Although the Catholic League is claiming victory because of its boycott of The Golden Compass, we need to remember that any opportunity to present the truth of the gospel is a welcome one.

When I settled into my chair at the local theatre to watch The Golden Compass, I was tragically unaware that the best bit of fantasy I was to experience over the next two hours would take place in the first two minutes—before the movie itself even began. The trailer for Prince Caspian, the second film in the Chronicles of Narnia series that is set to release in May, was a vivid reminder of what The Golden Compass is attempting to emulate. Unfortunately for New Line Cinema (the producers of The Golden Compass), this juxtaposition of fantasy epics does not bode well. Bringing the Narnia series to mind immediately before The Golden Compass only serves to reinforce the notion that it is a bland and shallow approximation of the former, albeit from an upside-down perspective.

The similarities between the first Narnia movie, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Compass are no less than breathtaking. One would even be prepared to cry “plagarism” if both films weren’t based on pre-existing writings. Both take place in a parallel world where animals talk, children are the heroes, and snow abounds. Both also have an icy-cold, child-hating woman who runs the show (Nicole Kidman is well-cast as the ice-princess in Compass). In fact, it has long been noted and pointed out that His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, the three-book series from which The Golden Compass comes, is something of an anti-Narnia. As Pullman himself puts it: “I loathe the Narnia books, and I loathe the so-called space trilogy, because they contain an ugly vision…I rate [C.S. Lewis] very highly, but I do detest what he was doing in his fiction.”[1] Since I have not read Pullman’s books, I will not bother trying to compare the movie with them. In fact, this is often a futile exercise. A screenplay will always differ from the original source simply because they are designed for two completely different mediums and audiences. A two-hour film will never be able to reproduce faithfully everything that a full-length book contains. Viewers who expect as much will come away sorely disappointed every time.[2] I try to be more realistic in this regard and judge a film on its own merits and weaknesses.

The Golden Compass begins by introducing us to the world where the story takes place. We are told that many parallel worlds and universes just like our own exist. In this one however, the souls of humans don’t reside within the body as they do in our world, but outside, as an animal. This “exterior soul” is called a daemon and everyone in Compass has a unique animal that follows them everywhere they go. We further find out that children’s daemons can change; they are not always the same animal, whereas the daemons of the adults remain the same. This seemingly minor point is rather important and reveals why children are the main characters in the story. Unlike adults, who are set in their ways and unable to change, children are “innocent” and able to discern and “see things as they really are.” This is only one of the many ways that Compass turns the Christian worldview on its head. Instead of wisdom passing from old to young as God has ordained in His Word (Deut. 6, Ps. 78, Prov. 3, Matt. 10, Eph. 6, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 2, just to name a few), Compass has it flowing from young to old. This cynical outlook flows from Plato with his “forms” and Rousseau with his concept of the “noble savage.”

Plato believed that the physical world was merely a copy or an approximation, a “form,” of the perfect, which is the spiritual. He further believed that the physical was a distraction from the spiritual, so any focus that is made on the physical is, at best, wrong-headed. He held “thought” as the highest reality of this world and any action that “thought” motivated would begin the downward spiral of imperfection. Rousseau took Plato to his logical conclusion in the first sentence of his book Emile: “Everything is good in leaving the hands of the Creator of Things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Education plays a big Part 1n Emile; Rousseau understands education as the old imparting their corrupting influence onto the young, perpetuating a vicious cycle of degradation. His concept of the “noble savage,” one that is free from the corrupting influences of man-made civilization and technologies, embodied his belief in the inherent goodness of man. Rousseau saw children (like the primitive savage who is free of the corruption of society) as the good and the right and the pure. This philosophy saturates The Golden Compass as well. In fact, in a scene that is as far from subtle as one can get in a film, certain children are kidnapped off the streets and whisked away to a “re-education station” in the north. Here they are subject to a “little cut,” an operation that kills their daemon. These children are told that their daemon (read “soul”) is actually causing them to make bad decisions and misbehave, but this “little cut” will rectify everything. The nefarious robot-like attendants of this “station” immediately bring to mind A Clockwork Orange, a similarity that is by no means coincidental to be sure.

Another Platonic influence is apparent in the concept of Dust. According to the film, Dust is the “true reality.” Dust is something like the consciousness of the universe. Throughout the film, whenever Dust is spoken of, it is quickly brushed aside and dismissed by the adults. The “Magisterium,” the ruling elite (and a very thinly-veiled reference to the church) of this parallel universe operates as a kind of “thought police” and is especially hostile to any mention of Dust. And just in case you fell asleep and missed the “Magisterium as church” connection, the filmmakers have gone so far as to refer to those who oppose the Magisterium as the “freethinkers.” One of these “freethinkers,” the young heroine named Lyra Belacqua, is determined to learn the truth of Dust, whatever the cost. Whenever Dust is portrayed on the screen we are shown the expanse of the starry night with golden specks of light. Interestingly, during the battle scenes, when a human is killed, his daemon instantly turns into golden specks of light that swirl around and disappear, presumably returning to Dust. Once again, the biblical worldview is inverted. While the Bible tells us that the body returns to the dust of the ground and the soul remains, Compass has the daemon (the soul) returning to Dust. The lesson is clear; the body is unimportant, but the true essence—the spiritual, the cosmic energy—returns back to the source, the homeostatic center of the universe. If your pantheism detector isn’t ringing in your ear right now, you might want to check the batteries.

The subversion of the Christian worldview is a central thread that runs throughout the entire movie. Elements of it can be found in almost every scene. Sometimes it is blatant, as in the examples above, but other times it is subtle. For instance, at the dinner party held by the Magisterium, Lyra is seated at a table with the frigid Marisa Coulter (Kidman). Lyra watches all of the attendees take a sip of the table wine, but when she takes a drink, she spits it back into her glass. If there had been any character development of Lyra up to this point in the movie, I could accept this as a mere “acquired taste” situation. But since The Golden Compass is completely void of any depth in any of its characters, I must see this for what it is. Lyra (the “pure”) is rejecting the “bitter” wine of the Magisterium’s “communion.” The symbolism in Compass is as superficial as its characters.

Although the final scene leaves the story hanging, obviously waiting for the sequel, I wouldn’t be incredibly surprised if this doesn’t happen. As Lyra and her small band of cosmic battlers head off into the sunset—into a war for “free will” of all things—the viewer comes to the realization that he really doesn’t care. None of the characters of The Golden Compass have earned our compassion or our empathy. It would have been just as well if their airship had caught on fire and crashed to the ground as it was for them to float toward a continuation of the tale. I suspect that I am not alone in this assessment, and I would be amazed if New Line Cinema even comes close to recovering the $180 million that it cost to make this piece of propaganda. Opening weekend figures were low, and word of mouth is only going to hurt, not help, the bottom line. If you do go to see this film, be prepared to have lots of things to talk about with your kids, but don’t worry about it turning them into atheists. It is much too overt to be subversive. Al Mohler got it right when he wrote:

The Christian faith is not about to be toppled by a film, nor by a series of fantasy books. Pullman has an agenda that is clear, and Christians need to inform themselves of what this agenda is and what it means. At the same time, nothing would serve his agenda better than to have Christians speaking recklessly or unintelligently about the film or the books. This is about the battle of ideas and worldviews. While Christians will not celebrate the release of this film, we should recognize the mixture of challenge and opportunity that comes with millions of persons watching this film and talking about the issues it raises. When the movie is mentioned in the workplace, in school, on the playground, or in the college campus, this is a great opportunity to show that Christians are not afraid of the battle of ideas.[3]

Huw Spanner, “Heat and Dust” (An Interview with Philip Pullman), Third Way website, 2002. [2] Although Horton Foote’s 1962 screenplay of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about as close to perfection as you can get.
[3] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Golden Compass: A Briefing for Concerned Christians,” The Christian Post website, 7 Dec 2007.