“The Golden Compass” has generated a lot of “buzz” because of its supposedly anti-Christian content (propelled by reports that the author of the book on which the movie is based advertises himself as an atheist). But “The Golden Compass” is merely a fairy tale. Like all fairy tales, in places it is extremely creative, in other places practically plagiaristic, and its apparent purpose is simply to entertain.
We begin with a bit of overdubbing by way of introduction. There are several parallel universes, connected by some sort of cosmic dust. In each parallel universe, humans have different relationships to their souls, or spirits. In some, the soul lives inside the body. In others, such as this one, the soul lives outside the body, in the persona of a constant-companion animal, like a bird, or a cat, or a marmoset, or a ferret. The human and its “soul” (called a “daemon”?) may communicate freely, but one human does not lay hands upon the “pet soul” of another. The “pet soul” and its partner human are cosmically interconnected, so that if one perishes, so does the other. Then, we’re introduced to a skinny, winsome, pre-pubescent girl named Lyra (12-year-old Dakota Blue Richards), who seems to be in some sort of orphanage in a countryside that looks and feels English. Her “uncle” Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) comes to visit, but he’s preoccupied with some sort of cosmic quest, and is soon off to the polar ice cap or someplace, but Lyra is given a round alethiometer (“golden compass”) that actually doesn’t indicate direction, but instead, the truth of the person in her presence. Now that would be a handy device, wouldn’t it?
Lyra, despite her uncertain origins, seems to be the child foretold by ancient prophecies (any of that sound familiar?). She also seems to have talents that no one else has, in this case, interpreting the golden compass. Her “pet soul” can morph into another animal, and even change its size, but just when everything seems fine between her and her “shadow,” Peter Pan arrives to take her to Never-Never Land. Well, actually, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) comes to promise her adventure, but it turns out she’s more like Captain Hook.
Now it’s more like Dorothy in the Land of Oz. Lyra encounters a good witch and a wicked witch on her bizarre fantasy journey, as well as some munchkins who try to help her. Actually, they’re more like Ewoks fighting the Evil Empire. She comes across an underachieving polar bear who finds his courage and helps rescue Dorothy, er, Lyra, from the clutches of the Evil Witch.
Lyra, like Hermione in the Harry Potter series, is cute, precocious, resourceful, and oh, so responsible, but seems devoid of humor or irony. And like Abraham rescuing Lot after he was abducted (Genesis 14), she displays superior generalship, as well as fierce loyalty, and personal ferocity in battle. But we all know that the Devil, once his temptation to self-indulgence has failed, merely waits until a more opportune time (Luke 4:13). So, we get the distinct feeling that there will be a sequel, and we’ll watch Lyra mature with her “magic” skills. She’s already been Beauty transforming the Beast. Will she now become Cinderella at the ball? Stay tuned, folks, the handsome prince has yet to make his appearance.
“The Golden Compass” is that rarest of finds, a new fairy tale, though it resonates with the plots and characters of many other cultural stories, narratives, legends, and fables. Like the Harry Potter series, it has its own vocabulary, creates its own mystical world, and features a magically-gifted child. But it’s not as user-friendly to outsiders, and is not even a very compelling story. And without all the hype created by negative publicity, this movie probably would have gone away quietly.
Questions for Discussion:
1) What is your favorite fairy tale? Why?
2) Do you know people who have a skill that others don’t seem to have? What did they do with that skill?
3) How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?
Ronald P. Salfen is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.