Well, now we know what Philip Pullman meant by his cryptic comment, made just before the London premiere of The Golden Compass, to the effect that we shouldn’t take its underlying message too seriously. Most people understood it as an author defending his work as story not polemic, though some, more cynically, thought it was another way of saying, “The movie may offend your most cherished beliefs, true, but do come and add to the box-office gross regardless.” As it turns out though, the remark seems to have been an acknowledgement that the filmmakers bleached the novel’s “underlying philosophy” right out of the movie: better not take it seriously, because it’s not there to be taken at all.
The essential church nature of the enemy, the Magisterium (the Catholic Church’s name for its dogma-laying teaching authority), is nowhere set out for non-theologians. It is not only not called a church, it does nothing religious, like holding services. Its assassin, Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney), bears an Italian title, rather than a more recognizable “Brother,” although that may be more a nod towards ancient English suspicion of those cunning Italians from the Holy See. Pavel, by the way, has an insect daemon, while the higher-up who dispatched him on his murderous mission has a snake. In our world we say “character is destiny;” in Lyra Belacqua’s universe it’s clearly “daemon is character.”
Not to mention future occupation: the sinister northern child “care” facility at the heart of the story is guarded by a regiment of Russian soldiers, who looked like they just marched out of a Nutcracker production; each is accompanied by his wolfhound daemon. A daemon’s final form is fixed at puberty, so these bearded Tartars have been accompanied by their ferocious hounds since they were 12 or 13, long before they joined the regiment. Did they have any choice? Would anyone have hired them as oh, kindergarten teachers? Fra Pavel, having been stuck with a bug at a young age, may not have eligible for any job other than poisoner. Nor, surely, could he rise as high in the magisterium hierarchy as a guy with the snake—unless, of course, Pavel poisoned him. Given that Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy is, in many ways, about the struggle of free will and free inquiry against received dogma, entire doctoral theses could be written about the place of predestination in the author’s imagination.
But, to return to my underlying theme, it’s harder to decide what to make of the absence of Pullman’s. The film is beautiful to look at, (reasonably) faithful to the narrative and technically superb: no child’s visual imagination will be insulted. (The reaction of one 13-year-old of my acquaintance says it all: “Awesome, totally awesome; can we go again next week?”) Most of the overt anti-religious parts—like the death of God—are in volume three. And, to be fair, film critics, not an overly devout crew, were loudly pleased two years ago when the movie version of the first Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, dialled its underlying (Christian) theme way, way down. Movies, at least of the expensive production kind, need to attract broad audiences.
Yet Pullman was always open about having written the anti—Narnia, how Lewis’s original was “nauseating drivel,” and how Christianity was an enormous and oppressive mistake. His own powerfully expressed anti-authoritarian moral vision was one of the driving engines of his story. Its absence makes The Golden Compass film feel as empty as a spun-sugar castle, however wonderful it looks.