December 12, 2007


The Golden Compass




by Sr. Helena Burns, fsp


I haven't read the book(s) yet, but I have read much about the trilogy, the beliefs and intentions of author Philip Pullman, and the fine points of the controversy.


A little backstory is in order here. First, I would like to say that when I heard that Philip Pullman's intention for writing the trilogy: "His Dark Materials" (of which "Golden Compass" is the first) was "to kill God in the hearts of children," I was horrified. There is a difference between an author holding certain beliefs (or lack thereof), and an author clearly stating their intent to spread those beliefs through their art. Of course, the question remains: "What God?"

Second, I read that the movie had been purged of most of its religious content (for fear of controversy). This makes the "Golden Compass" situation more complicated than, say, the "Harry Potter" novel-to-film adaptations which were most faithful (so faithful that critics said they should have been adapted more to the craft of film).

Third, I learned that in the books (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT IF THEY DO THE SEQUELS WHICH ARE AS YET UNWRITTEN!) God--who is really an evil angel because there is no God--does get killed.

Fourth, I read about a book-commentary on "GC" called "Killing the Impostor God," and it got me thinking: "Hey, if some evil angel dude is pretending to be God—yeah, let's kill him!" No, wait. I'm into nonviolent action. Let us expose him.

Fifth, I watched the movie.


The movie opened like much of the now-familiar kids' fantasy genre, which we are getting used to, but are not tired of yet. It didn't feel hackneyed, because each fantasy world has its own logic and rules, and I had to keep up learning about this one. The narrator states that we are watching a parallel world where people have their "souls on the outside of their bodies" in the form of daemons, who are in animal shapes. Aside from the co-opting of language that would normally refer to something sinister, this is a great cinematic expository device to hear what someone is thinking, as people chat quite naturally back and forth with their daemons.

I was keenly on the lookout for any and all religious references, and they were few, except for the repeated use of the word "Magisterium," which refers to a controlling and threatening KGB-like empire. "Magisterium" does not even appear in my 1968 Funk and Wagnalls (I always keep an old dictionary handy to trace the evolution of words). Neither does it appear in my current electronic Merriam-Webster. This does not bode well for my skewing of Mr. Pullman's intentions. The (currently disputed) Wikipedia entry says that "'Magisterium' is a technical ecclesiastical term in the Roman Catholic Church referring to the teaching authority of the church." The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as "the living teaching office of the Church." Or, as a Catholic friend simply put it: "We're the only ones that use it." There are officials in the "Magisterium" called "Fra," a title for a Catholic religious brother. These were the only religious references I could find. How they're going to work God into future movies (if at all) and attempt to kill him, remains to be seen.


Thirteen-year-old Dakota Blue Richards, who plays the lead character, Lyra, is an astounding talent. She portrays Lyra's pluck and fearlessness with such ease, that either Lyra is Dakota, or vice-versa. Her reaction shots—many of them done in front of a green screen—are so dead-on that I think Dakota would do well to give acting lessons to half of the adults in Hollywood. It's also great to see a feminine-child-heroine.


Lyra is a free spirit who, like her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), rebels against the Magisterium. She doesn't like "to be told what to do," and the Magisterium wants to control everyone and everything, because "not everyone knows what is good for them." Lyra comes into possession of the last "alethiometer," or golden compass, in existence (the Magisterium destroyed the rest). It tells the truth, shows things as they are, and shows what others hide. (Definitely on my Christmas wishlist!) She heads off to the North Pole in search of children and classmates who have disappeared (been gobbled).


Witches (check out the "co-opting" of  a witch's name: "Serafina") are also portrayed as good. They seem to be primordial keepers of what it means to be truly human. Some kind of absolute freedom appears to be the ultimate good and goal of the whole tale. A song began sauntering through my brain: Bob Dylan's "You Gotta Serve Somebody." We are contingent beings, are we not?


The movie bogged down at Lyra's meeting with Byrnison, a disenfranchised ice bear (polar bears with armor). "Tell, don't show" seemed to be the order of the day here, as the whisky-gulping Byrnison growls his long, sad story to Lyra. The audience in my cinema actually began talking aloud, and I couldn't imagine children following this dialogue, or caring about it. During all the chattiness, another song began in my brain's iPod shuffle: Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation." From this point on, the movie is pretty much literally dark, with dim, outdoor North Pole lighting, except for some exciting indoor scenes when Lyra finds the missing children, and Mrs. Coulson (a key part of the Magisterium, played by Nicole Kidman) enigmatically saves Lyra from the fate of these children (being surgically separated from their daemons). An ice bear battle ensues, the outcome of which will determine Lyra's very fate, and thus that of the missing children. The movie ends with an assembling and aligning of forces for a future apocalyptic battle: good (everyone but the Magisterium) versus evil (the Magisterium). If the Magisterium learns how to travel to other worlds (a project Lord Asriel is working on), they will control the whole universe. We are left with some intriguing questions: What is this mysterious "dust" that the Magisterium doesn't want anyone to know about? What happens when one is separated from one's "soul"? Can the children get their daemons back? Who is Mrs. Coulson, really?


Since I adopt the "media literacy" (see or "media mindfulness" approach to media, I believe that "The Golden Compass," like any other movie, brings up pertinent topics for discussion. I may not like the way they're brought up, I may even object to what I see as a misrepresentation of what I hold dear, but nevertheless, Hollywood has spent $180 million dollars to help me broach various theological topics. They've done all the work for me! Am I going to let them spend their money in vain?


The theological questions raised in "Golden Compass" are perennial. There is nothing new here. However, they are not raised at a mature level, but only at an uncatechized child's or uncatechized adult's level, which leads to uninformed attempts to lay faulty foundations and the questioning goes on from there.  It's similar to the forays of Oxford's Richard Dawkins, brilliant in his field of evolutionary biology, but a preschooler in his theological stabs.


There seems to be some yearning—on the part of the critics of the Church of today—for the Church of yesterday. Stamping out "heresy," "silencing," urging others to "never question," "telling people what to do in a kindly way to keep them out of danger," being against "free inquiry," are some of what the "Magisterium" is accused of in "Golden Compass," but, oops, I forgot, the "Magisterium" is not the Catholic Church!


I am told that the books use much more Catholic terminology, and that "priests" molest children in the book. This, most tragically, is not a misrepresentation, but if the golden compass can really see things as they are, can it not also see the good that the Church does? That the Church is the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ because He has identified Himself with it? That the wheat grows with the weeds? The movie, "Golden Compass," has not "humanized the antagonist"--a "must" for truly believable villains. I am all for digging up and exposing evil wherever it may be found, and I particularly want the Church to be thus continuously purified, but let's show the light also. Do we want the Church to continue in evil so we have something to take potshots at?


For those who wish to "defend" the Church, humility is also due. We may not have even seen the full extent of the corruption and darkness of the "anti-church" dwelling in the true Church, yet. Are we prepared for that?


Having had a very harmonious secular and religious upbringing, and life, for that matter, I know that faith and reason are not at all opposed. To pit one against the other (from whatever "side") is a false dichotomy and fundamentalism at its worst.


One burning question I would love to ask Pullman and writer-director, Chris Weitz, is this: "Isn't killing 'God' an authoritative, neutralizing, violent act?" How is it different from the present "Magisterium"? The rallying cry for war at the end of "GC" sounded suspiciously like those utopian regimes of the twentieth century that turned victims into victimizers until replaced by another "victim's revolution."


There is ample food for thought here. Yes, let's dialogue with this modern-day  mythology out of the glorious riches of our Judaeo-Christian story! Bring it on! If we're afraid to dialogue because we feel like we "don't know our faith well enough"—how long are we going to stay in this sorry and impoverished state? How do we answer our own existential questions and those of our family and friends? What's there to keep us from being sucked into someone else's fancy narrative if we don't know our own? May I recommend the "Great Adventure Bible Study" DVDs from


Will I go see the sequels? Yes, in order to be part of this important conversation. This is the most blatantly daring and provocative childrens' fare ever.










  1. in my local catholic paper. It advises catholics not to go see it. Just like harry potter. I am an avid Harry Potter fan...but anyway. I have read the golden compass. it wasn't that good of a book from my standpoint.. I enjoy books that keep my mind often wandered while reading the book. I am anxious to see how the movie is.!

  2. Anonymous4:35 PM

    I appreciate your take on this. And I love your question for the author and filmmakers... it seems the ultimate goal of the story is to allow humans to be free to do anything... anything except believe in God, that is.

  3. Anonymous12:09 PM

    Sister, I really enjoy your blog. profile pic!!

    sr betsy