Movies: The Golden Compass

I wasn’t going to spend money on renting this movie, let alone having bought a ticket to see it in the theater, but when I saw it in the library I decided it would be a good Friday night movie. As with so many movie adaptations of books, it’s hard to decide whether it would be better to have read the book or not before seeing the movie.

On the one hand, the movie moves very quickly (I agree with those viewers who complain it feels rushed), and someone who hasn’t read the book may be wondering who all the characters are and what is going on. But having read the book and enjoyed it, I felt that too much had been left out.

As one viewer comments at imdb.com, what is left out isn’t characters or events (though of course even in that regard not everything is included), but the evolving understanding of the nature of Pullman’s alternate universe.In the book, the reader only gradually learns the importance of the daemons; in the movie a narrator explains them in the very opening scene. In the book, Lyra struggles over time to understand the alethiometer; here she succeeds on the first try.

Very little time is spent on the nature of the Magisterium, and the one reference to “the Authority” is so oblique that I missed it until my older son pointed it out later. It is clear that Truth is important, but the deceptive nature of the Magisterium is downplayed. I understand that the moviemakers were concerned about potential viewers being turned off by an anti-religious message, but concepts such as truth and free will are central to the book and its sequels.

I’ve argued a few times on worldmagblog with those who object to Pullman’s trilogy for its objectionable portrayal of God. My view is that Pullman’s books don’t depict God at all, only a pathetic caricature of God. Anyone who thinks that God is anything like Pullman’s portrayal of “the Authority” needs to know that such a creature (because in Pullman’s universe the Authority is the first created being, not the Creator himself) – and the people who try to enforce obedience to it – are just as despicable as Pullman makes them appear.

But that’s not the God I worship. And there is nothing in the book – and certainly not in the movie – to undermine faith in God as He really is. (And I’ll be the first to recognize that “how He really is” is way beyond our understanding.) I would happily side with Lyra and her friends against the evils of the Magisterium.

In any case, this appears to be a good but hardly great fantasy movie. The daemons (talking animals, in appearance and behavior) look very real much of the time. Nicole Kidman makes Mrs. Coulter appear both very elegant and very sinister. The scenery in the far north is spectacular. It just all went by too quickly and with too little real depth to the characters and themes.

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