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Making sense of ‘The Golden Compass’

Analise Lipari | Monday, December 10, 2007

In the new film “The Golden Compass,” the power of the evil Magisterium is rising. Only the holder of the golden compass can save humanity from its crushing grasp.

Based on British author Philip Pullman’s eponymous novel, the first in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, “The Golden Compass” is the No. 1 film at the box office. With the rise of fantasy filmmaking in recent years, it seems likely that that trend will continue with director Chris Weitz’ new fantasy epic.

Lyra Belacqua (13-year old newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) is the young heroine at the center of Pullman’s novel, a quiet girl who holds the mythic golden compass. Lyra uncovers the mystery of the Dust, the source of man’s original sin, while encountering Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and the underlings of the oppressive Magisterium.

In a world inhabited by shape-shifting soul creatures called daemons, armored beasts and even James Bond – both Daniel Craig and his leading lady, Eva Green, appear in the film – Lyra must resist the Magesterium and fight for the freedom of the world.

Written as something of a response to C.S. Lewis’ Christian book series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Pullman’s trilogy has garnered much praise from critics who cite the books’ philosophical underpinnings as more sophisticated fare than the usual young adult novel. Secular groups and die-hard fans of the fantasy novels have criticized New Line Cinema and Weitz’ decision to water down these themes in the movie for a more mainstream audience.

The strongest opposition to the film isn’t coming from Comic-Con-goers, however, but from their parents.

Groups like the Catholic League (which is not officially tied to the Catholic Church) and others are speaking out against “The Golden Compass” for what they see as the film’s assault on Christian beliefs. The original novel voices opposition to the type of power abuse that the Church has employed in its history, with an explicitly clear anti-establishment message in its epic final battle. It seems logical to think that similar ideas will surface in a film version whose advertising campaign is clearly targeted at fans of the “Lord of the Rings” films and the “Harry Potter” series.

The question at the debate’s center is whether or not the “kids are all right.”

“My parents read me the books when I was nine,” Richards said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and I fell in love with them. I really didn’t notice the religious themes back then.”

It was only during filming, Richards said later, that Pullman’s anti-establishment themes made her think of organized religion at all.

If the books do aim to dismantle Christianity, the Church and the Almighty Himself, like Catholic League president Bill Donahue and others allege, then the kids will definitely not be all right. These groups target Weitz’ film for glorifying what they see as Pullman’s atheist agenda, as well as New Line for marketing the film as it would with “Harry Potter” or other children’s fare.

The problem with this movement, though, isn’t the film: It’s the ignorance of the protest.

Yes, Pullman is an atheist. Yes, his books discuss complex philosophies, and yes, they also criticize organized religion and the historic abuses of the Church. But even the Catholic News Service, which gave the film a positive review, acknowledges that Christians don’t need to fear the questions that Pullman’s novels and Weitz’ subsequent film have raised.

If anything, a film like “The Golden Compass” is something to embrace. It’s a chance for constructive dialogue and debate about the beliefs we might take for granted. The world questions and challenges the beliefs we hold, whatever they are, every day. If history is any indication, backing away from those challenges is a misguided effort that can only keep your mind closed – an aim that, to Pullman, opposes the heart of “His Dark Materials.”

”I don’t think they promote anything,” Pullman told Entertainment Weekly, “except the good qualities of kindness, courage, curiosity, open-mindedness.”

In the end, “The Golden Compass” is really asking moviegoers to find the answers themselves.