Revisiting “The Golden Compass” 25 years later

Craig Odenwald, Staff Writer

Philip Pullman’s tale, “The Golden Compass,” has arrived on the silver screen in the form of HBO’s new television series, “His Dark Materials.” It’s been a long road for the science-fantasy adventure series, whose first installment hit bookstores in 1995. 

It’s common for book series to take a long time to reach the big screen. Whether it’s because of timing, special effects, or directors trying to cram all of a book’s content into one movie, screen adaptations require a lot of work. But another reason for the delay on “His Dark Materials” is its subject matter (which made the 2007 movie adaptation flop). To find a wholly undiluted description of what that is, all one must do is dust off the first book, and turn the page.

“The Golden Compass” begins with a passage from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which implies that when Satan fled Hell to wreak havoc on Earth, there were other strange worlds to which he could travel. That passage informs Pullman’s entire mythos, as “The Golden Compass” focuses on humans working alongside daemon characters to locate mystical worlds beyond Earth. 

Pullman’s protagonist, a young girl named Lyra, is wide-eyed, curious, and eager to explore new worlds. She and her daemon, a creature named Pantalaimon, are swept away on a strange journey influenced by her relative, Lord Asriel. Lyra’s innocence and Asriel’s coldness lead to tense conversations that help thrust the story forward. Both his and Lyra’s journeys into new worlds are against the wishes of the ancient church, and it is here that Pullman begins to discuss the effects of religion on scientific discovery.

It’s a difficult subject, and one that has affected adaptations of “The Golden Compass” and Pullman’s subsequent books from the start. Portions of the Catholic Church have called for boycotts of the trilogy, as Pullman casts his fictional church as a stubborn organization that casts Asriel’s ideas as heretical. They’re largely supported by scientist Ms. Coulter, who is eager to prevent Asriel researching more about new worlds. Their conflict makes Asriel rather Galileo-esque, and puts the audience in Lyra’s shoes, so that we are more impressionable and more accepting of her relative’s ideas than Pullman’s antagonistic fictional church. 

That concept was muddled in the 2007 movie adaptation of “The Golden Compass,” in which Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman played Asriel and Coulter, respectively. Controversies and boycotts led to it downplaying its religious aspects, and, in turn, led to middling box-office returns and displeased readers.

Pullman’s view of Christianity is just one aspect of his intriguing story. He bridges together Lyra’s journey with the outside world in ways readers won’t expect, pulls on mythology from other popular tales, and melds science and religion to create an exciting tapestry for future stories. With her fiery attitude and adventurous spirit, Lyra is a joy to read about, whether she’s chasing friends through the streets of England or fighting alongside armored polar bears. 

But Pullman’s take on religion, from his critiques against the church to actually rewriting portions of the third chapter of Genesis to include his daemon characters, seem to clash with his overall message. Pullman wants the audience to be like Lyra: wide-eyed, having an uncensored view of the world, and being able to decide for themselves what they believe. To his credit, there is a history of antagonism between some parts of the church and some parts of the scientific community. 

Yet Pullman seems to imply that if the church has censored particular knowledge before, then the reader (and Lyra) should discount many of the church’s beliefs instead of trying to see how they might align with current scientific discoveries. 

It may be that, in the end, Pullman’s stories actually bring about greater spiritual understanding for religious readers. Instead of discarding what they learned in church, they might more closely examine their beliefs and what their church chooses to teach, find connections between their matured faith and the facts of science, and be more prepared to discuss what they’ve found with skeptics like Pullman. Perhaps that, in the end, will be part of the contribution “His Dark Materials” makes towards creating a more curious, knowledge-seeking world.