If you’re going to see this movie because of all the surrounding controversy, be prepared to be disappointed. While the fervent religious zealots are clamoring that the film is a vehicle of atheistic, anti-Christian dissent, the truth is that it bears little resemblance to the original nature or intention of the the source material and is certainly no threat to the religious order it was originally aimed at attacking.
Based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed His Dark Material trilogy, the story begins with the idea there are a million billion trillion universes and more nestle inside one another, separated by gossamer veils of physical reality. On one of those planes exists an Earth, where people’s souls accompany them everywhere in the form of talking animals called daemons. In this world the reigning moral authority, the Magisterium, seeks the source of a mysterious, invisible substance called Dust, which it believes is the equivalent of what we would call Original Sin. If the Magisterium can eradicate Dust, it believes it can end pesky free will and create a world where people live safely under its thumb forever. However, one girl, Lyra Belaqua of Oxford, possesses the Golden Compass which answers truthfully any question she puts to it. Definite trouble for anyone hoping to control the world.
Working as both an adventure story and an explicit warning regarding the brainwashing effect organised religion has had around the world, Pullman’s books constitute one of the most brazen and bold statements in children’s literature. Written specifically as the anti-Narnia, there are few other examples in which the author openly challenges such concrete authority. They exhort kids to think for themselves and condemn social institutions which have, throughout history, sought perversely to crush the questioning spirit of the generation which will eventually take its place.
Pullman is very open about his animosity towards man’s organised religions. While he makes no actual comments against God, or more importantly, the notion of faith, he states clearly he regards Catholicism to be an ignorant, destructive, ruthless enemy of free thought. God, per se, is not discussed in the novels, but it is strongly suggested that the entity we think we know and call “God” is just an upstart angel, and Satan is actually the bright spark who thought of encouraging humans to seek knowledge. This might be ground for charges of heresy, sure, but only if you believe in such things.
But all of this is subtext, or rather sub-sub-text, buried or lost in the big screen translation. For a story all about the greys of human ethics and morality, a great disservice has been done by rendering everything simplistically black and white. Those who charge the film to be an expression of hatred towards their religion have no cause to worry. Better yet, if they see themselves reflected in the monochromatic characters of the Magisterium, well, then they really should take some time to look at them selves. Instead of a blatant attack on religion, the film offers a run of the mill adventure where the good guys are pure of heart and the bad guys are really, really bad. The nuanced and complex struggle between ambiguous morality and human nature has succumb to half hearted and over simplified depictions of right and wrong where the paths of good and evil are well and clearly marked. If there is indeed a battle for the landscape of the human soul, ironically here, there is no compass necessary.