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The Golden Compass: Family Entertainment or Atheist Propaganda?

Perhaps you too received the alarming email warning of the upcoming movie The Golden Compass based on the book by British author Phillip Pullman, a Godless atheist who wants to destroy Christianity in the minds of children. The email said that he despised C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. In fact, his books were the “anti-Narnia.”
I tend to be a tad skeptical of most email warnings; the hysterical dither over Harry Potter, complete with confirming quotes (pulled unattributed as gospel truth from the satirical rag The Onion) from children who had read the books and now worshiped Satan had made me wary. But this email even included a link for verification, always my first step in approaching such email warnings. Snopes confirmed at least some of the email. Pullman is indeed an outspoken atheist (well, he’s been calling himself agnostic lately on the movie press tour), and he’s a gifted young adult fantasy writer with plenty of prestigious awards to prove it.
The email said that since The Golden Compass was the least God-bashing book in the trilogy, the movie would gloss over the anti-Christian elements of the first book to lull parents into buying the entire set as Christmas gifts for their children—blissfully unaware that the charming fantasy adventure that the family enjoyed in the theater was only the setup for the devilish attack that would suck out their children’s souls in the second and especially the third book where God dies and mankind lives happily ever after.
Well, I’m only human after all, so I decided to find out for myself and downloaded the whole trilogy (His Dark Materials) to my iPod. As I listened, I was in turn enthralled—with Pullman’s storytelling ability, the compelling reality of his alternate worlds and characters, human, bear, mulefa, daemon, witch, angel, and appalled—with the tortured theology increasingly required to impose his world view on the story. (I resonated with Michael Chabon’s review of the series; he said he read the books with a sinking heart as he gradually realized Pullman was sacrificing story to impose his agenda.)
I was also saddened to speculate on the personal reasons that caused Pullman to develop such antipathy to Christianity that he portrays it as universally corrupt: a monolithic, controlling power bent on destroying pleasure and free will—a religion with no love, grace, tolerance or freedom, and certainly no savior.
Well, such powerful and provocative storytelling deserves a thoughtful response, and I was intrigued. As it happens, I know one of the editors of this Spectrum site, and so I offered to write a review of the upcoming movie—and, probably against her better judgment, she agreed.
This past weekend I viewed The Golden Compass and was profoundly underwhelmed. In fact, I wondered whether the director and I had read the same book. I wasn’t alone in my reaction either; I noted several viewers muttering about how the movie wasn’t at all like the book, especially with its Pollyannaish ending that didn’t even hint of the dark revelations, surprises, betrayals and universe-shattering actions that end the book.
For the record, I’ll note that movie The Golden Compass is spectacular visually with beautiful cinematography and amazing computer graphics and special effects. Nicole Kidman is predictably beautiful and surprisingly believable as the evil Mrs. Coulter, and Daniel Craig is a natural for the arrogant and imposing Lord Asriel. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, plays Lyra, a precocious, streetwise girl who revels in her carefree existence at Jordan College in Oxford—not the same Oxford that we might know, but an Oxford in a parallel universe at exactly the same spot.
Most of the major plot points are included, but without any richness or contextual detail of Pullman’s books which present a stunning array of detail and nomenclature to delineate an intricate and believable universe operating by unique rules. This universe is controlled by the heavy-handed magisterium which dictates what is truth in the realms of science—experimental theology. They are particularly touchy on the subject of “dust”, invisible energy particles the magisterium’s minions obsess about. Apparently, dust is attracted only to people past the age of puberty when one’s daemon can no longer shape shift from one animal form to another and “settles” into the animal form representative of the person’s character—a form the daemon will now keep for life until their person’s death. (In this world people’s souls don’t live inside of them like they do in our world but in their animal daemons who go through life at their side, companions who understand them intimately.)
When children begin disappearing, everyone is alarmed. And when her best friend Roger is kidnapped, Lyra vows to rescue him. That’s basically the premise for the rest of the story as Lyra heads north to find the missing children with a rescue party that includes a band of Gyptians, a Texas aeronaut, an armored bear, a witch queen and, of course, everyone’s daemon.
Most sinister in the movie is the General Oblation Board, the Goblers, run by the beautiful and twisted Mrs. Coulter and her sadistic golden monkey daemon. They revel in the intercission experiments the Magisterium has authorized to separate children from their daemons before their daemons have settled, thereby doing them a favor by preventing such things as passion, sexual sin, independent thought and other messy results of free will.
It’s difficult to understand the true horror of this because the filmmakers have practiced intercission themselves in cutting so much of the book’s compelling details and deeper complexities, in effect rendering the story soulless. Essentially, intercission is the functional equivalent of being turned into a mindless zombie, or a sexless castrati, although in the movie we also don’t see the agony and eventual death of some intercised children, their daemons locked away in the bowels of Bolvanger. Instead we see the rescued Gyptian child Bobby, who shows all the pain of a child who’s just lost a treasured pet rather than his soul. But no worries kids, it appears he’ll be fine after a big hug from his mother and a nice hot bowl of chicken soup.
Most prominent by its absence were any anti-religious themes whatsoever. The sinister magisterium portrayed in the movie could be the Soviet Union or the Taliban, comparisons that Pullman himself has been making recently. Who wouldn’t want to destroy such a corrupt and oppressive power?
This watering down (or outright deletion) of the book’s potentially controversial themes has the film getting almost as much heat from the other end of the spectrum from atheists who think the film panders. I hate to say it, but I agree with the atheists here. By taking out the core of Pullman’s complex motifs, the movie is left only with glorious panoramas of a world to which we haven’t been properly introduced, novel devices and modes of transportation, intriguing but confusing daemons that seem more like pets than independent manifestations of an individual’s character and soul, armored bears who talk and fight and roar a lot, and a plot line that moves from event to event with no contextual grounding or back story to make sense of it all.
Director Chris Weitz in a NY Times story says that if he gets to film the rest of the trilogy, he will begin right where the current movie leaves off. “I mean to protect the integrity of those remaining chapters,” he explained. The aim is to put in the elements we need to make this movie a hit, so that we can be much less compromising in how the second and third books are shot.”
One can easily make the case that The Golden Compass is just creative storytelling in the popular genre where the heroes of the story take a stand against an evil and repressive regime—just another version of The Matrix perhaps. And by that measure, I could agree. Certainly the film itself is bland and benign so far as anti-Christian themes. If viewers expect an attack against Christianity, the film will disappoint. Unfortunately, it also disappoints in presenting anything thoughtful or challenging at all. And I can’t imagine any person—adult or child–with any grounding in the Christian faith who would be shaken by this movie. However, viewers of Compass are in for some stiff surprises should the movies continue (and actually be true to the books), or when they read the other books in the trilogy, They will discover that they are immersed in an epic story of the battle between good and evil, a cosmic great controversy to preserve independence and free will. And the good guys and the bad guys aren’t the ones we’re used to.
How sad that Pullman and much of the world can only view Christianity as repressive, narrow, judgmental and pleasureless. Even sadder—the accusation is too often true. How ironic as well since the Great Controversy I’m engaged in has always been about choice and free will and God’s unwillingness to force obedience from anyone. And the good guys and the bad guys here aren’t the ones Pullman is used to. I suspect he’s never met my God.
Dan Akers writes from Oceanside, CA where he enjoys walks on the beach with his wife, Darlene, and their dog, Leo.

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