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Golden Compass

September 14, 2016

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Film realisation of the first part of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights fantasy saga.

Themes: the spiritual dimension of life, religion when it becomes toxic, truth, freedom and freewill.

The story depicts the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living in a parallel universe on a world that looks much like our own. In Lyra’s world, a dogmatic ruling power called the Magisterium is conspiring to end tolerance and free inquiry. Poor, orphan, and Gyptian children are disappearing at the hands of a group the children call the Gobblers. When Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is running the Gobblers, she flees. Rescued by the Gyptians, Lyra joins them on a trip to the far north, to the land of the armoured polar bears, in search of the missing children.

Lyra a stubborn and independent young girl who follows her instincts and does what is necessary to protect herself and her friends; of course, this makes her a formidable adversary to those who want to dominate all children. Kids are one with their changing souls; if only everyone in our world could have such a special connection to our animal companions. Lyra was able to use the golden compass “to glimpse things for what they are.” The concept of conscience as a compass is valuable as is the advice given by a gyptian to Lyra to “Hold a question in your mind lightly as if something alive.” We can use these approach any time we are faced with a question of discernment.

It is clear early on that there is some type of religious organization in Lyra’s world. A past Papacy is referred to (with a “Pope John Calvin,” ) that was abolished and replaced with a consortium of “courts, colleges, and councils” known as the “Magisterium,” including an agency called the “Consistorial Court of Discipline as the most active and most feared of all the Church’s bodies”. In our world, the Magisterium is a ruling authority of the Roman Catholic Church and consists of the Pope and the Bishops, so Pullman seems to be referring to this even though it is in a fantasy world and the words “Roman Catholic” are not used.

There is also a General Oblation Board, which is presented at first as mysterious and then later as evil. “Oblation” comes from a Latin term to mean an offering or presentation to God, and is also used in the Roman Church. Once again, Pullman transfers terms, mostly Roman Catholic in this case, from our world to the fantasy world of Lyra, but with a twist.

Lyra has no favorable attitude toward this “Church.” There is an “Intercessor” at Jordan College, Father Heyst, who preaches, prays, and hears confessions. He loses hope for Lyra’s spiritual welfare due to “her sly indifference and insincere repentances”).

Mrs. Coulter, who later turns out to be Lyra’s mother, is an evil woman who is also charming and beautiful, and Lyra likes her at first. Mrs. Coulter is head of the Oblation Board and is directing cruel experiments in severing the tie between children and their daemons, leaving the children bereft and suicidal, and the daemons in misery.  Lyra’s discovery of this takes up a good part of the story, and is full of very intense and disturbing imagery.

Lord Asriel, a powerful and rich man with a cruel side who is Lyra’s father, tells Lyra that the Church used to castrate boys to have them as singers, sometimes causing death in the process, so it would be nothing for the Church to be involved in cutting daemons off from children.

At one point, Lord Asriel reads from Genesis 3 to Lyra, but the text is changed so that Eve taking a bite of the forbidden fruit reveals “the true form of one’s daemon” and Adam and Eve lose their previous sense that “they were one with all the creatures of the earth and the air”. The concept of “Dust” is a theme in the book, and Lord Asriel, reading God’s pronouncement on Adam that he will go back to “dust,” comments to Lyra that this may mean that God “is admitting his own nature to be partly sinful” but that no one agrees because “the text is corrupt”.

Manohla Dargis of The New York Times said that the film “crams so many events, characters, […] twists and turns, sumptuously appointed rooms and ethereally strange vistas […] that [it] risks losing you in the whirl” and that while The Golden Compass is “an honorable work,” it is “hampered by its fealty to the book and its madly rushed pace.” James Berardinelli of ReelReviews gave the film 2½ stars out of 4, calling it “adequate, but not inspired” and criticising the first hour for its rushed pace and sketchily-developed characters.

Pullman expressed his distaste for the film in 2014, calling it “over-designed” and criticizing the screenplay: “They needed an ending that would work for a single film, but one that would also work if it was the first of a trilogy. They wanted both a cliffhanger and a resolution. You just can’t do that.”

[first lines] Serafina Pekkala: There are many universes and many Earths parallel to each other. Worlds like yours, where people’s souls live inside their bodies, and worlds like mine, where they walk beside us, as animal spirits we call daemons.

Stelmaria: Are we going to see the child?

Lord Asriel: I should think so.

Serafina Pekkala: So many worlds. But connecting them all is Dust. Dust was here before the witches of the air, the Gyptians of the water, and the bears of the ice. In my world, scholars invented an alethiometer – a golden compass – and it showed them all that was hidden. But the ruling power, fearing any truth but their own, destroyed these devices and forbade the very mention of Dust. One compass remains, however, and only one who can read it.

Serafina Pekkala: There are many universes and many earths, parallel to each other. World’s like yours were people’s souls live inside their bodies and world’s like mine where they walk beside us as animal spirits, we call daemons. So many world’s but connecting them all is dust, dust was here before the witches of the air, the gyptians of the water, and the bears of the ice. In my world scholars invented an elithiometer, a golden compass and it showed them all that was hidden. But the ruling power fearing any truth but their own decided to destroy these devises and forbade the very mention of dust. One compass remains however and only one who can read it.

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