Dispatch November 2007

Compass Without Direction

The movie version of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass creates a luminous fantasy world, but loses the book's magnetic force of meaning

For the prickly atheists, the Pullman authenticity police and for myself, I will get this out of the way first: God and the Bible are nowhere in the movie version of The Golden Compass, which opens Friday. Unlike in the Philip Pullman novel of the same name, there is no perversion of Genesis or retelling of Adam and Eve. Nothing in the movie should make the Pope blanch or America’s self-appointed censors ring the theater in protest. One Christian reviewing site did warn this week that “the real goal is to lead young, impressionable minds into the deception of atheism.” But this is a preemptive objection based on the trilogy of books, which reach many layers deeper than the movie in their subversion, sense of danger and intellectual scope.

In the books, the villainous ruling power sometimes goes by the name “Holy Church.” In the movie it’s always “Magisterium”—which could cover any form of tyrannical power from Oz to the Third Reich. When shot from the waist up, some of its functionaries look like they’re wearing cassocks. But in full view, they are just generic evil guy Waffen SS-ish uniforms—black and severe with shiny buttons. Throughout the movie, the characters speak darkly of “heresy” but it’s never entirely clear what might provoke this charge. The heroes—the pre-teen Lyra and her band of rebel scientists, explorers, witches, and “gyptians” (Pullman's version of gypsies), meanwhile, fight to rescue dozens of children kidnapped by forces allied with the Magisterium. This mission has something to do with “free will.”

From the archives:

"How Hollywood Saved God" (December 2007)
It took five years, two screenwriters, and $180 million to turn a best-selling antireligious children's book into a star-studded epic—just in time for Christmas By Hanna Rosin

Of course, movies are not books. In a movie, you can just throw out words such as “heresy” and “free will” and hope people get the point: that this is something to do with a theocracy and its overzealous pursuit of sin. You might even say that a studio would be nuts to hang a big cross around the child-stealing villain’s neck, particularly when the movie costs $180 million to make and it comes out three weeks before Christmas. Besides, I have many reasonably intelligent friends who have read the Pullman books and tuned out his anti-God streak, or found that layer of meaning Ayn Randish and annoying. Instead, what they like is his rich imagination, coupled with the kind of psychological depth you don’t normally find in a fantasy epic.   

On both these fronts, the movie succeeds. It does a fabulous job of evoking a world something like ours but not quite. In the movie’s parallel version of Oxford, England, where the story begins, the sky is more luminous and the buildings more like castles. The fire glows green and taxis come in the form of shiny, red airships. When the action moves to the frozen north, the light gets unnaturally harsh and bright. Pullman’s most winning creations are daemons, souls that live outside the body in animal form. Bringing daemons to life is alone worth the price of production. Daemons are ideal for this Hollywood age. Sophisticated animation allows them to be seamlessly spliced into the action. In children, daemons can change form in order to help or protect, and in the movie they do, morphing from rat to ermine to leopard, to hiss at danger. Daemons also talk, so they provide a natural way for a character to speak their thoughts or fears out loud. In fact, from now on all movies should have daemons, if only to avoid awkward exposition.

The studio also chose its leading actresses well. As Pullman told me in an interview this summer, Nicole Kidman is perfect as Mrs. Coulter, the terrifying maternal figure—a type the actress has mastered. (So perfect is she that Pullman told me he was wrong to write in the books that Mrs. Coulter’s hair is black; it obviously should have been blond!) And the unknown Dakota Blue Richards is excellent as Lyra, the orphan at the heart of the story. Lyra is a willful, unruly spirit. She is highborn but prefers to play in the alleys with gypsies and kitchen boys. She goes through wrenching emotional scenes when she learns the identity of her parents. And she spends much of her time interacting with a giant bear king who was presumably a blank space in filming. Richards seems at home in all these modes, and she never edges into Disney-heroine plucky or cute.

For many audience members this may be enough. And I hope it is. Like Pullman, I, too, want to see the other two books get made into films. But for me, the feeling after watching the movie was one I have while looking at pictures of a beloved relative: I’m pleased to see the face, but it only makes me realize how much I miss the real thing. The film is beautiful, but it races from scene to scene, with no breaks or explanations. One second we are watching bears fight and the next we’re crossing the frozen north, or on a gyptian boat, or in a hot air balloon, or deep in a different battle. As a yoga teacher would say, the film forgets to breathe, or give time for the meaning to sink in. It leaves you wondering: What’s the hurry? And what are they running from?

Presented by

Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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