The Compass Is Broken

I confess, I was interested in seeing the Golden Compass movie. I’ve read the series, called His Dark Materials, and I’ve posted about its antiChristian content. I wanted to see (and still wouldn’t mind seeing on video or PPV) how the story translates to screen.

On the basis of concept and imagination, HDM could be mentioned in the same sentence with the best fantasy series and novels. In my opinion, though, the series depends too much on the artifacts that give the three novels their US titles. Such dependence is common in fantasy series (and very common in children’s fantasy series). The golden compass (called an “alethiometer” in the novels) gives its reader direction and discernment; the subtle knife can open doors into worlds; the amber spyglass enables its user to see the Force-like dust.

One might suggest the same thing about the Lord of the Rings, but that is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The HDM artifacts are tools that move along the story. In that series, Frodo’s ring represents far more than its “visible” power, which is invisibility. It is first and foremost a surrogate for the enemy, Sauron. While the Ring appears worth using for good—most famously to Boromir, but the thought occurs to both Galadriel and Gandalf—all the Wise make clear that using an evil artifact even for minimal “good” use exacts a terrible toll—physical and emotional—from even the most noble wearer. And it will have an effect, too, on the world around.

But HDM becomes tiresome and wooden by the third novel, The Amber Spyglass, when Pullman’s agenda eclipses the characters and plot. The preachiness rivals that of the worst evangelical fiction—or even The Da Vinci Code. Still, it’s hard to put down. The reader is caught up by then in his feverish race to the Fall, for that is what Pullman’s heroes long for.

Don’t miss that. The Christian worldview sees the Fall as a tragedy, as the ultimate act of human rebellion against God, and as the root of all the world’s death and decay. The Fall, for Pullman, is a victory, the ultimate act of human liberation from God, and the root of real life. If Lyra and her companion Will do not recreate the sin of our first parents, the world will continue in the darkness and slavery that Pullman’s church, represented by the Magisterium, has produced.

Despite Pullman’s considerable craft, the book descends into a sort of smarminess. After building up the Fall as absolutely essential for humanity’s survival, and even making plain that he equates it with sexual awakening, the heroes engage in a demure kiss. And then they must part, forever, or all their good work will be undone. It felt, for me, like a Lifetime or Hallmark movie.

Which makes it all the more disappointing. A fantasy that dealt straightforwardly with issues of good and evil, of divine authority and human freedom, could really be amazing. Too bad Pullman didn’t write one. After all, there’s more than enough complexity in the orthodox view without descending into heterodoxy.

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