By Don Simpson | March 2, 2009
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer(s): Chris Weitz (screenplay) Philip Pullman (novel)
Staring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards
Allow me set the record straight. Author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is not anti-religious (as the Catholic League, for one, would have you believe); however Pullman’s trilogy is very strongly against the concept of organized religion and dogmatism, specifically when religion influences politics. Broken down to its most essential elements, Pullman’s theological perspective is that it would be best for humankind to press the proverbial reset button and return to the pure fundamentals behind most religious doctrines: peace, love and, most importantly, truth. This concept can only exist in a fictional world and such is the outlet Pullman opts to test his theory, just as B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two tested the theory of a Utopian society. It is also worth noting that Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is unmistakably influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost (from which Pullman’s trilogy title itself is a direct quote) while also continuously playing homage to William Blake.
Additionally, Pullman stresses that people should not be forced to practice religion in any particular manner. The practice of religion should not adhere to one specific doctrine, nor should it abide by (or be abided by) politics. Most importantly, no human has the right to judge how someone else thinks about or practices religion.
Most fundamental to Pullman is the notion of truth. You need to be truthful to yourself and others; truth will then bring about peace and love. Truth can only be acquired from knowledge. Everything, and I mean everything, boils down to the vitality of education and the never-ending thirst for knowledge. (Gnosticism runs rampant throughout the trilogy.)
Now let’s get on to the film…
Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a simple, yet troublesome, girl. Presumably an orphan, with no knowledge of who her parents are, she was left in the care of the Master of Jordan College in Oxford when she was very young upon the bequest of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Lyra, like all of the humans of her world, possesses a daemon (named Pantalaimon, voiced by Freddie Highmore), animals that represent the physical manifestation of each person’s soul.
In Lyra’s world, the church has assumed totalitarian control. The leaders of the church are known as the Magisterium, headed by the First High Chancellor (Christopher Lee). There are several other relatively self-sufficient entities that report to the Magisterium, including the General Oblation Board and Consistorial Court of Discipline. Then there is the Authority over-seeing it all, essentially what we know as “God.”
The Magisterium monitors thought, knowledge and public discourse, especially in terms of research or discussion concerning other universes and Dust. There are some free-thinkers that hide within the ivory towers of universities pursuing their investigations of these heretic topics despite the looming threat of the Magisterium. At the forefront of the free-thinkers, researchers and heretics of Lyra’s world is one that does not hide, the philosopher king/mad scientist, Lord Asriel.
The Magisterium itself sponsors research of these very same topics of heresy – such is the role of the General Oblation Board. According to the Magisterium, Dust is the physical manifestation of original sin. The General Oblation Board’s goal is to rid the world of original sin. The General Oblation Board’s research ties Dust to the time when a child’s daemon settles on one shape. This occurs at a time we know as puberty. If the General Oblation Board can stop children from reaching puberty, the world will be ridden of original sin. Their general hypothesis is that by severing the invisible bond between child and daemon, the child will never reach puberty and Dust will have nothing to hold onto (in the book, Pullman makes a correlation to the Catholic Church’s castration tactics in propagating their Castrati choirs).
The General Oblation Board (known to children as “Gobblers”) kidnaps pre-pubescent children to test various ways of severing their daemons (the latest development being “intercision”). Problem is, once you sever a person’s daemon the remaining person is left a soulless zombie (the Magisterium wouldn’t mind a soulless and subservient congregation to obey their every whim).
Lyra becomes wrapped up in this whole charade realizing that it is her destiny to: save the kidnapped children (including her best friend Roger, played by Ben Walker), put an end to the General Oblation Board’s research and God knows what else. This takes Lyra on a long, arduous and convoluted journey (much of which is edited out in the film version, including the pivotal and climactic final three chapters of the book). Lyra’s primary tool throughout her mission is a magical golden compass called an Alethiometer (truth measure). In the book, there are six; in the film, there is only one – which is sure to give Lyra a leg up in the film franchise of this story.
The Golden Compass is the first book of His Dark Materials. The trilogy was intended to be for young adults, but Pullman practices what he preaches; its complexities in terms of structure, language and philosophy seem well out of the grasp of most young adults I have known.
Besides its brilliant deconstruction of religion, unlimited aspirations for knowledge and quest for peace, His Dark Materials provides its readers with several monumentally powerful female roles (something that is rarely present in the fantasy world or literature) that literally save the multiverse from extinction. In one foul sweep, Pullman relieves Eve (and womankind) of the blame for original sin; skillfully pinning it on its rightful heirs – the leaders of the male-oriented church.
Unfortunately, writer-director Chris Weitz’s film adaptation fails to bring many of the complexities to the screen. Commencing with a burdensome and unnecessary narration by Lord Asriel’s daemon, Stelmaria (voiced by Kristen Scott Thomas), it is obvious from the get-go that Weitz intended to dumb the story down for greater audience appeal.
That said, the casting is practically impeccable; most notably Nicole Kidman as the multifaceted villain, Marisa Coulter and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby the Texan aeronaut who provides much needed comic relief in both the book and film. Richards (in her cinematic debut) fits Lyra just as snuggly as Daniel Radcliffe fits Harry Potter. The ever-powerful Ian McKellen provides the voice for the armored bear, Iorek Byrnison, Lyra’s close ally; as the evil armored bear king named Ragnar Sturlusson in the film (Iofur Raknison in the book) is voiced by Ian McShane.
The images and effects are equally un-compromised, almost on par with the Lord of the Rings series. Visually, everything from the characters to the sets is precisely representative of the descriptions from the book.
All the film version of The Golden Compass needs is for some integral scenes and much-needed character development from the book to be added back into the plot. There is no reason that this film had to clock-in shy of 120 minutes. Greater clarity and more significant resonance could have easily been achieved well within the 150 minute mark. As it stands, The Golden Compass audience will leave theaters in droves in search of the nearest bookstore; hopefully warranting Pullman’s books the sales status and attention they rightly deserve. If that is the end result, the film succeeds.
The green-light for the infinitely more complex and dense second and third parts of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass respectively, is reliant upon box office success by The Golden Compass. Adding to the ubiquitous challenges of time and space, the final three chapters of The Golden Compass will be pinned on to the beginning of The Subtle Knife.