The Golden Compass
By Harry Forbes and John Mulderig
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) -- Hollywood history is rife with examples of literary works that by dint of problematic sexual, violent or religious content have been softened to varying degrees to mollify public sensibilities.
So it appears to be with "The Golden Compass" (New Line) which, we'll say right at the start, is a lavish, well-acted and fast-paced adaptation of "Northern Lights," the original title of the first volume of Philip Pullman's much-awarded trilogy, "His Dark Materials," published in 1995.
The film has already caused some concern in Catholic circles because of the author's professed atheism, and the more overt issue of the novels' negative portrayal of his (very much fictionalized) church, a stand-in for all organized religion.
The good news is that the first book's explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium retained. The choice is still a bit unfortunate, however, as the word refers so specifically to the church's teaching authority. Yet the film's only clue that the Magisterium is a religious body comes in the form of the icons which decorate one of their local headquarters.
Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman's personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure. This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" or "The Da Vinci Code." Religious elements, as such, are practically nil.
The narrative itself charts the adventures of spunky 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who leaves Oxford's Jordan College, where she resides as a ward to become apprentice to a glamorous scholar known as Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).
She's allowed to leave, equipped with the titular compass -- a truth meter which Lyra is among the privileged few to know how to interpret. Once in Mrs. Coulter's care, Lyra begins to surmise that the woman's motives are far from pure, and she escapes.
Inspired by her Arctic-exploring-uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) -- who, to the consternation of the Magisterium, is about to make some discoveries about the mysterious substance called Dust -- Lyra journeys northward. She hopes to rescue her young friend Roger (Ben Walker), who has been kidnapped by the Magisterium.
Lyra picks up several useful allies along the way, including John Faa (Jim Carter), a piratelike seafarer of the wandering tribe called Gyptians, Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and a great polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen).
Even if Pullman's fanciful universe has a patchwork feel, with elements culled from other fantasy-adventure stories -- most especially "The Chronicles of Narnia" (a work Pullman disdains) -- there's hardly a dull moment, and the effects are beautifully realized, including the anthropomorphized creatures like the polar bears whose climactic fight is superbly done.
Richards makes an appealingly no-nonsense heroine, and Kidman makes a glamorous and chilling villain. Christopher Lee, Tom Courtenay and Derek Jacobi round out a distinguished cast, with excellent voice work from McKellen and others (e.g. Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ian McShane and Freddie Highmore).
Whatever author Pullman's putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz's film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.
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.
There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church's restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.
The script also makes use of some of the occult concepts found in the books, such as the diabolically named "daemons" -- animal companions to each person, identified as their human counterpart's visible soul.
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.
Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.
The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.
The film contains intense but bloodless fantasy violence, anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, a character born out of wedlock and a whiskey-guzzling bear. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Forbes is director and Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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