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?

I pity anyone who has to condense Pullman’s ideas into a brief, visual form. His alternative theology rests on a notion called “Dust,” a spark that resides in all humans and collects with wisdom and age—a notion the Magisterium finds threatening. If that doesn’t make sense to you, try putting it more simply, and then try translating it into dialogue. In one critical scene of the movie, Mrs. Coulter explains the Magisterium’s view to Lyra: a long time ago, their ancestors “disobeyed the authority,” she says. Ever since then, something called Dust has settled on innocent children, giving them “nasty thoughts” and “unhappy feelings.” This is Pullman’s view of where the misguided notion of original sin comes from—the church’s fetishizing of childhood innocence and demonizing the sexual awakening and curiosity that begins in puberty. But that’s as deep as the movie gets, and it’s a thin foundation for so much plot and action.

Pullman dislikes Tolkien because he creates a hermetically sealed fantasy world with its own maps and charts and rules. Pullman intends his own fantasy world to echo ours, in character and themes. To project Tolkien’s world onto a screen, you just have to build the set and push the pieces into motion. Pullman’s is much more difficult. It has to feel familiar and unfamiliar. It has to be both family drama and epic fantasy. Seeing this movie made me realize what I like about Pullman’s writing. Not the Big Idea but the little ideas. The role the witches play, and the particulars of their relations to humans. The bears who betray their “bearness” and want to be human. The marginalization of the gyptians. In the movie, there’s no time to rest on these details. The groups are all flattened into a grubby band of misfit heroes led by one special little girl.

The movie is loyal to Pullman’s vision in keeping Lyra at the center. But it also tries too hard to protect her and keep her safe. In an interview this week, New Line president Toby Emmerich described it as “a story about a little girl creating a new family for herself.” In fact at its bravest the story is about the opposite of that—a little girl who keeps slipping out of the familial embrace. The hardest parts of the book are when Lyra loses first a friend and then her best friend—both in a gruesome way, right after she’s rescued them. The movie lets her see her friend suffer but then delivers him into his mother’s arms.

The death of her second friend comes at the end of the book. This is a scene that went through several revisions, because it includes Pullman’s first direct attack on the Bible.The shooting script omitted the Biblical references but still kept the meat of the scene. Lyra is confronting the person she’s recently discovered is her father. She is, as always, stubborn and resentful. When she presses him on the concept of Dust, he explains the purpose of his illegal experiments—not in the condescending way Mrs. Coulter does, but in the real way the audience needs to hear. He means to discover the source of Dust and free mankind from original sin. He doesn’t tell her this part, but the last thing he needs to launch his experiment is the soul of a living child. He can’t use his daughter so, in the middle of the night, he takes her best friend Roger instead.

In the book and the shooting script, Lyra is crushed to discover she has just delivered Roger to his death. She vows to avenge him, which drives the plot in the rest of the books. In the movie, the ending unfolds differently. Lyra is on her way to her father’s house to enact this momentous scene when, without warning… the credits roll. In Pullman’s world this action is known as intercission—a sudden splicing off of the soul. One can only imagine what led to this drastic final action. Test audiences hissed and booed? Emmerich balked at the dead kid? Director Chris Weitz lost his nerve? Who knows? As it stands, the ending is straight out of the Wizard of Oz. Lyra (Dorothy) and her cute, scruffy companion Roger (Toto) ride off on a balloon thanking their merry gang of misfits, one by one, by name (Scarecrow, Lion…). For even a casual Pullman fan, this send-off will feel ominously upbeat.