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The Controversial Compass

December 15, 2007
[This blog comes from David LeRoss, a behind the scenes member of the Salt + Light family who last week provided a review the Golden Compass]
goldencompass.jpgIt's been a week now since the film version of The Golden Compass opened in theatres. Many Catholics are asking what all the controversy is about: isn’t it just a movie? Is there any reason to be worked up about this? Should my kids be going to this film, or reading the book? Where is the supposed anti-Catholic bias?
In the opening scene of The Golden Compass, a group of children race through a field of wheat, trying to catch another child in a reverse game of tag. The group emerges from the wheat field into a medieval street, running past one church, and then another, and then another – there seems to be a church building on every corner, looming over the children as they run by. Later in the film these churches are called “Magisterial Offices”, named for the Magisterium, the ruling, apparently good but actually evil organization. In a loose parallel with the Catholic hierarchy, there are characters such as “Fra Pavel”, a clerical member of the Magisterium who early on in the film tries to poison a character deemed as a threat to the authority of the Magisterium. High-ranking clerical members plot to kidnap children and do experiments on them. “Fra Pavel” spouts a Latin phrase before accusing someone of heresy. The “Magisterial See,” the head office of the Magisterium, looks suspiciously like St. Peter’s Basilica. A building covered in Byzantine icons is described as the head “Magisterial Office” of the town… could the resemblance be any less subtle? As one New York Post film critic said “You don't need to be a Jesuit scholar to figure out that the film's bad guys who keep complaining about heretics -- are clearly meant to be reps of the Catholic Church, even before you get a glimpse of their Vatican-like headquarters.”
Now, to their credit, the filmmakers have removed the book’s most pernicious references to the Catholic church, mostly in name changes (in the novel the Magisterium is actually called the Church, and “Fra Pavel” is “Father Pavel”) and in removing all references to God (the books explain that God, or “the Authority”, is actually the highest of the Angels who has usurped the Creator and taken his place; the later books describe an epic battle to dethrone this God-impersonator, destroy the power of his Church/Magisterium, and to allow all men to create their own heaven-on-earth. I remember reading the books in high school, and still much of it went beyond me, though it was very easy to see that the Magisterium was a parallel to the Catholic Church.
So what of the children? Ultimately the choice to let their kids see the film is up to the parents, but this movie ought not to be taken lightly: parents should see the film with their children, and discuss the themes with them: the themes of authority vs. autonomy, of original sin, and loss of innocence. The film’s take on authority is easy to guess: the only apparent authority, the Magisterium, is attempting mind control, and “a war is coming, over nothing less than the free will of every person” as the witch character says. In regards to sin, the film twists the Biblical story of creation: “Dust entered the world because of the disobedience of our first ancestors” explains Mrs. Coulter to Lyra. Dust, she says, is what corrupts the innocence of children, so the harmful experiments of the Magisterium are justified in her eyes: it’s for the good of the children. On the other hand, loss of innocence, the film suggests, is not a bad thing; it’s part of being human. This is as far as the film goes on this subject, trying to tiptoe its way through the muddy relativistic waters of its own nonjudgmental philosophy. The reality is much more complex: original sin (replaced by Dust in the film) is indeed a part of being human, but that cannot be the final word: the Gospel promises redemption for each person, and the forgiveness of all sin, for he or she willing to receive it.
Another major concern for some Catholics is whether a child’s faith could be corrupted by this film. I suspect that it’s unlikely. The film is so veiled in its anticlericalism so as to be unrecognizable by most children. But would seeing the film encourage children to read the book? On a recent trip to the library to try to track down a copy, there were 481 holds on the novel. The film has certainly peaked interest in the book, before it hits theatres; I expect that number could double a few weeks after the film is released. The book, certainly, is more explicit in its anti-Catholicism, and by the third novel, a pivotal character from our own world, a former Catholic nun, tells Lyra that she left the convent because “Christianity was a convincing mistake.” There’s also a murderous priest and a celestial war in which the God-character dies.
But does it even matter if the film draws attention to the novel? Children hoping to find a series similarly readable to Harry Potter or the Chronicles of Narnia will be disappointed. The "His Dark Materials" trilogy is much more mature, both thematically and in its vocabulary: an adult’s book marketed to children. Furthermore, the plot is confusing (see my REVIEW), with its subplots and myriads of characters. I remember finding the first novel a fairly easy read, but the second completely lost me plotwise.
Some will ask, what is the big deal? After all, it’s only a novel. The problem is that this line of thinking ignores the fact that ideas matter. Books, novels included, contain ideas and ideas must matter. Imagine if Hitler had never written Mein Kampf – how would modern history be different? If Descartes had never written Discourse on Method how much would modern philosophy be different? If Aristotle hadn’t rebutted Democritus with his Physics the science of chemistry would have advanced much faster than it did. The concerns over the themes of the books are indeed valid. My suggestion is that parents ought to read the books if their children read them, and it is certainly the duty of parents to explain to their children the ideas being presented, and what merit, if any, can be found in them. The same exercise should be done with the film.
In the end, I think we can be confident that these books, and the film, cannot do much damage to the faith of most Catholics, any more than the Da Vinci Code has. If adults can intelligently explain the ideas behind the film and books to their children, these ideas will be exposed for the puff of existential smoke that they are.

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