The Golden Compass

Posted on December 4, 2007 at 11:38 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Children and adults in peril, shooting, arrows, explosions, battle scenes, badly injured child (not graphic), some disturbing themes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 5, 2007

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is disobedient, obstinate, crafty, and skeptical. In other words, she challenges authority, she is is a creative thinker, and she is in the grand tradition of the heroes of classic adventure stories. And this is a grand adventure indeed, sweeping, imaginative, epic, thrilling.
Lyra lives in an alternate world that looks like 19th century Oxford. She is an orphan essentially being raised through the benign neglect of a group of academics, with occasional visits from her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), an explorer-scientist. She runs wild much of the time, playing with the servant’s children rather than sitting in classrooms. In her world, “souls walk beside our bodies” in the form of “daemons,” animal spirits that are invisibly connected to their humans. The daemons of children shift from one species to another as the circumstances inspire — or require. But daemons assume one form at puberty and retain it.
Lord Asriel arrives with news of “dust,” a mystical force he has been studying at the top of the world. There are mysterious rumors of children being snatched up and taken away. An imposing and mysterious woman named Mrs. Coulter invites Lyra to stay with her. And one of the scholars gives Lyra an important gift called an althiometer, a kind of compass with mysterious symbols that when read correctly — or rather, when read by the person who knows how to use it — tells the truth. All of these developments come together as Lyra goes on a journey in search of her captured friend, a journey that requires the assistance of a cowboy (gravel-voiced Sam Elliott), a witch (Eva Green), and an armored bear (voice of Ian McKellan).

Richards has a wonderful presence as Lyra, holding the center of the film as the special effects and action scenes swirl around her. The design of the film is gorgeous, the action is thrilling, and the issues it raises about identity, free will, loyalty, integrity, and the meaning of the soul are compellingly presented. Kidman is cooly evil as Mrs. Coulter. When she smacks her own daemon, an evil-looking golden monkey, it is genuinely shocking.
The movie necessarily eliminates some of the book’s complexity, zipping through a lot of detail in an introductory voice-over and concluding before the book’s ending. But its visual richness is rewarding and Lyra’s spirit is inspiring.
The movie has sparked controversy because some groups allege that it is anti-religion in general or anti-Catholicism in particular. Information to help parents evaluate those claims is below. My own opinion is that the film is not anti-religion or anti-Catholic and can be interpreted as deeply spiritual in a manner that underscores the importance of religious belief.
Parents should know that this film includes children and adults in peril, shooting, arrows, fighting, explosions, battle scenes, a badly injured child (not graphic), and some disturbing themes. A character abuses alcohol. NOTE: Some religious groups have raised concerns that the movie is anti-religion in general and anti-Catholicism in particular. The Catholic League, who are not theologians or clergy, called for a boycott of the film, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a different view. While they noted an “anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, character born out of wedlock, a whiskey-guzzling bear,” it concludes that “taken purely on its own cinematic terms, (it) can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.” (NOTE: This review was later rescinded.)
Some critics have said that the movie has toned down its message but that it will lead young people to the books, which are more explicitly anti-religion. Here at Beliefnet, Idol Chatter blogger Donna Freitas says that the books are a “stunning retelling of salvation.” She is co-author of Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials. Her exclusive interview with Pullman is fascinating, and should be viewed by anyone who has concerns about the movie’s appropriateness. Jeffrey Overstreet, who reviews movies for Christianity Today Movies, wrote, “He’s not really undermining Christian belief as he thinks he is; he is undermining the abuse of authority, something altogether contrary to the gospel…If Pullman’s work shakes up people’s faith, then their faith was poorly developed to begin with.” For more reactions, see this.
Families who see this film should talk about the idea of daemons as “souls outside the body.” Why do children’s daemons shift from one species to another, while adults’ do not? What would your daemon look like? What do you think the Magesterium represents?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the Harry Potter series, Labyrinth, and The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And they will enjoy the books: His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass). They might also like to read some theories about the books, including Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials, by Beliefnet’s Donna Frietas, Shedding Light on His Dark Materials: Exploring Hidden Spiritual Themes in Philip Pullman’s Popular Series, and The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

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18 Replies to “The Golden Compass”

  1. I am absolutely appauled that you would even begin to say that someone who will enjoy this film would also enjoy The Chronicals of Narnia. They aren’t even close to one another. And if a mother wanted to deform her childs mind completely or confuse them beyond repair, then it might be a reason for them to allow their children to watch both. I am a christian mother and will do everything I can to boycott this movie and the books. I will tell everyone I know what I have learned about this as well as sending them to this sight to view these “theories”. I believe that people’s beliefs and faith should be a personal choice. However, when those beliefs are directed at and deforming children’s minds, especially when using a christian-based movie like The Chronicals of Narnia to market it, is absolutely sick. This man, Phillip Pullman, is sick. I mean no disrespect, but I feel it my responsiblity as a Christian and as a mother to state what is most obviously true. Whether you choose to be a believer of God or not, why on earth, as a mother, would you want to put the disgusting things that this movie and these books are teaching into your children’s minds. I am praying for this man, as well as the other actors, especially the children and their parents who participated in any way with this film. My information was retrieved from many many sources, but the one that included the most information and was the most complete was…please see this sight before you take your children to this movie!!! And movie mom, you should really reconsider your stand…are you a mother?!?!?!

  2. Thanks for filling us in on the background of the dispute. It’s bad enought that militant islam is issuing fatwahs against “blasphemous” authors and cartoonists and filmmakers without having militant Catholics do the same.

  3. Thank you for YOUR opinion about “The Golden Compass”. You site the exact reason I describe myself these days as “Spiritual”, rather than “Christian”. Organized religion in the USA has gotten so out of hand, out of control, and out of any human THOUGHT; that I can demean myself to be labeled as anything but Spiritual. Being spiritual IS a higher consciousness of living the life God wants us ALL to live! The Catholic League has struck out, AGAIN. Amen.

  4. Excuse me. Did iodak just equate Bill Donahues’s suggestion to avoid a movie with radical Islamic fatwahs that call for the violent death of people? Christians engage in ideas;radical Muslims kill people who disagree with them. By equating the two, you are engaging in hideous moral equivalence, which, as the pagan Plato said, is a sin.

  5. Thanks to all of you for your comments. Becky, I believe you are referring to the comments on my earlier post about the movie, which you can see here. I have not deleted any of them.

  6. MediaBob, I think the issue is a little more complicated than whether Christians literally call for the violent death of people (although clearly some do, as in the case of shooting or bombing doctors who perform abortions). Islamic fundamentalists urged that European cartoonists who blasphemed Mohammed should be fired, just as the Christian group Human Life International urged that film critics who gave positive reviews to the Golden Compass should be fired. I would not say they are “moral equivalence,” but they are at least on the same spectrum of behavior. The Golden Compass does not target impressionable young children, it is rated PG-13. In the current climate, I think religious groups should be consciously avoiding the example of intolerance and censorship set by militant Islam.

  7. just like I said on my site on utopiangostic. why can’t we all agree to disagree? with all of this controvercy over a movie, when it is very clear that it is very spiritual. Even if it maybe against the dogma church. I for one am very proud of their efforts. I will be one of those who will have the trilogy in both book form & in movie form. ( that is if they will make the other 2 after this frist one) This country has religious freedom. what happened with that?
    what is wrong with sticking up for what is right? even if it is against an authority figure? I really believe that everyone should look at things, research for themselves, & not just take someone elses word for it.

  8. Please do not try to mis-lead anyone Movie Mom…
    If you are going to quote a source…make sure you get it right. Here is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops FULL REVIEW…Not just the rosy sentence you put in your piece:
    If that link doesn’t come through – check out and follow the links to the FULL review.
    Bottom line is that -yea, THIS movie is watered down and basically could be called ‘entertaining’…BUT parents should be aware and concerned about future movies-and Bill Pullman’s agenda. Future movies have been promised not to be watered down and clearly closer Pullman’s books (which DO CONVEY the message he wants to send WHICH IS ANTI-CHRISTIAN-ANTI-CATHOLIC-ANTI-GOD!)..
    So don’t poo-poo the Catholic Leagues’ concerns!…And don’t water-down the USCCB’s full review. You’d be freaking out if there was an anti-environment message at the source of Pullman’s books instead of anti-Christian…Take those rose-colored, hangover from the 60’s glasses off. Thank you.

  9. Wilson — Thanks for the link to the full review. Anyone who reads it will see that the Catholic Bishops, who, unlike the Catholic League, are a part of the church, do not consider the film heretical or blasphemous. They are not calling for a boycott. On the contrary, they say, “Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.”
    If, in fact, the studio makes the other two movies, and if, in fact, those movies are anti-religion, I will be happy to make that clear in my reviews. But I will not make this review of this movie based on speculation about what might be in future movies. I support the right and responsibility of each family to decide what is best for them, but those decisions must be based on the facts and not on shrill and unsupported allegations.
    History has shown us that it does not benefit the church to try to “protect” worshippers from challenging ideas by characterizing them as heresy. It diminishes the credibility of any organization to make it appear that it cannot make its case in response to questions about its authority and authenticity. And it insults the intellectual strength and the power of faith of believers to suggest that they could be shaken by a story such as this one. The church would be far better off taking this as a teaching opportunity than calling for a boycott. Even if the film challenged religious beliefs, it is better to encourage older children and teenagers to engage on those issues than to make it fascinating by forbidding it and this film raises questions that can lead to a very productive conversation with family and clergy. This, indeed, is one of the core points of the film — that we are given free will and the ability to think for ourselves so that we can distinguish between integrity and corruption.

  10. Read the following:
    If you think it’s a good idea to sacrifice (in other words, to kill) a boy in an effort to gain spiritual understanding, then you will love the Golden Compass, a book that has recently been made into a movie. (This is the first book in a series of three by Philip Pullman called “His Dark Materials.”)
    I like fantasy and science fiction, and I’ve read a lot of it. A few years ago I read the Golden Compass. At first I was impressed by the vivid writing and creative story line. As I read, though, I began to sense that something was wrong with the book.
    However, I was completely unprepared for the ending in which one of the major characters imprisoned and then killed a boy to gain understanding of spiritual power. As the books progressed, it became clear that this sacrifice was a necessary step to gain the understanding (and power) needed for final victory over the forces of God–and to kill God himself.
    It was the most horrifying example of child abuse I have ever read in literature. What at first seemed to be a creative and compelling story line descended into well-written evil in which child-murder is portrayed as a way to gain spiritual power and God is portrayed as a horrible being.
    Here is the short version of my key concerns. To read more about these points, please click here: .
    (1) I am very concerned about a child-murderer being portrayed as a heroic person at the end of the books.
    (2) The books portray God and his forces in an extremely negative light.
    (3) The author, Philip Pullman, is not “just a story teller.” He has openly attacked Christianity.
    (4) The books start out well, but then as the reader is hooked they get progressively worse.
    (5) The movie version of the The Golden Compass also is a stealth movie, leaving out most of the evil I have mentioned. For example, the child sacrifice which ends the first book is omitted.
    (6) Consider carefully the message you would give to the producers by paying money to watch this movie, knowing that they plan to produce followup movies that are more “true” to the books if this movie is successful.
    (7) Consider carefully whether or not you want to give your children the message that you endorse Philip Pullman’s books and movies.
    (8) Lovingly and wisely discuss these books (and the movie) with your children.
    (9) Having said all the above, we should not be fearful or hysterical about this movie–or about Philip Pullman.
    (10) Likewise, we should realize that the movie and books can give us good opportunities to talk with other people about who God really is.
    (11) We should pray for Philip Pullman.
    (12) We should not get angry with others, including other Christians, who endorse the books or watch the movie.
    (13) Although we need to stay balanced and loving in our response to this movie, I think:
    — It’s good for people to know what we are dealing with.
    — Although we should engage with our culture, I think we can do so without financially supporting this movie.
    In addition to the above link to my more-detailed online study, here’s a link to another review:
    Doug Britton

  11. Thanks for your great reply to wilson. There will be no controversies at all if everyone would seek out the necessary information and make the personal informed decision. After all, it is a matter of individual choice, and we should just respect the fact that not everyone thinks alike.

  12. The USCCB.ORG website has removed the Golden Compass movie review from its list. It does not say why but I would say it is because bishops have asked for its removal. I heard that the lay person who wrote the movie review does not get bishop approval before putting his reviews on the web site. Also, some ads for the movie has been caught putting two quotes together from the review to try to trick people into believing the movie is totally in accord with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

  13. Eric — Thanks for keeping us up to date. Here is what the Catholic News Service has to say about the withdrawal.
    There are news reports that the US Bishops have been asked to fire the critic who wrote the positive review.
    USCCB withdraws review of “The Golden Compass”
    Today the U.S. bishops withdrew the review of the film “The Golden Compass,” which opened in theaters in the United States Dec. 7. The review was written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the director and staff reviewer respectively of the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The review was released and posted on the CNS Web site Nov. 29. The USCCB gave no reason for withdrawing the review.
    Since CNS is a distributor of media reviews of the OFB, it must respect the office’s withdrawal of its review. Effective Dec. 10, the review of “The Golden Compass” will not be available on the CNS Web site. It will not be included in subsequent listings of USCCB film reviews and classifications.
    CNS stories about the film remain available to clients. These include:
    – Author of book behind ‘Golden Compass’ criticized as anti-Christian
    – Critics debate merits of ‘The Golden Compass’ movie
    – Nun-critic offers media literacy guide for ‘The Golden Compass’
    – “The Golden Compass” as seen in the Catholic press
    Also, since our last post on the CNS News Hub, there’s also this item of interest: ‘Compass’: Challenging believers to articulate faith, values, by Sister Rose Pacatte.
    UPDATE on Dec. 11: Comments on the review of “The Golden Compass” or its withdrawal by the USCCB can be sent to
    For the record, here is the full text of the review:
    Golden Compass
    By Harry Forbes and John Mulderig
    Catholic News Service
    NEW YORK (CNS)—Hollywood history is rife with examples of literary works that by dint of problematic sexual, violent or religious content have been softened to varying degrees to mollify public sensibilities.
    So it appears to be with “The Golden Compass” (New Line) which, we’ll say right at the start, is a lavish, well-acted and fast-paced adaptation of “Northern Lights,” the original title of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s much-awarded trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” published in 1995.
    The film has already caused some concern in Catholic circles because of the author’s professed atheism, and the more overt issue of the novels’ negative portrayal of his (very much fictionalized) church, a stand-in for all organized religion.
    The good news is that the first book’s explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium retained. The choice is still a bit unfortunate, however, as the word refers so specifically to the church’s teaching authority. Yet the film’s only clue that the Magisterium is a religious body comes in the form of the icons which decorate one of their local headquarters.
    Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman’s personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure. This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” or “The Da Vinci Code.” Religious elements, as such, are practically nil.
    The narrative itself charts the adventures of spunky 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who leaves Oxford’s Jordan College, where she resides as a ward to become apprentice to a glamorous scholar known as Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).
    She’s allowed to leave, equipped with the titular compass—a truth meter which Lyra is among the privileged few to know how to interpret. Once in Mrs. Coulter’s care, Lyra begins to surmise that the woman’s motives are far from pure, and she escapes.
    Inspired by her Arctic-exploring-uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig)—who, to the consternation of the Magisterium, is about to make some discoveries about the mysterious substance called Dust—Lyra journeys northward. She hopes to rescue her young friend Roger (Ben Walker), who has been kidnapped by the Magisterium.
    Lyra picks up several useful allies along the way, including John Faa (Jim Carter), a piratelike seafarer of the wandering tribe called Gyptians, Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and a great polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen).
    Even if Pullman’s fanciful universe has a patchwork feel, with elements culled from other fantasy-adventure stories—most especially “The Chronicles of Narnia” (a work Pullman disdains)—there’s hardly a dull moment, and the effects are beautifully realized, including the anthropomorphized creatures like the polar bears whose climactic fight is superbly done.
    Richards makes an appealingly no-nonsense heroine, and Kidman makes a glamorous and chilling villain. Christopher Lee, Tom Courtenay and Derek Jacobi round out a distinguished cast, with excellent voice work from McKellen and others (e.g. Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ian McShane and Freddie Highmore).
    Whatever author Pullman’s putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz’s film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.
    To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.
    There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church’s restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.
    The script also makes use of some of the occult concepts found in the books, such as the diabolically named “daemons”—animal companions to each person, identified as their human counterpart’s visible soul.
    Is Pullman trying to undermine anyone’s belief in God? Leaving the books aside, and focusing on what has ended up on-screen, the script can reasonably be interpreted in the broadest sense as an appeal against the abuse of political power.
    Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.
    The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film—altered, as it is, from its source material—rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.
    The film contains intense but bloodless fantasy violence, anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, a character born out of wedlock and a whiskey-guzzling bear. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
    – – –
    Forbes is director and Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  14. I thank you for posting but as you can see from my review and from many discussions throughout Beliefnet, many people find the books and movie deeply religious (though very critical of those who distort religious practice for their own power).

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