The Golden Compass, Reviewed by a Catholic and an Atheist December 6, 2007

The Golden Compass, Reviewed by a Catholic and an Atheist

Thank you, BBC.

First, Catholic Igor Toronyi-Lalic‘s take on The Golden Compass:

I didn’t find The Golden Compass offensive at all.

The main message was so convoluted, there was no serious atheistic content, and it didn’t seem obvious that they [the Magisterium] were religious in a way that I understand it.

There’s no need to call for any boycott of it.

The whole thing is about polar bears – it’s nothing to do with the Magisterium.

I’d be far more offended if I was a polar bear. The polar bears are ludicrously portrayed – I don’t empathise with them at all.

And now, the atheist, Nigel Floyd:

… the problem is that there is so much missing from what is basically a corporate product that you’re going to be very disappointed if you have read the books.

I don’t think it’s true that they’ve watered down the atheism – although the last three chapters, where they talk explicitly about the concept of Original Sin, are missing.

My feeling is that there are hints of what will go on to be developed much more clearly in [the second part] The Subtle Knife, but not enough for card-carrying atheists like me.

I would obviously have liked to have more atheism.

The problem is that everything is present and correct, but it’s present and correct in a very truncated form.

If you see it, let us know what you think!

[tags]atheist, atheism, Philip Pullman[/tags]

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  • cg

    I recently had some surgery recovery time where I listened to the whole trilogy on audiobooks. I had to see what the big fuss was about. The first book, The Golden Compass, barely scratches the atheistic surface. It portrays evil sects of the Magesterium (sp?), but without much antireligious discussion. I’d agree with the Catholic reviewer, in that the people taking offense probably have not read the book or seen the movie.

    The second and third books of the series make it clear the intention of the main characters, ***SPOILER*** which is to kill the Authority, or the god of the bible. But even then, the idea portrayed about what heaven and gods actually are is so drastically different than what these Christards actually believe, that you’d think they would find the whole thing laughable. How shaky their faith must be to be afraid of a different interpretation. Although frankly, I really enjoyed the portrayal of the spiritual realm brought forth in the books.

    I can’t wait to see the movie, it looks awesome! And to think, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought had it not been for these graceful Catholics to bring it to my attention. Praise Jebus!

  • I saw a preview of it Tuesday night and wrote a review in my journal here. But I’ll repeat here:

    When the closing credits rolled on The Golden Compass this evening, I was feeling very ambivalent. I didn’t know whether I could say it’s a good movie or a bad one. I couldn’t say if I could recommend it or not. But here are my thoughts.

    I wanted so very much to love this movie. The problem, of course, is that I read the books first, and recently. So I was aware of every changed scene, every bit of altered dialogue. Okay, not every bit, but probably a great deal of it. They must’ve removed about half the plot points from the book.

    This is a VERY dumbed down, VERY compressed movie. I know I was expecting it. It was still somewhat painful. I kept trying to tear my mind away from the glaring wrongness.

    But all my doubts and pains vanished whenever Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott, badass) or Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellan, badass) were on the screen. They were marvelous! Seriously, when the camera was on them it was like a different movie, one I really wanted to be in. They could not have found better casting for these two. Or for Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, badass…no, really) for that matter. Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards, badass in training) grew on me. I was expecting someone younger, but she did just fine.

    The FX were lovely. They definitely succeeded in creating a world in which everyone has a daemon. I found myself noticing the shots where you couldn’t see a daemon, and there didn’t seem to be that many. And the world itself was beautiful with everything running on anbaric power and the balloons and zeppelins everywhere. And the bears were solid. You could see the weight and the power in them, and they acted and growled and fought and just simply kicked a very impressive amount of ass.

    The score was a tad too much. It tried too hard. At times I felt like it was saying, “This is MAJESTIC, dammit! Gaze in awe!” And in the end it was really going for “Now be HAPPY, audience!” in a way that felt a bit inappropriate.

    Of all the scenes they took out or compressed, I really wish they could’ve done more with Iofur Raknison’s castle. There was so much more story, so much more…solidness to the place, and it just felt like they rushed way too quickly through it. Oh and don’t get me started about the juxtaposed scenes! I know why they did it. It was still wrong, and it opens a plot hole.

    Oh and of course I must talk about the anti-religious theme, which is pretty much non-existent in the movie. I think parents would more object to the shocking violence. I say shocking because you really don’t expect it when it happens. I heard gasps in the audience around me.

    Bah. In short, come for the anti-religious controversy, stay for the polar bears.

    I think I understand now what the die-hard Tolkein fans went through.

  • “Candy-coated atheism”? What does that even mean?

    It’s too bad to hear that the movie wasn’t particularly great. I guess I shouldn’t judge it before I see it though. I thought the first book was the best of the three, actually. (shameless plug: I wrote a spoiler review specifically about the anti-religious themes in the books)

  • Of course the movie is going to be watered-down in order to appeal to the masses. They don’t make major motion pictures for the fun of it, they make them to make money.

    I don’t think the religious nuts are necessarily worked up about the movie itself. I think they are more worried that after seeing the first movie a bunch of people are going to want to read the last two books. I’ve read the first book but I haven’t read the last two yet but it is my understanding that the last two books take on the religion issue much more than the first. But you know what they say, any publicity is good publicity, so once again these nitwits only encourage more people to see the movie and read the book in order to find out for themselves what all the fuss is about.

  • stogoe

    I enjoyed the first book (haven’t got around to 2 & 3), but I’m not emotionally invested in every sentence fragment. Film is a different narrative medium than fiction, and I think novels in general come off pretty poorly in the translation to film. There are few constraints in prose, compared to film or even graphic narratives*. You only get about two hours’ time in film, and you’ve got to limit the locations you have to build or travel to (for budgetary reasons). So stories that take

    One thing I did notice in the book, at least, is the last third of the book seemed rushed. It’s like Pullman was racing from extravagant set-piece to extravagant set-piece just so he could fit them all in. But that may just be in contrast to the glacial build-up to the actual plot that took up way too much of the front-end.

    *I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I think that graphic novels are probably the best medium to translate to film. It’s already visualized, the stories have been crafted with length-constraints already, and in the genre of super-hero comics especially, they’re eminently modular and there’s a thousand different stories for you to sort through and make something work. With, say, Spiderman, there’s a dozen different major villains, who have each caused mayhem over the years a hundred different ways. Not like a Stephen King novel, where you’re saddled with the characters and the plot and the details that have to stay the same, and you have to both compress and trim the story so it’ll even work as a film, but you also have to keep it ‘just like the book’ so the fans will actually come see it.

  • Maria

    I’ve read the book and am going to see the movie tonight. Will let you know what I think

  • Yeah, it figures that they sucked the life out of it.

    it didn’t seem obvious that they [the Magisterium] were religious in a way that I understand it.

    Some of us say that it doesn’t seem obvious that modern Christianity is Christian….More like Roman paganism with Jesus and the saints instead of the Olympian gods.

  • Siamang

    I saw the movie too. I agree 100% with Auryn.

  • Maria

    Okay I saw it. I thought it was good with the special effects and well done, but the book is better. I kept muttering (I can’t believe they left that out!) I agree with a lot of what Auryn said. There was one scene where a “magesterium office” looked very much like a church, but that wasn’t really obvious unless you were looking for it. What I really didn’t like was the ending-they cut out a very climactic ending! The next movie had better start with it! Those of you who read the book know what I’m talking about. I knew it was bad when people from the previous showing came out grumbling about the ending. I only liked one of the changes-the others I could have done without. I didn’t think the theme of anti-religion and power was dumbed down that much. I did think though that a lot of scenes that would have told us more about the characters were either cut out or dumbed down. I did not like that. And yes, there was a lot of violence. Not for small kids.

    Good thing is though the movie got my friend interested in the book! I gave it to him for the holidays and now he is going to read it. 🙂

    Oh, and if you run into any of the idiots saying to boycott it, show them

    apparently the US Conference of Catholic Bishops doesn’t have a problem with it. Maybe now the boycotters will shut up.

    I don’t understand though why Nigel is saying he would have liked to see more atheism-the books do not promote atheism. They are against religion and power, but they don’t promote atheism. The author said so too.

    I think I understand now what the die-hard Tolkein fans went through.

    Yup, I went through that one too.

  • Steven Carr


  • Maria

    I should add, that to be fair, they did have a lot to squeeze into 2 hours. I guess they did the best they could, but I still really wish the ending hadn’t been cut off……

  • I’ve had the greatest hopes ever since the trailer came out.. I didn’t read the book both due to time constraints and for the sake of enjoying the movie without a reference constantly going through my mind. But even with all that bias and handicap.. I was definitely left wanting.

    The chosen dialogs were horribly written. There were lots redundant lines taking up way too much time for very little substance or story development. The threatening monologue from the Gypsy leader was a prime example.. Unless their influence reveals a key factor in some future war, I didn’t see a reason for such a waste of 3 minutes (or for most of the ship scenes).

    The plot was so watered-down, it was nearly transparent. Granted, it’d take an hour just to reconstruct all the qualities, characters, and politics of the alternate world – they still really needed to develop the relationships between characters and factions (ie: the witches introduction) and breeze through some of the more insignificant landscapes (such as almost the entire trip on the ocean and the days hidden away with Coulter).

    There were lots of other issues: The intro narration seemed a bit out of place and provided more redundant spoilers than insight (defining of an aletheometer and her being the only one inexplicably able to read it kinda spoils the mystical effect of these plot developments later.) The music was cheap.. immature in how it fit to becoming overdone in some places. And finally, every scene, like the music, was almost like a novice game of “guess the importance or message within this part of the film.”

    Basically.. books cannot possibly be adapted completely to the screen. LOTR very much made appropriate sacrifices to expedite character and scene developments. The Golden Compass unfortunately seems to try squeezing as much of the original setup in as possible and suffered the consequences. I sincerely hope the movie execs decide to move forward with The Subtle Knife so that the director can make use of the lessons learned this time around (ie: sacrificing a bit more adherence to the original story for the sake of making a convincing movie adaption) so that Pullman can actually be done with some justice.

    I want to bite my lip and just pretend like it’s a great movie for the sake of rebutting the boycott, but sorry, I’m just much too honest of an atheist to lie – the best I can do is try to forget seeing it and hope the next one (if it’s made) is better.

  • Members of our Atheist group saw it along with members of the local religious community, all of which were interviewed by the local TV news.

    I wrote up the entire experience on my blog here.

    In a nutshell, I went in really wanting to love this film, but came away disappointed.

  • I saw the movie Golden Compass and it was great. Oxford is charming. The kids and animals steal the show. The animation is a+, Truth fears no question, nor does God. God is about Love and Freedom. The Magisterium in the movie is the opposite of what true spirituality is. This is a wonderful story, and the Catholic League is off target.

  • Jeff P

    Saw the movie, and loved it. Haven’t read the books, but got them for Christmas (along with Christopher Hitchens’ anthology of atheistic writings.)

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story, but wish there would have been more time to develop the many other weaving stories within the main storyline. I want to know more about the bear population. Also, more about the “daemons” and why they generally are of the opposite sex. The alternate world itself if fascinating, with the power sources for vehicles some glowing, spinning cell. I want to know more about “dust,” and how it connects universes. It’s interesting that the magisterium wants kids instead of others, which I suppose is a way to “brainwash” them before they can see other “truths.”

    It was every bit as interseting as the “Narnia” movie, but had too much stuff to introduce. I wish it would have been two movies.

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