Write In Between

Monday, November 19, 2007

"The Golden Compass" points in the wrong direction

Perhaps you’ve seen the hype surrounding the December release of the new movie The Golden Compass. We are used to Hollywood hype to promote a film. But much of the hype is coming from the movie’s opposition: The Catholic League, a Catholic civil rights organization (and media watchdog), plus Catholic websites like this one and this one , blogs, and an extensive grassroots email campaign . Most are cautioning Catholics against letting their children see the film for it is purported to espouse atheism. This opposition warns against buying the books related to the movie (the first story in a trilogy) as gifts during the Christmas season.

With all media, parents have good reason to carefully discern what media messages are appropriate for their children to absorb. And Catholic parents, in particular, need to be the gatekeepers for their children as it pertains to faith and morals. Catholic parents are called to build up the Catholic conscience of their children, and to be about the business of teaching discernment between right and wrong. Therefore, they must be wary of what influences their children during their formative years.

In the interest of being a concerned parent, I have tried to investigate the anti-film hype, which you may wish to do with the links above, and I have reviewed the film’s trailer and website .

The Golden Compass is the latest Hollywood offering based on a series of books known as His Dark Materials, featuring The Golden Compass (also called Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. These books comprise a trilogy, written in the mid-to-late 90s by contemporary author, Philip Pullman, who as the above links allege, is an atheist. Some even call him a militant atheist, one that is intent on completely discrediting Christianity, and Catholicism in particular. These are pretty strong charges. Admittedly I did not read the books or see the full-length movie. All I saw was the trailer and the website. And all I’ve read and listened to is linked for your perusal.

But I gotta tell ya, this one does not pass my “gut check”... that interior signal from the conscience that says, PASS ON THIS ONE. Here’s why…

First, a preliminary perspective: every writer writes from the wellspring of one’s personal and professional experience. My writing this today comes from those two sources—my personal experience as a Catholic wife and mother, and my professional background: a bachelor’s degree in Communications; years working and writing in New York’s broadcasting milieu; my second career working in pastoral ministry; and finally, my current writing and research in pursuit of a Masters degree in Theology. Now, while a writer might not always write about his or her specific experiences in life, what they do write passes through the prism of perspective of their mind, will, and heart. As a writer I may not always write about Catholic subject matter, but my Catholicism is not something I lay aside when I do write. And whenever someone critically examines a literary work, one tries to examine the author’s intent.

Communications 101 teaches us the medium is the message. Pullman’s books are the message, and we must always link the message with its author’s intent. Whether it was Pullman’s motive to tear down Christianity is not for me to say. What is for me to say is that when I look at a film or a book, or any media, I consider the source first.

Where movies are concerned, it is a writer who first sets down the message of the film. No film studio could operate without the screenwriter’s story, which usually undergoes several revisions before the final production comes to the public. Therefore, a film that is based on an author’s book is often severely edited by a screenwriter from the original text. (This is why so many readers of a book are often unhappy with the resulting movie.) How many revisions away from the book this current film is, well, simply not known.

All that being said, I submit to you my take on the The Golden Compass. (Once again, my opinion is based on having watched the movie's trailer on the website here.) I submit both my most objective sense, and my subjective sense of the film.

Objectively, as a media person, I think this is a movie that has the look and feel of the 2005 Disney release based on the The Chronicles of Narnia’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, it is using the same special effects company as did “Narnia”. It also has the same distributors (New Line Cinemas) as the now-legendary Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. As we have seen in the recent past, with the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, and the Harry Potter series, when a film is based on a popular book or book series, there is a built-in willing public ready stand in line for tickets. So, one can infer that, if this first movie in Pullman’s trilogy is successful, the rest are waiting to be made. It’s the movie business, after all. Timing its release at Christmas is no accident. Not to mention that any publicity we give to this, well, it’s considered good publicity by Hollywood. People will go to a movie that is boycotted, just to see what all the hullabaloo is about… (remember The Da Vinci Code?)

Subjectively, this is what I glean when I look at the film trailer—and you should watch the trailer yourself, and use your own moral compass to determine what’s going on—but for the sake of this article, let me share with you what I contemplated when I looked at this film, while admitting my own theological bias (in italics below).

The Golden Compass takes place in “a parallel universe.” The title refers to a man made instrument that does not point directionally (to true north, for example) as one might guess. Named an alethiometer, it does not point north, but it points to “Truth.” And it cannot be read by others—only by Lyra, the young heroine in the film who is entrusted to carry the Golden Compass. We somehow conceive the compass as humanity’s highest prize and Lyra is on some sort of quest to save the universe from an evil of sorts, known as the "magisterium."

Hmmm… this story line sounds familiar… remembering the infancy narratives from the Gospel of Luke, we have a young girl, the bearer of the Ultimate Truth, on which humanity’s ultimate salvation rests, who undergoes her own sufferings and trials… hmmm…

Also in the film, we learn that persons are not whole in being, as in being embodied spirits, what we understand as being a united body-soul entity. They have a body, yes, but they also have a “daemon”… a daemon is the person’s “soul” captured in an animal likeness. And the likeness of the animal can morph into various animals as the soul matures… until it “settles” into one specific animal.

Hmmm… is this a parody of the dignity of the human person, who is a body-soul entity, made in the image and likeness of God according to the accounts in Genesis? If it is, we Catholics understand that we are not made in the image of animals, but of God. What’s more, this “separation” of body and soul, for us, in reality, equals death. Are we to imagine that the characters in this film are dead, as in disembodied spirits? Or, is this perhaps, an over-glorification of animals as the subtext? ( The World Wildlife Federation is partnering with this movie, probably to draw attention to those beautiful polar bears who star in the movie.) Does it suggest we are to be somehow ‘united’ with animals, or maybe ‘equal’ to animals, rather than to have dominion over them, as again, suggested by Genesis? Or am I missing a whole secondary point in which I should understand that my soul is not really my own, but united to a opposite-gendered demon, er, daemon?? Oh yeah, funny how that all the daemons are portrayed as the opposite gender to one's body... is this some sort of subliminal commentary that suggests that we are all masculine-feminine, rather than either-or in our creation?? Hmmm… (Note: this added on Dec 11, 2007: Still more disturbing is the commentary coming from other writers who note that deeper in the series of books, the daemons are linked with a person's sexuality ... and the touching of another person's daemon is, well, intimate...) Hmmm... the trailer gives us no such worry... but those who have read the books are sounding alarms...

In the movie’s plot, there is reference to the “magisterium.” It is obviously portrayed as source of evil authority.

Hmmm… How blatantly contrary to the way Catholics properly regard the Church’s Magisterium. For Catholics, the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church that guards, interprets and serves the Truth contained in Divine Revelation, both in sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition. With the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium is a reliable interpreter of Truth, and protector of the same, what we call the Deposit of Faith.

And this Golden Compass, this alethiometer, what does it symbolize?

Gee, I don’t know. Maybe, since it’s man-made, it’s a glorification of man’s intellect and science being the Highest Good, rather than God. In an atheistic universe, we know that the Highest Good could not be God, so ultimately, it must be something else… science? technology? man's reason? maybe even some other virtue? but what that is, is yet to be revealed.

And so, that’s what I get from the trailer. And on the movie’s website, you can take a short survey to find out what animal creature your daemon would be, like, if you really had one. In short, I do find a derogatory attitude toward some things "Catholic" and the tone of an atheistic mindset coming from the screenplay.

I don’t have anymore analysis on this movie at the moment. But hey, it’s enough for me to say my family has other ways to spend our time and money in terms of entertainment.

As a Catholic, I do have one last thought: If I do have an opportunity to talk with people who have seen the movie, I won’t hesitate to ask them how they interpreted its message which we understand to be within the context of fantasy. It will give me an opportunity to explain the Truth and Beauty of the Incarnation—which is the unity of both human and divine substance—while I also mention the great gift and dignity of the human person’s being as body and soul. Not the stuff of a parallel universe, but of the one we are actually living in. And that’s no fantasy.

Copyright 2007 Patricia W. Gohn

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  • Thank you for your carefully-considered comments on this movie and the books. I was led here through the CatholicMom.com article.

    By Blogger Barb, sfo, at 5:47 PM  

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