Thoughts on "The Golden Compass"

As you have no doubt heard, The Golden Compass is the first in a series of stories, written by atheist Philip Pullman, to be something of an "anti-Narnia" series. This has generated some controversy, which has no doubt helped ticket sales to people like me who otherwise would not have seen the movie.

A few thoughts. As a movie, this movie is mediocre. It has the potential to be really impressive, but I couldn't help but feel that it was very poorly edited. One felt as if one was watching the highlights of a much much longer movie that had been spliced together rather hurriedly. The story was disjointed. In virtually every scene some new character appeared who was immediately welcomed as a closely trusted advisor to the main characters, who are supposed to be on the run from the all-powerful Authority of the Magisterium (which would imply some level of caution).

Then there is the issue of whether this is a children's movie or an adult movie. Some of the dialogue is quite grown-up, addressing issues (favorite's of post-modern philosophy) of the relation between truth and reality on the one hand and truth and power on the other. Over against this is the annoying "kids movie dialogue" that could have come from any number of movies targetted at 6-year-olds. Also, some scenes are rather violent for children, as when one polar bear knocks the lower jaw clean off another, and it goes sliding across the ice.

Then there are the religious or ideological questions. The bad guys in the movie are attempting to control 'truth' in order to control people. In the old days we called that "propaganda" but in this movie it is recast in more postmodern terms: their truth vs. our truth. But even so, the truth that is discerned using the Golden Compass (a tool for gaining truth) is said to describe things as they really ARE. So this isn't exactly a post-modern "no absolutes" world after all. The "truth" of the Magisterium turns out simply to be lies.

Nicole Kidman claims that this movie is not anti-Catholic, though I think that is debateable. The evil powers that are trying to control everyone are called the Magisterium (and I only know of one institution in the world that goes by that name). They are willing to use any means necessary to squelch the "heretics" (a word with strong anti-clerical connotations in Europe). And in one scene, the local office of the Magisterium has painted on the outside of it Christian icons, apparently of the four evangelists, so that the office looks like the altar area of many churches. So the association is hard for the trained eye to miss: Christianity, perhaps especially the Roman Catholic variety, is associated with the evil Authority that is trying to control everyone. Now the average 10 year old may have no idea what an iconostasis looks like or what the words "Magisterium" or "heretic" mean in the real world, but one wonders if the really extreme lovers of this book can possibly grow up to be the very devout sort of Roman Catholics that the Church is no doubt trying to cultivate?

Finally, I should say there is the issue of the daemons - the spirits of the various characters that take the form of animals. Because of the spelling of the word itself, as well as the function of the daemons in the story, I feel they are intended to be associated with Socrates' daemon which he describes in the Apology (which is something like his conscience or connection to the divine will), rather than with demons as they are usually understood (fallen angels/spiritual forces of wickedness) in the Judeo-Christian tradition, though the words "daemon" and "demon" are clearly variants of the same word.

So the Authority/Magisterium of The Golden Compass could represent any number of actual regimes - including the Greek City-state that killed Socrates for that matter, and for that reason the movie is not explicitly anti-Christian/Catholic. Indeed one could even argue, I suppose, (based on having seen only the first movie) that the Golden Compass is a source of "divine revelation" and could be used as an analogy to the Bible. However the association of traditional Christian lingo and imagery with "the Evil powers" in this film is very noticeable to me.



Blogger Matthew said...

Elsewhere, people have been noting Pullman's backtracking as regards the purpose of his books to promote atheism as well as being definitely anti-church. I'm interested that the film does not make it clear that the Magisterium is the Church, since the book certainly does. The book even quotes from the Bible of Lyra's world and makes mention of the pope. The second book, which travels between Lyra's and ours, has a statement from the same force as from the Compass that all churches in every world are manipulative and evil, seeking to crush human endeavour and courage with subservience and "humility".

5:39 PM, December 13, 2007  
Blogger Nance said...

The toning-down of the especially anti-church message of the books is simply because we live in a world where movies like Narnia and The Passion of the Christ will nearly win the year at box-office. Blatantly anti-Christian is simply bad business in Hollywood.
Pullman, from what I gather, wasn't too bothered by this necessary tweaking of the story because, in his opinion, the sort of power that he's attacking in the books was best seen in the 20th Century in Communist Russia... so the antagonist need not particularly be Christian, just representing that particular sort of rule that he's decrying.
There's a nice interview with the man about all this and more here: http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/2007/11/philip-pullman-extended-e-mail.html

7:31 PM, December 13, 2007  
Blogger Matthew said...

I found the interview somewhat frustrating because Pullman kept avoiding the question of "Christian" virtue by saying to call it that is hubris. Anyone who lives by any worldview is inevitably hubristic, then, because all truth and virtue is affirmed by his worldview, whereas vice falls outside it. But atheists don't get it, and then they get mad at us and call us dogmatic.

Anyway, my chief complaint with the books is that, even before the materialist propaganda began emerging in the second book, I had stopped caring. The moment his focus went blurry and was drifting all over the landscape and not focussing on the driving force of the story--Lyra and William--the stories grew weaker and weaker. I just don't care about Lee Scoresby, Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, the witches, the church assassin, Mary Malone, Asriel's spies, or even the Almighty (although I haven't seen him in the books yet, and I probably won't because I've quit). I care about Lyra and Will and their story. That is the story that matters to the readers, whereas the grand pseudo-epic doesn't.

12:37 PM, December 15, 2007  
Blogger Stephen said...

I heard it was just a bad movie, so I didn't want to go see it. I don't see many movies now a days anyway, so I probably wouldn't want to waste my movie money on this one.

3:00 PM, December 17, 2007  

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