by accident.
Now, with the first volumes of both series having been released as motion picture adaptations, the parallels can be extended. From a Hollywood perspective, both Pullman and Lewis wrote stories in a genre lately popularized by Peter Jackson’s wildly successful The Lord of the Rings, but with controversial religious entanglements, inconveniently important to the core fan base, but potentially threatening the broad popular success of big-budget film adaptations. Consequently, the filmmakers have sought to downplay the religious and moral specificity of their respective source material, replacing them with safely generic appeals to values like “freedom.”
That’s not to say that writer–director Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass quite negates the anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic impetus of its source material — any more than Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe quite negates its Christian roots. Still, as much as possible, Weitz keeps the focus on the spectacle and intricate plotting of Pullman’s tale, an imaginative blend of Victorian intrigue, high fantasy, Wellsian and modern sci‑fi, Western, and other influences set in an alternate world parallel to our own.
Shape-changing animal alter egos, armored polar bears, clockwork insect drones, seafaring gypsies, lighter-than-air ships and a mysterious elemental substance called Dust run through a densely scripted story in which a fearless young orphan named Lyra Belaqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) acquires a truth-divining alethiometer, sets off on an epic journey with mysterious femme fatale Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), and variously joins forces with disgraced ursine prince Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), laconic Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), mysterious witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) and freethinking scientist Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) as she investigates the mysteries of a rash of vanished children and the sinister experiments carried out in a remote laboratory.
In this world, every human being is mystically bound to an intelligent animal “dæmon” (“pronounced DEE‑mon,” press materials note more than once, self-consciously ducking the obvious homophone), a physical manifestation of that person’s soul. In childhood, dæmons are fluid and morph constantly from one species to another, but at puberty, a stage fraught with significance in Pullman’s mythology, a person’s dæmon assumes a single, set shape, a phenomenon that may have something to do with the relationship between puberty and Dust.
Overarching all of this is the depraved caricature that the books call “the Church” or “the Magisterium,” but is referred to in the film solely by the latter, less familiar term, which many viewers won’t recognize as a real-world reference to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Obsessed with preserving “centuries of teaching” from the dangers of “heresy” and “freethinkers,” by deadly means if necessary, the film’s Magisterium is not just oppressive but essentially equivalent to the forces of darkness, akin to Tolkien’s Mordor or the Empire in Star Wars. I would almost call it satanic, except in Pullman’s universe Satan is a heroic rebel — though that point, along with Pullman’s direct polemic against God, isn’t broached in the first volume, or in this film.
Production design for the film’s Magisterium is for the most part only vaguely ecclesiastical, with a blend of Gothic and Baroque architecture and a suggestion rather than a real evocation of clerical vestments. In other scenes, ornamental chalices adorn a magisterial headquarters, and a magisterial coat of arms features a cross-like shape and a prominent “M,” presumably for Magisterium; John Paul II’s coat of arms also featured a cross and a less prominent “M,” for Mary. The most striking striking connection with real-world Christian aesthetics is the unmistakeably Byzantine iconography of saints painted on the exterior of a local clerical house — an iconostasis-like structure gratuitously shattered by Iorek Byrnison as he reclaims his stolen armor.
Like the word Church, references to popes and the papacy, bishops, and the Vatican have carefully been excised, though fleeting references to friars and priests remain. The film also dodges a key discussion from the book’s final chapters regarding original sin and Adam and Eve by wrapping up the story early and deferring the original finale to the planned sequel.
Even with this abbreviated storyline, there’s a lot of ground to cover — especially in under two hours, easily the shortest running time of any fantasy feature in recent memory. Considering the sprawling run times New Line allowed Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, as well as that trilogy’s groundbreaking back-to-back production arrangement, the slightness of The Golden Compass and the studio’s wait-and-see attitude regarding possible sequels seems to suggest doubt regarding the film’s reception.
Weitz brings a basic competence to the proceedings, treating his material with a fundamental respect that sometimes eluded Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (There are no groan-inducing camp lines here like “Nice of you to drop by” or “Put that sword down; someone could get hurt.”) The cast is apt, especially Elliott as Scoresby and Green as Sarafina. As Mrs. Coulter, Kidman is suitably slinky and chilly, if a bit cartoony and bloodless, without the unnerving impact of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch. Special effects are well used, serving the needs of the film’s world and plot without getting in the way; a couple of ambitious action sequences in the second half are spectacularly staged.
Yet as the film rushes to cover key events and plot points, neophytes may be left in the dust for lack of narrative connections and clarifications, while Pullman admirers of all stripes may feel short-changed on mood and atmosphere. Being casually but not intimately familiar with Pullman’s world, I may have fared better than most, supplying much of what was missing without feeling its absence too acutely. On the whole, I found Lyra’s world more interesting than anything that happened in it, or for that matter than Lyra herself.
For better and worse, the movie resembles its protagonist: quick but reserved, agreeable but nondescript, competent but less than engaging. On the plus side, Lyra is plucky and formidable, with the makings of a much better heroine than the Narnia film’s lame, self-doubting Peter Pevensie was a hero. On the down side, as critic Jeff Overstreet aptly observes, Lyra falls well short of the winsome charm of Georgie Henley’s Lucy Pevensie.
If anything, Lyra is too plucky, to the point that it stops making sense. On a number of occasions, menaced by some overwhelming deadly force that ought to check even the bravest hero, Lyra defies her enemies, as if she has some ace up her sleeve. She doesn’t — but that doesn’t stop some ally from appearing out of nowhere and saving her at the last moment. These deus ex machina appearances don’t work, either because the ally’s sudden appearance can’t be explained at all, or else because help could have come at any time rather than conveniently delaying till the last possible moment.
All in all, without entirely drawing one in, the material works well enough on its own terms — in part because its source, the first of Pullman’s trilogy, is possibly the best written and least problematic of the three, and certainly the least didactic and overtly anti-religious. And therein lies the problem.
Viewed in isolation, in terms of what is actually on the screen, The Golden Compass is nothing like as objectionable as, say, Elizabeth: The Golden Age or The Da Vinci Code. But of course the film doesn’t exist in a vacuum. One can no more consider it purely in isolation than one could ignore the source of, say, a quasi-sanitized adaptation of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Or, to cite an actual film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation significantly toned down the racism of its source material, Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen, but it still helped to promote the novel’s white-supremacist milieu, substantially contributing to the resurgent 20th-century Ku Klux Klan.
The critic, as a critic, can only evaluate the film as a film. Yet no responsible, thinking adult can ignore the larger cultural context to which a film belongs. Weitz’s The Golden Compass is now a pivotal property in a franchise that includes the three novels to date, the future films that may (depending on this film’s performance) be made, and the additional novels that Pullman plans to write, exposure and sales of which would inevitably benefit from this and any future films, if successful. This also, not just the images on the screen, is part of the reality of the film.
In marked contrast to the Narnia filmmakers, who have never been anything but evasive and squirrelly when it comes to Lewis’s religious themes, Weitz is vocally committed in any movie sequels to a greater level of fidelity to Pullman’s message and themes. The comparative coyness of this first film, Weitz has said, is a strategic necessity; once the franchise is established, future films will mirror the books themselves in becoming more explicit and overt. If only the Narnia filmmakers showed anything like a similar interest and respect for Lewis’s religious themes, either in person or onscreen.
It’s some comfort that although Weitz’s film is entertaining enough, like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before it The Golden Compass doesn’t remotely approach the brilliance of New Line’s first big fantasy hit, The Lord of the Rings — the first and still the only cinematic high fantasy of the first order. The Lord of the Rings continues to stand alone; with every fantasy or medieval epic to come along in its wake, the singular distinction and achievement of Jackson and his collaborators stands out more starkly than ever.
First Things: Alan Jacobs on His Dark Materials (external link)
FilmChat: Peter Chattaway interviews Philip Pullman (external link)
Looking Closer: Jeff Overstreet’s His Dark Materials Q&A (external link)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.