Movie Review: The Golden Compass

Last night I saw The Golden Compass, the movie adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. The movie, like the book, is set in a fantastic and richly imagined parallel universe, similar to our own world but different in many important ways. In Pullman’s steampunk world, human beings’ souls live outside their bodies, in the form of talking animal familiars called daemons; the icy north is ruled by fearsome armored bears and clans of flying witches; and an evil church that extends its grip over the world battles the defenders of freethought to suppress the truth about a mysterious particle called Dust. The church views Dust as the physical evidence of original sin and wants to stamp out all knowledge of it, but a few brave scholars believe it is the gateway to a limitless infinity of possibilities.

The heroine of the movie, Lyra Belacqua, is an orphan girl raised by the masters of Jordan College in a parallel London. A shadowy organization known as the Gobblers has been kidnapping children for unknown purposes, and when one of Lyra’s friends is snatched, she vows to set out and rescue him. In her quest she finds allies, including a band of traveling Gyptians seeking to recover their own lost sons and daughters; the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and a loyal armored bear, Iorek Byrnison. But her greatest help may be the instrument of the movie’s title: an “alethiometer”, a clockwork device given to her by the master of Jordan College which, if read and interpreted correctly, can give the true answer to any question. Ultimately, Lyra’s quest takes her to the frozen wastelands of the North Pole, where she faces the sinister Magisterium and its chief agent, the poison-sweet Mrs. Coulter, and learns the truth about the evil experiments it’s been conducting on the stolen children.

At least in America, there’s been a minor uproar over this movie, because the book’s author, Philip Pullman, is an avowed atheist who’s salted the novels with anti-religious and freethought themes. (The second two books of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, pick up the plot of a literal war against God – although in the books he’s called “the Authority”, and depicted as an aged pretender rather than the true creator of everything.) Fulminating bigots like William Donohue of the Catholic League have demanded a boycott, and newspaper columnists have fretted that this movie’s intent is to “teach atheism to children”. (I don’t remember hearing any complaints about how the movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was intended to “teach Christianity to children”.)

Predictably, the movie’s producers tried to head off this criticism by watering down the anti-religious themes from the book. The evil organization, which as I recall is explicitly depicted as the Church in the original novels, is here only called the “Magisterium”. Rather than an explicit struggle against religion, the heroes’ opposition is depicted more as a struggle against authoritarianism. Also predictably, these changes had no effect on the self-appointed guardians of dogma, who only need to catch the merest whiff of dissent to thunder about “disrespect” and demand that the offender be censored and punished to make them feel better. Nevertheless, more of Pullman’s theme was left in than I had expected, including the equation of Dust with original sin. Mrs. Coulter gives a speech in which she claims Dust came about because the first people disobeyed the Authority, although the movie does not go into any detail on who or what the Authority is. I also thought it was more than a little heavy-handed to depict all the top officials of the Magisterium as having daemons that were serpents or preying mantises (although Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is a wonderfully evil creation).

I’ve read Pullman’s original books, and I can definitely recommend them. They’re wonderfully detailed and richly imaginative creations. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from the comparison. It wasn’t bad, but the script did feel rushed and obligatory, as if the writers were trying to cram in as many events from the novel as possible. On a purely numerical level they succeeded, but the result was a plot that careened from one event to the next, dumping loads of exposition on the viewer at every turn, rather than giving the characters time to breathe. Nevertheless, some of Pullman’s ideas do shine through. Lyra in particular was a great heroine, capturing the fiercely independent, defiant spirit of the books.

That said, anyone who’s expecting the books or especially the movie to serve as the standard-bearer for atheism is likely to be let down. For all the great freethought ideas contained in them, they’re not tightly reasoned anti-religious polemics. The books are a story, an imaginative fiction. In our world, there is no literal Authority to kill, no Dust to tell us the truth the church has tried to cover up. The story should be judged on its own merits, not pressed into service to support a real-life cause. The most we can expect from this or any other story is to encourage children to ask questions and consider new possibilities, which is all to the good. It’s to be expected that even this little hint of freethinking will provoke roars of outrage from the pompous pretenders who fear alternative stories, and who can all too easily recognize themselves in the corrupt and tyrannical authority figures skewered therein.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Wasn’t the Church also known as the Magisterium in the novels? (Or at least the steampunk-Sanhedrin high council types?)

    I’m a bit confused by your last paragraph. Surely you’re not belittling the power stories have to motivate or explain?

  • John Pageless

    Yeah – it’s more then a little foolish to cry out and ask that a book and/or movie be banned… If it wasn’t for the uproar concerning this movie, I wouldn’t be interested in seeing it at all. You say that the books are better then the movies? I might have to check it out from the library before it comes out on video.

    Is the books *really* that offensive to theists? Could a liberal theist (as opposed to up-tight conservative types) enjoy this book without being offending? As I haven’t read the books myself, I wouldn’t be able to comment on it, but I would like to hear some opinions.


  • Kevin Morgan

    As soon as I heard about this movie being bashed by the Catholic church I rushed over to and ordered 2 box sets of Mr. Pullman’s books. One for me and one for my nephews and niece to read. I haven’t seen the movie, yet, but intend to while it’s still in the theater. Besides, anything with Nicole Kidman in it can’t be all bad!

  • plonkee @ the religious atheist

    Truly liberal theists are unlikely to be offended by the books, although you’d probably only give them to a reasonably mature child in any case.

    Unless of course the liberal theist in question is Catholic, in which case the obvious analogies to be drawn with the Catholic church may make even liberal Catholics uncomfortable.

    The books are much better than the film of course, and I wasn’t actually sure how easy the film was to follow if you hadn’t read the books.

  • Ebonmuse

    I doubt I’m in a position to say whether reasonable theists would find the film offensive. For what it’s worth, however, the director and staff reviewer of the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gave it a reasonably positive review (link to Google cache):

    To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.

    …Is Pullman trying to undermine anyone’s belief in God? Leaving the books aside, and focusing on what has ended up on-screen, the script can reasonably be interpreted in the broadest sense as an appeal against the abuse of political power.

    However, the bishops’ conference later had the review withdrawn without explanation. Obviously, some strings were pulled to bring the reviewers into line with the predetermined correct position.

  • Albert | UrbanMonk.Net

    Very interesting, I didn’t know there was all this hoo-ha behind the movie! Sounded kinda dumb, but now I really wanna check it out. Thanks for the post.

    Albert | UrbanMonk.Net
    Modern personal development, entwined with ancient spirituality.

  • Ceetar

    There are very few books that are worse than the movies though. As far as being able to follow it if you haven’t read the books, I found it slow, and I had a multitude of confused questions about how some things fit in, but by the end of the movie, I pretty much had an understanding of the plot and the goals of the movie, even if I didn’t understand a couple of more minute points.

  • Antigone

    My fiance is a liberal Luthern, and he liked the books and the movie just fine. I don’t think that it’s all that offensive.

  • Simeon Kee

    “That said, anyone who’s expecting the books or especially the movie to serve as the standard-bearer for atheism is likely to be let down. For all the great freethought ideas contained in them, they’re not tightly reasoned anti-religious polemics.”

    I too was let down by the philosophical underpinnings, or rather the lack thereof, in the books. They offer a weak argument for atheism, although it may cause just a hint of doubt and openmindedness to seep into some readers that might not have been there before.

    However, judged as the fiction that they are, it is a great trilogy.

  • chronomitch

    I thoroughly enjoyed the metaphors presented by the various elements in the film, which makes me want to read the books. Unfortunately, though, the plot seemed really rushed to me. Dialog was short and to the point, but too much so. As soon as a new character or location was introduced, the main character(s) were swept off to another locale. They should have made the film longer with better character introductions and dialog or removed certain plot points.

  • James Bradbury

    Thanks for the great review, I agree overall, but think that it’s near impossible to fit a book into a film completely enough to satisfy ardent fans of the books, they’d need to split the 3 books into 5 films or something. I thought they got all the essentials in there and ended up with an entertaining (although fast paced) film. One point though, it’s set (initially) in Oxford, not London.

    Lynet has already written about the religious and anti-religious themes in the books a month ago.

  • John Pageless

    Hello Plonkee, Ebonmuse, and Antigone! Thanks for answering my question… I didn’t think it would be, but thought that I’d rather ask then assume. Although there is something to be said about the cowardice involved by avoiding “offensive material”, I’m personally just looking for a good fantasy novel to read and thought this might fit the bill. Hence the question. :-)


  • Christoph

    Really enjoyed your review and wondered whether you would address the issues surrounding the boycott of this film. I loved the books and dreaded what they would do to the film. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Even with the free thought point of view watered down, the film still managed to be surprisingly entertaining. Both Dakota Blue Richards and Nicole Kidman were quite marvellous in their roles, and the effects were visually stunning.

    If you had any doubts about what a phony fascist that Bill Donohue is, one need only examine his reasons for the boycott. Initially, he bemoaned the horrid atheist agenda that the film would impart. Then when he discovered that the film had pretty much been defanged, he switched tactics and claimed the boycott was to prevent children and young adults who might feel compelled to read the books by watching the film. Heaven forbid, that this media hog abandon a chance for him to be in the media spotlight (much like the odious Donald Wildmon).

    Unfortunately, I don’t think it will ultimately help this film, since we have so many unquestioning indoctrinated people in the US, who vilify things because their religious leaders tell them to rather than because they have any personal knowledge or have done any research for themselves. This scandal does not seem to have taken root overseas where the film is enjoying larger success and people are apparently more confident in their beliefs. Donohue and his minions act as though they were protecting a thin-skinned human rather than a god who could suffer no ill effects from such trivial things as humans, or books, or films. The irony never ceases to amaze me in how so many of the devout (at least in the US) take offense and cry foul over anything that depicts them as authoritarian tyrants who seek to control everyone (including people outside of their flocks) through intimidation and suppression of opposing viewpoints, and then proceed to conduct themselves in exactly the way that they claim they are unfairly depicted.

  • Lynet

    Hey, James is doing my shameless self-promotion for me! :-)

  • Eric

    Pullman’s Trilogy is not explicitly anti-Catholic. In his novels The Church is based in Geneva and is clearly a worst-of-both-worlds Catholic/Calvinist hybrid. The books are explicitly anti-Christian, though I would say they are more Gnostic than atheist. It’s not so much that there isn’t a God, it’s more that God is not really the almighty being he has hoodwinked us into believing he is.

    For the Gnostics, Cathars, and followers of Marcion, the deceptive Demiurge of the Jewish texts was overthrown by the authority and revealation of Jesus Christ. There is no mention of a Christ-like figure in Pullman’s trilogy, though there must have been one since The Church seems to be distinct from Judaism.

    But overall the the books are a Nietzschean repudiation of the Christian tradition. The Church suppresses all the pleasures and freedoms which are part of natural human thriving.

    Does the film use the term “intercision” to refer to the seperation of human from daimon as the book does? “Intercision” is meant to sound like “circumcision”, and according to the witches of the north intercision was simply a high-tech and effective procedure that finally acheived the goal of de-souling that had been previously attemped by various genital modifications of both males and females.

    This is the reason we secularists must work for the complete elimination of all the Middle-Eastern monotheistic faiths. If they want to surgically rape babies, we have to deconvert as many Jewish, Christian, and Muslim crazies until we have such a majority that we can force them to stop these sexual assaults.

  • Dawn Rhapsody

    The constant chain-emails going around calling for a boycott of this movie are getting progressively more frustrating. One of my Catholic best friends told me not to see it because it’s “about a group of kids who go out and kill God”. I suggested to him that he should change religion and worship these new, all-powerful kids who, in novelised form, took down an all-powerful deity without even referencing his name.

  • D

    “Also predictably, these changes had no effect on the self-appointed guardians of dogma, who only need to catch the merest whiff of dissent to thunder about ‘disrespect’ and demand that the offender be censored and punished to make them feel better.”

    Wait, the changes they made did not affect the depictions of the Magisterial leaders in the film? Or the changes had no effect on the behavior of the religious loonies in real life? I’m not sure which group you’re referring to, which says it all to me.

  • Nicky

    I have never read the books and after seeing the movie I have no real desire to read them.

    The movie, to be honest, bored me to tears.

    Unfortunately the movie was paced in such a manner that I felt no real emotional connection to any of the characters, and the plot was very much lacking in any real depth, or so it seemed to me.

    What I find sad is that the movie is not being judged fairly. People are too concerned with the drama surrounding the ideas in the books to address the movie directly. Either fans are loving it because they loved the books, or critics of the book are hating it simply because they feel attacked by the book. No one seems able to address the film on it’s own merit.

    I suppose this is the problem when one takes a popular book series and makes it into a movie, people are unable to divorce one from the other.

  • Ken Kimball

    I hardly think a Christian not wanting to fund someone who clearly wants to undermine the teaching of their children as a bigot. Poor choice of words and quite ignorant of reality. Freedom means if you don’t like something you don’t have to go whether it be Narnia or Compass. Calling someone a bigot that is simply exercising this right means the guilty dog is barking….

  • RollingStone

    You’re missing the point, Ken. Force has nothing to do with it. No one here is saying that Christians should be forced to see the movie. If they don’t want to see it, they don’t have to see it. We’re not calling these people bigots. The bigots are the people who take it farther than that and try to impose their own opinions on everyone else. The bigots are those who insist that, since they don’t want to see the movie (or, to be more precise, be exposed to its ideas), no one else should either. This is the promotion of censorship. While the First Amendment fortunately prohibits these people from banning books and movies on a national scale, I have no doubt that they would if they could. In school libraries, they’ve already started.

    Here’s a quote that I like from Atheist Alliance International (AAI) about the controversey over the film: “During the release of movies such as ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and ‘Jesus Camp’, AAI did not promote censorship in any form. AAI, in fact, encouraged its members to experience these films and discuss them freely in order to discover their own truths. AAI is only asking for the same consideration and respect from the religious community.”