A Handsome Lie

Five years and $180 million later, The Golden Compass is at last opening in movie theaters across the country today. So what’s the verdict?

Five years and $180 million later, The Golden Compass is at last opening in movie theaters across the country today. While Philip Pullman — the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which The Golden Compass forms the first volume — may not quite have reached the fame of J. K. Rowling with Harry Potter, his work has nonetheless sold well over 40 million copies worldwide.
The three books of the trilogy can be found in the children’s section of every major bookstore in the United States in a handsome Knopf paperback edition. Since The Golden Compass book first saw print in 1996, Pullman’s works have earned a dazzling collection of honors and distinctions, to say nothing of the kind of reviews for which most authors would readily give up a piece of their immortal souls.
In the July 1, 2001, issue of the Washington Post Book World, staff critic Michael Dirda termed Pullman’s trilogy (along with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita) "the Anti-Narnia, a critique of organized religion, a paean to Blakean joy in life, and, for all its controversy, the most vividly imagined ‘secondary world’ in 20th century children’s literature. But definitely not just for kids."
In all fairness, Dirda’s comments can apply to the movie as well, although to be honest there is not too much "Blakean joy" to be found in the film version. To say that Pullman’s trilogy is "a critique of organized religion" is an understatement. The books are about the annihilation of God Himself. Mind you, the authoritative power in the film — the Magisterium — is an ever so slightly muted version of the Holy Roman Catholic Church (a priest-like figure bears a tonsure).
Author Pullman has made no bones about his intent. As he told the Sydney Morning Herald, he was "saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry [Potter] has said. My books are about killing God." Indeed, in the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, God, as those of Judeo-Christian persuasion know him, is ultimately blown away in a puff of wind.
Pullman has endeavored to be "sensible" in talking about his involvement with the trilogy on film, so as not to imperil the making of the next two films. He told Hanna Rosin in her most informative article "How Hollywood Saved God" in the December issue of the Atlantic, "I think if everything that is made explicit in the book . . . were present in the film, they’d [the producers] have the biggest hit they’d ever had in their lives." (New Line Cinema produced the highly successful Lord of the Rings.)
Pullman has expressed nothing but satisfaction with the finished product. In the Times of London on December 2, he stated flatly, "Now that the film of my novel is about to be released, I can say with perfect truth that I like it. The studio, New Line Cinema, has done a fine job. It looks spectacular, the performances by an outstanding cast are excellent, the special effects are beautifully integrated and the story is told swiftly and clearly."
Tom Stoppard wrote the first version of the script in which there were passing references to Genesis and the Fall. There had been a scene in which Lord Asriel (played by Daniel Craig) talks of the mysterious substance of Dust and how he will destroy it and basically reverse the consequences of Original Sin. "When I do — pain, sin, suffering — death itself will die." It seems most unlikely that this scene will ever be filmed. The concept of Dust itself is murky and confused enough to bewilder any child or adult viewing the film.
Interestingly, Chris Weitz has only directed two previous films, neither remotely like this one in content: About a Boy (based on the Nick Hornby novel and nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay) and American Pie, co-directed with his brother Paul — the raunchy teenage comedy that was quite successful a few years back.
Now as for the film itself, the big question is, will this costly production draw large enough audiences to justify producing as film the two remaining volumes of Pullman’s trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass? Let it be said, the film is very handsome to watch, yet somehow there is a kind of chill mantle cast over the entire work.
The little 13-year-old heroine, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), is admirably spunky, showing proper spirit if not great charm throughout growing up in a kind of parallel Oxford where people travel in dirigibles and ride in curious carriages. But how will teenage young males who compose most of the audiences for action films these days respond to watching a girl carry almost the full weight of the movie on her slender shoulders? Her character will certainly delight feminists, but how many feminists buy movie tickets? As for the other major characters, Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) is an exceedingly chill personification of elegant evil, while Craig (Mr. James Bond) as Asriel barely seems to have visited the set. It would seem the director was saving him for the more action-filled sequences in the remaining installments of the trilogy.
One of the few engaging touches in the film is the presence of "daemons," supposed visual representations of human souls. According to Mr. Pullman’s tale every human has his or her own daemon with whom he communes. Marisa’s daemon is a sly golden monkey, while Asriel ‘s is a handsome leopard. Lyra, our little heroine, has a daemon that changes from moth to sea gull to ferret depending on where Lyra may find herself. A large part of the fairly confusing plot turns on how a vast authoritarian organization — clearly modeled on the Catholic Church in the books — wants to kidnap children and cruelly cut them apart from their daemons, to deprive them of "free will" (for their own good, as Mrs,.Coulter explains). But what on earth will teenage audiences make of it all? And do they care about free will in a movie?
The film does offer an ally of Lyra’s, a giant armored polar bear, voiced by Ian McKellan, who fights to the death another giant bear voiced by Ian McShane. Interestingly, although there is a fair amount of violent action in the film there is never any visible blood shed. The theology in the film is murky to say the least.
Incidentally, the titular Golden Compass, described as an alethiometer — a one-of-a-kind magic compass for truth-telling — is supposedly almost impossible to use. Only little Lyra, it turns out, figures how the compass functions almost right away. Just another confusing element in a much confused tale.

Cynthia Grenier writes the Mag Trade column for the Washington Times.

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Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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