Making the Grades
The Golden Compass finds its way to the silver screen amidst a swirl of religious controversy. This is mostly because the movie is based upon the first book in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, which are authored by devout atheist Philip Pullman. Although it is rumored the screenplay contains less of the author's philosophical perspective than is found between the pages of his lengthy children's novels (I can't confirm this as I have not read the stories), our review will focus strictly on what is presented in this film.
Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a 12-year-old girl living in a "parallel universe" to our own. In her world souls do not live within one's own body, but instead inhabit animals that follow at your side (like an overly devoted dog). These critters are referred to as "daemons" (pronounced "demons") and appear to reflect/personify their owner's emotions. The daemons of children tend to vary frequently, the different animals representing their ever-changing nature. When a person dies (which happens frequently near the end of this film) the daemon goes "poof" into a vapor of CGI dust.
The reigning authority in Lyra's society is the Magisterium (a likely-not-coincidental real-life term for the teaching authority within the Catholic Church). Directed by a group of aging men (who bear a striking similarity to Catholic clergy), the organization holds a power extending beyond typical political boundaries and into the desire to control the possibility of youngsters being corrupted by outside ideas. These undesirable influences are represented by a "dust" from other planets, which is falling on their world and threatening to open a child's mind to divergent schools of thought.
In an effort to "protect" their tiniest citizens, the Magisterium begins secretly kidnapping all of the children and sending them to a remote northern location where the connection between them and their daemons will be severed. When Lyra's friend Roger (Ben Walker) disappears and she gets wind of the goings on, the precocious girl determines to fight the ruling order. Meeting up with Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman in a dress she could only have been poured into), the little lass finds fierce support for her cause. She is also handed an Alethiometer, a strange compass-like device capable of telling her what is true. However, it is up to her to know how to read it.
The balance of the movie develops into a "road trip," with Lyra meeting strange and interesting people along the way. These include a western-type cowboy named Sam (Lee Scoresby), a "Gyptian" Lord (Jim Carter) and an armored polar bear (voice of Nonso Anozie). By the closing act the lines are clearly drawn between Lyra's freedom-fighting camp and the all-powerful, oppressive Magisterium.
Tyrannical religious depictions aside, parents will undoubtedly be concerned over the portrayals of cruelty and violence. Lyra is in peril for most of this film, and is fearful of adults. Other scenes show children locked in steel cages while bolts of electricity attempt to separate them from their daemon. And when the battle begins to brew, people are killed with spears and guns as the situation in this already dark film begins to intensify.
By the time the credits roll, this $100 million plus production is a bit of a letdown. Artistically the visual effects are certainly spectacular, but the plot suffers from a protagonist who isn't particularly engaging and an enemy that lacks definition. While fans and the most dedicated young bookworms may make the effort to explore the story's deepest meanings, this film adaptation proves far more nebulous than nefarious.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Golden Compass.
In the movie, Lyra and her friends are fighting for the right to make their own decisions, rather than being forced to follow the values and beliefs of the Magisterium. How important is freedom of choice to you?
What roles can governments play in maintaining or usurping this freedom? Could peaceful societies exist without laws?
Do you think religion “forces” individuals to conform? What is the difference between guidance and enforcement? What are the benefits of make good decisions for ourselves?
How might the controversy generated by this film have been affected if the Magisterium had been given a different name and costumed in military uniforms instead of clergy clothes?