Book & cinema review: The Golden Compass

To write this review, I have to make two bald statements:

1. I am a (practicing, church-going) Christian.

2. I enjoyed Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy, especially the first volume that has just made it to the big screen: The Golden Compass.

(Folks, that thud you just heard was either my gauntlet landing at the feet of practicing, church-going Christians who waste time lambasting this and similar movies, or the door shutting behind a bunch of blog-readers who are so offended they can’t bear to read more.)

One of my continuing connections to my former life as children’s librarian at Perry Library is that I remain on the board for the Youth Services Section of the North Carolina Library Association (NCLA.) For their spring volume of the YSS chapbook, I agreed to write a piece comparing and contrasting the book and the film both entitled The Golden Compass. (In the UK, the book is entitled The Northern Lights — this is not the only similarity between the first Harry Potter book, titled either Sorcerer’s or Philosopher’s Stone, depending on your geography, and what I will call for patriotism’s sake The Golden Compass.)

So, when I sat in the theater with my ubiquitous tub of popcorn, I set out to mark similarities and differences between the book and the movie. And there they were, just as Peter Jackson edited The Lord of the Rings, Disney altered Narnia here and there, and not all of the adventures of J. K. Rowling’s scarred hero made it to the screen. An example of a small change is that the witches, represented most prominently by their queen Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), fly in the book assisted by pine boughs (kind of a cross between broomsticks and Mary Poppins’ umbrella). In the movie, nary a pine branch is in sight — the witches fly like Supergirl, which makes it easier when you are trying to fire a bow and arrow and fly at the same time.

More serious to some, including book writer Philip Pullman, were the differences in ideology. For instance, though the movie references and costumes make the connection all but unmistakable, in the book the league of bad guys who want to take over the world (and all adjacent worlds) and control the minds of all are simply referred to as the Church. In the film, in what looks to me like an (unsuccessful) attempt at pacifying Christians, the baddies are labeled “The Magisterium.” Never mind that the sweeping robes on Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee are quite reminiscent of high-church vestments or that, in a moment quickly passed over, Jacobi addresses his black-garbed amuletted emissary as “Fra” (brother, aka a monk.) Pullman, an ardent atheist, does want to stick it to the church and, in another interview I read, stated that the reason he didn’t rock the boat regarding the changes made to his story was because he wanted the studio to make parts two and three of the Dark Materials series.

However, all minor and not-so-minor changes notwithstanding, my main impression as I read The Golden Compass for the first time, and again as I walked out of the theater, was that here was a fantasy world that was everything a fantasy world should be. It was well-imagined. It was well thought out. There were few to no inconsistencies within the world as it was presented. It was interesting, and imaginative, and if not so popular as Harry Potter, it has the potential to bring kids to books. I understand that to some this is not good news, but to me, as current storyteller and former librarian, this is some of the best news.

Folks! Don’t be afraid because this book presents an opinion about a mythical world that includes what is in effect a mythical body of people Pullman chooses to call “the Church!” Intentionally or no, Pullman has cut believers like me (and those not like me — like the ones who are angry right now) a lot of slack. First, though Lyra’s story seems to begin in our world, we see very soon that it is in a parallel universe. Either that or I am just blind to all the souls of people walking around next to them, outside their bodies, in the form of animals. Main character Lyra’s soul, or daemon (don’t let the pronunciation as “demon” scare you either) takes the form of a truly terrifying animal: an ermine. A weasel. A cat. A bird. A butterfly. (Let me explain: Lyra’s daemon does not have one form yet, because she is still a child. As she matures, her daemon will take on a single form it will retain as long as she lives.)

As I read and watched further, I found less and less to be worried or offended about. The Oblation Board in The Golden Compass is named after offerings and oblations — if you go to Anglican/Episcopal church, you will hear that term used. It is an evil thing, true enough — it kidnaps children and their daemons and surgically/magically separates them from each other, thus condemning both daemon and child to live rather like lobotomized people of an earlier century. Pullman is grinding his axe here — also true — because the intercision, as they call it, is designed to prevent children, as they mature, from attracting Dust — a mysterious substance linked with the Fall (as described in Genesis) and associated with capital S Sin. Clearly, in his world the freedom from Dust, or Sin, or the process it takes to achieve that freedom, is a bigger wrong than the one it seeks to correct.

Here is where we could get into serious theology, and serious argument between Pullman and church, or Pullman and religious folks, etc. etc. But this is a review, not a sermon. The point that does need making, in my opinion, is this. By freaking out about a fictional novel, written by an avowed atheist, and the movie that follows, a church and/or religious folks are acting quite a bit like the Oblation Board. Their “cure” (boycotting the movie, or banning the book) will be worse than the disease, for more than one reason. First off, ironically, their opposition will shine light on the book and movie and some kids (however well brought up, however devout) will want to read or see it out of sheer curiosity. Secondly, in decrying Pullman’s work and the movie based on it, religious folks are confirming his worst beliefs and suspicions. They are acting like the church he abhors. What fear is there in the fact that a fantasy author has an opinion of God that differs from theirs, and mine? What fear is there that children might realize that there are different opinions regarding belief and faith in the world? Hopefully, they know it already.

Trying to guide children is one thing — trying to shield them from all differences of opinion is something else, something like never letting a child watch the news for fear they will find out that something terrible happened somewhere in the world. Believe me, they will hear about it somewhere else, somewhere where you might not be there to offer explanations or reassurance… What educated religious person does not know that there are people with other opinions in the world? What educated religious person does not know that over the years, the Church, the church, and churches and church-goers have committed travesties? Have done terrible (and wonderful) things in the name of God? Pullman isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know, and his book and the movie based on it can be used, if desired, as a springboard for education — religious education.

But most of all, folks, don’t forget that this is a fantasy. Many people are worried because in the third book a character Pullman calls God, or the Authority, is so old and feeble that he dies. Pullman clearly wants to shake people up out of complacency, and I admit that when I first read the third book (The Amber Spyglass) that I was shaken up. More by the confusing and convoluted nature of this third volume — the busiest of all of them — than by the death of a character who only truly even appears in the last book. And that is what he is — a character, called God. Or god. I am sure Pullman will now feel as though he has entirely failed — and so he has, if his fantasy books were to be a platform for convincing me that atheism is the way to go. But do they need to be?

I believe in God. To some degree, I think I know about God and know God. This being to whom I give my love and trust has as much in common with Pullman’s shadow-god-character as the lively Gyptian (gypsy) child Billy Costa has with the dying shadow-child he becomes after he is intercised. There is no comparison; they are two different things, one vibrant and alive, worthy of faith, and one a book character in a fantasy world among many fantasy worlds.

I know many parents and church-goers don’t even like the idea of fantasy books for many reasons. That is fine. Like I feel about Philip Pullman, I feel they are entitled to their opinions. But as a children’s librarian, a storyteller and, I hope, a future parent, I believe in the efficacy of fantasy. What is it effective in doing? It can help children love to read. It can help children learn to think, to compare and contrast different fantastic worlds, or movie and book versions of a single one. It can help children learn to invent stories of their own. Best of all, it can help children learn to imagine. Create pictures in their minds.

One final story: I read an article the other day in the Journal of the Tar Heel Tellers (publication of the NC Storytelling Guild) by a teller Rebecca. Rebecca was telling stories at a middle school one day when one of her audience grew distraught. The stories were communicating to her, and she was imagining — seeing pictures from the story in her head, her imagination. The experience was so alien, so frightening, that she thought she was being bewitched. Now, what our culture has done or is doing that such an event is even possible is another article (or possible, a whole book). Nevertheless, it is heartbreaking that a child could be so afraid and unacquainted with imagination.

Rebecca concludes, and I agree, that lack of imagination — the easy ability to create mental images — is one of the things that makes reading so hard and unpopular. If fantasy can help children learn to imagine, and therefore be able to get more out of reading (as it did and continues to do for me) then I will not stand in the way. No matter if it is Harry Potter or the Dark Materials trilogy.

Review conclusion: Pullman has brought us something creative and exciting, and the movie has movie-fied it without ruining anything, and I think came as close as possible to doing justice to it. Go ahead, jump in, and read or watch something new — the fantasy’s fine!

(P.S. Folks, if you have strong feelings about The Golden Compass, that’s fine. If you don’t like it, or the idea of it, that’s OK too. [I recommend actually reading a little bit of it, before you discard it entirely, since through experience comes knowledge. Oh, and also through experience come handy answers to your kids when they ask, ‘Mommm… Why CAN’T I….’] Use your free will. Stand up to the Magisterium or whatever body of people might be trying to rule your every impulse.
If you think fantasy can help your kids enjoy books again, but want to steer clear of books that some people see as a proselytizing platform for atheism, try The Hobbit, or (for teens) The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, a Christian. Or the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, even more overtly Christian. Or George MacDonald. Madeleine L’Engle. The possibilities are as endless as the worlds Pullman created for Lyra.)