Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Those who enjoyed Narnia will find much to appreciate in what appears to be New Line Cinema’s at tempt to match the success of their beloved and popular Fellowship of the Ring series. Philip Pullman’s atheism has raised the hackles of lots of conservative Catholics and Protestants, but you need not worry that the faith of young viewers will be shaken. The theology, or as some would prefer anti-theology, is so toned down in the script that those unfamiliar with the trilogy or the atheistic declarations of the author, will find little that is objectionable. Parents need to be far more concerned about the effect of the film’s violent battle scenes might have upon their children, especially elementary and preschool aged children.
For film lovers screenwriter-director Chris Weitz’s film is a visual feast, with over 1100 scenes employing special effects. This intense use is necessary due to the fact that in Pullman’s alternate universe every person has a daemon that stays close, a daemon being the person’s soul/personality embodied as an animal. Those of the wealthy and powerful often take the form of fierce animals, whereas those of servants and the lower class are dogs or other small creatures. The setting is a combination of 1930’s sartorial style and late Victorian or Jules Verne’s technology with air travel by blimps and propeller-driven balloons common. The two cities in the beginning of the film are Oxford and London, filled with a delightful conglomeration of mixed architectural styles that a Mad Hatter joined to Alfred Speer might have conjured up.
Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards is excellent as 12 year-old Lyra Belacqua, a seemingly orphaned girl growing up under the tutelage of scholars at a parallel universe’s Oxford University. Lyra’s daemon is named Pantalaimon, and the two can talk together. (Freddie Highmore provides Pan’s voice) Although a daemon can run about for a few yards and help its human see what is around corners or over walls, he (or she—girls have male, boys have female daemons) cannot venture far without both human and daemon undergoing extreme anxiety and pain.
The Magisterium is the name of the religious organization that rules over this parallel world—though no parishes, worship services or numerous other activities of what we associate with churches is shown. I was sorry that the film does not mention that the headquarters of the Magisterium was moved from Rome to Geneva after an amalgamation between Protestants and Catholics, Pullman apparently wanting to include both bodies in his attack, to me an amusing detail. The Magisterium’s General Oblation Board operates much like the Inquisition, keeping a close watch on heretical ideas and their purveyors, one of whom is the following personage. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is Lyra’s official guardian, but he has turned over her care to the scholars of Oxford’s Jordan College. Resisting their attempts to educate and domesticate her, Lyra runs freely through the streets and across the rooftops, becoming the leader of the children of servants and Gyptians, the latter roving seafarers. When she is accused by a playmate of being “a lady,” she takes great umbrage.
Lyra is little interested in the Magisterium when we first see her running about with her friends. Her great adventure begins when she is exploring a banquet hall and ventures into a conference room which she had been forbidden to enter. Hearing someone approaching, she hides in a cabinet and watches as the Headmaster and a Magisterial Emissary enter. Left alone, the Emissary pours a powder into the decanter on the table. Lord Asriel then enters and, after the Emissary has left, pours himself a drink. Lyra dashes out and knocks the glass to the floor, telling the startled man what she had seen. He orders her back into the cabinet to spy on the other scholars. The scholars gather, and Lord Asriel presents his findings concerning Dust, the dark matter that gathers around adult humans but not children. He asks for funds so that he can mount an expedition to the far north to investigate the findings of a disappeared explorer, Stanislaus Grumman, that there might be a window to a parallel universe that involves Dust. The scholars agreeing to his request despite the disapproval of the Emissary, Lord Asriel promptly leaves Oxford and heads north.
Events follow quickly for Lyra, far more swiftly than in the book. Her best friend Roger, as well as the Gyptian playmate Billy, disappear—a number of children, always those of the working class or Gyptians, have been disappearing for some time, the rumor being that mysterious “Gobblers” have been seizing them. A beautiful woman visits Oxford, a Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) working for the Magisterium. Taking a liking to Lyra, she whisks her away as her assistant, but not before the Head Master can give the girl the device that will prove to be the key to all that happens hereafter, the Golden Compass, called an alethiometer, or truth finder. It is the last of six that were created, the Magisterium having located and destroyed the others because it could allow for any source of truth than itself. The Headmaster instructs the girl never to mention or show it to Mrs. Coulter. Good advice, we soon learn.
Although Mrs. Coulter lavishes attention on Lyra and shows her off at numerous parties, the two strong-willed females soon clash, and when Pan discovers that Mrs. Coulter is the head of the group kidnapping the children, and Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey daemon discovers the alethiometer, Lyra dashes off into the night. Captured by goons, she is rescued by Gyptians and taken aboard their ship that is setting off for the far north. Flowing far more swiftly than in the novel, the events include Lyra’s learning how to use the alethiometer (it is a means of communicating with the golden Dust), a visit with a queen of the witches, meeting up with cowboy/aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and armored bear Iorek Byrnison (voice by Ian McKellen)—the latter provides one of the set pieces for violence in a bloody battle with the evil Bear King. How all these team up to locate and rescue the stolen children makes for fast-paced excitement (and bloody, so parents, be warned). The film ends before the novel does, apparently the filmmakers intending to begin the sequel with the omitted sequence.
For Reflection and Discussion
1) This is one time, given the controversy attending the film, when church leaders should read the source of the film, the first of the Dark Materials trilogy. Better yet read all three, because it is only in the last two novels that Pullman develops his anti-theology. As you will see, his god is a straw man set up by so many atheists who attack the church and its beliefs as it was several centuries ago, rather than today. (Though maybe the uninformed criticisms and calls for boycotting the film suggest otherwise, not to mention the controversy over evolution—still!!—and stem cell research.)
2) Get a copy of Donna Fritas and Jason King’s book Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials, reviewed elsewhere in the Winter VP. Claiming that Pullman is a theologian in spite of himself, their book will provide plenty of food for thought and discussion. Like ye ed of VP, these two believe that God can be well served by those who claim to be atheists. Then simply enjoy a good fantasy tale well told, with almost every scene, especially those set in Oxford and London, a visual treat.
3) As those who read further into Pullman’s trilogy you see that he argues for human freedom and is opposed to a god of tyranny and a church that oppresses human beings—something I would hope Christians would agree with. At what times in the past has the church misused its power? Middle Ages on?
Ÿ Treatment of the Jews, from pogroms and ghettoes to the “Final Solution.” Ÿ The Crusades: check out the preaching of the First Crusade by Pope Urban and Peter the Hermit. What part (if any) of Christ’s teachings did they appeal to? Or was their appeal more to adventure, plunder, and spoils, and xenophobia?
Ÿ The Church’s treatment of the Moravians; of Zwingli, Hus, and Tyndale? Others?
Ÿ The Genevan authorities and Calvin in the case of Michael Servetus.
Ÿ The Thirty and the Hundred Years Wars.
Ÿ The treatment of one another by Catholics and Protestants in England after King Henry VIII. (What persecutions does the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” refer to, contrary to popular belief?)
Ÿ The attitude and treatment of women perceived as different, and thus as witches?
Ÿ The treatment of Baptists and Quakers by the New England authorities in the 17th century. What was the favorite form of death meted out to the so-called “Ana-Baptists” ?
Ÿ Support of European political and cultural imperialism in the 17th to the 20th centuries.
Ÿ Support of slavery.
Ÿ What was the attitude of most denominations toward the role of women in the church (and politics) until, for some, late in the 20th Century? (In my Presbyterian Ch. women’s ordination to the office of elder in the 1930s and to the ministry in 1950s!) Why was Anne Hutchinson banished by the Puritans? (And of course, there was the case of the more famous Roger Williams.)
Ÿ What was the main issue for most voters during the 1928 candidate when Alf Landon ran for President against Herbert Hoover? And in the 1960 election?
Ÿ How was the gospel (and especially the part of the gospel based on the prophets) also the source for some Christians to fight against the above?
4) God is referred to as “The Authority,” and even this not very often in the first film and novel, so a fuller discussion of Pullman’s view will have to wait until the two sequels come out. But, from what you see of the Magisterium, what do you think is their view of God? Anyway close to the loving Father of our Lord Jesus?
5) As noted in the review, the filmmakers go very easy on Pullman’s “theology,” which in a way is too bad, as the novels offer wonderful opportunities for us to explore with youth clashing ideas. What Christian “myth” (though regarded by some as actual history) is Mrs. Coulter referring to when she tells Lyra about people doing something wrong long ago and having bad consequences ever since? How is the Adam and Eve story “true” in the deepest psychological sense, even if it is not historical? What is the Jewish interpretation of the story—very different than a basis for the belief in the Fall of Humanity, isn’t it?
6) How are the experiments on the children like the ones conducted on human beings by the Nazis? How does Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium justify them? Always that evil deeds can bring a good end, isn’t it? How do you see politicians using this kind of reasoning?
7) What is the purpose of the alethiometer? (See if anyone in the group knows enough Greek to interpret the origin of the word.) What do Protestants use as their alethiometer? How is it important and necessary that the Bible also takes practice to understand? (Lyra’s slow-paced learning period is greatly truncated in the film, as is usually the case.) How do you see the Bible being misunderstood and misused? (See the excellent and concise THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO: Uses and Misuses of Holy Scripture. Jim Hill and Rand Cheadle. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1996. ISBN 0-385-47695-7) Is this why the Catholic Church at one time sought to control its translation and distribution? What does the Catholic Church add to the Bible for its alethiometer? How have Protestants also recognized the importance of tradition and the community for getting to spiritual truth??
8)From the standpoint of a Christian theology that Pullman does not comprehend (or at least accept), where do you see God at work in the film? In the yearning for freedom? In the moments of grace—Lyra’s loyalty to her friend Roger and her pity for the imprisoned Iorak?