Pernicious Prelude

Steven D. Greydanus reviews The Golden Compass.

CNS Photo
CNS Photo

Years ago, writing about The Last Temptation of Christ, I mentioned that I found it significant that a film so profoundly annihilative of Christian imagination had been directed by a lapsed Roman Catholic from a novel by a lapsed Eastern Orthodox Christian: Only artists with personal imaginative roots in historic Christian tradition could create something so deeply and utterly opposed to it.

Such works could never have been made, I wrote, “by an ordinary nonreligious or atheistic filmmaker, or even by a lapsed Protestant.”

Novelist Philip Pullman — author of His Dark Materials, of which The Golden Compass is the first volume in a series (a trilogy, so far) — is an atheist. But, in an interview with Orthodox film writer Peter Chattaway, he called himself “a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist.”

That seems fair enough. For Pullman’s Compass Church is dogmatic and authoritarian but not actually religious, even in a negative way. His dislike of the very concept of spirituality prevents him from attempting to depict it even in portraying his enemies.

Most notably, Pullman debunks a Church without Christ, the true basis and object of Christian belief. It’s easy to caricature a ruthless, rigid hierarchy, or to imagine an alternate history with John Calvin as pope. It’s another matter to propose a persuasive materialist interpretation of Jesus Christ.

In Pullman’s moral universe, Christ must either be religious and therefore evil or else a freethinking materialist and therefore good. (Pullman plans to take this particular bull by the horns in his next book.)

Christian writer and journalist Peter Hitchens, younger brother of anti-God apologist Christopher Hitchens and in many ways his ideological opposite, has called Pullman “the anti-Lewis,” suggesting a similar ideological opposition between Pullman and Christian writer C.S. Lewis. The opposition of Lewis and Pullman has become a familiar one. Both are Oxford-educated authors of fantasy stories about parallel worlds featuring magic and talking beasts. Both tell tales in which religious ideas are not so much allegorized as imaginatively depicted.

Now, with the first volumes of both series having been released as movie adaptations, the parallels can be extended. From a Hollywood perspective, both Pullman and Lewis wrote stories in a genre lately popularized by the success of The Lord of the Rings, but with unfortunate, controversial religious entanglements. The studios saw these elements as inconveniently important to the fan base but potentially threatening to the broad appeal needed to cash in on big-budget film adaptations.

Consequently, the first installments in both cinematic series have watered down the religious and moral specificity of their respective source material, replacing them with safely generic appeals to values like “freedom” and “family.”

That’s not to say that The Golden Compass, adapted and directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy), quite negates the anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic impetus of its source material any more than Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe quite negates its Christian roots. Like the novel, The Golden Compass is still about an alternate world dominated by an oppressive, hidebound caricature of the Church called the Magisterium, which talks about preserving “centuries of teaching” from the dangers of “heresy.”

Some effort has been made to soften the connection; the word “church” is never used and the Magisterium’s trappings are for the most part only vaguely ecclesiastical. There’s a blend of Gothic and Baroque architecture, for example, and a suggestion rather than a real evocation of clerical vestments.

For the most part, though, Weitz prefers to focus on the spectacle and intricate plotting of Pullman’s tale. The result is an interesting blend of Victorian intrigue, high fantasy, Wellsian and modern sci-fi and other influences. Shape-changing animal alter egos, armored polar bears, clockwork insect spies, seafaring gypsies, airborne witches and Texas cowboys in lighter-than-air ships run through a densely scripted story in which a fearless young orphan named Lyra Belaqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) acquires a magical, truth-divining alethiometer. Then she embarks on an epic journey with a mysterious femme fatale named Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman).

On its face, it’s engaging stuff. Weitz handles it well enough for casual viewers. But, as with Adamson’s first Narnia film, serious fans are likely to be frustrated by the rushed, abbreviated storylines and the diminished themes. Still, the material works well on its own terms. This is not surprising because, of the three books, The Golden Compass is possibly the best written and least problematic. It’s certainly the least didactic and overtly anti-religious.

And therein lies the problem. Viewed in isolation, in terms of what is actually on the screen, The Golden Compass is far less objectionable than, say, Elizabeth: The Golden Age or The Da Vinci Code. But of course the film doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To regard it in isolation is foolhardy at best.

The film is now a pivotal property in a franchise that includes the three novels, the future films that may be made and the additional novels that Pullman will almost certainly write. Whether more books get written and more movies get made depends, of course, on Compass’ success.

It’s some small comfort that, although the film is undeniably entertaining, The Golden Compass is — like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before it — nowhere near as brilliant as New Line’s first big fantasy hit, The Lord of the Rings. It probably won’t prove as enduring, either. On the other hand, Weitz has repeatedly made it clear that, just as Pullman’s own writing becomes increasingly explicit throughout the series, any sequels to The Golden Compass will be correspondingly more faithful to the religious themes of their source material.

If only the Narnia filmmakers showed similar interest and respect for Lewis’s religious themes.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and

chief critic of

Content advisory:

Anti-religious themes; intense action violence; fantasy presentation of witches; references to a character’s out-of-wedlock parentage.