[NOTE: Parents, please keep in mind that this movie is rated PG-13, "parents strongly cautioned," and for good reason. A few reviewers commented that the PG-13 is for "fantasy violence." But there is no fantasy about the violence in the movie at all ? when people shoot, stab, or otherwise physically attack others, that is violence, period. This movie is far too violent for young children.]
Aside from the violence in this film, there are many frightening scenes, and the overall tone is harsh and foreboding. This is not a happy movie; the defiant protagonist, Lyra, is on a dangerous quest that involves lying, risking life, fighting, killing, and death.
For background on the book's highlights, read the CANA evaluation of the book here.
Based on Pullman's first book of his trilogy, "His Dark Materials," this movie abbreviates much from the book and makes some changes. For example, in the book a young boy whose daemon (pronounced "demon," it is a person's soul companion in animal form) has been cut away by Mrs. Coulter's minions in the North is found by Lyra languishing in an isolated village. To be without one's daemon is like being without a soul, and the boy is suffering terribly. Lyra takes the boy back to the camp but he dies. In the movie, the boy is taken back to the camp but there is no indication that he dies, which is very misleading. Also, the boy in the movie is a different character from the one in the book.
The word "church" is left out of the movie although Pullman uses it freely in the book. Instead, the word "Magisterium" is used (also used in the book along with "Church"), and men in formal church-like clothes from the Magisterium are the villains. There is talk of an "Authority" who has, through the Magisterium, repressed people and waged war on "freethinking" and free will, which is "heresy" to the Magisterium. Although God is not mentioned, it does not take a genius to figure out this is what the characters are referring to, even though Pullman imparts a distorted view of God and the Church.
The movie focuses on one witch, Serafina Pekkala, although in the book there are scenes with other witches. In the film, Serafina Pekkala swoops down on the ship (witches fly) where Lyra is traveling and tests Lyra's skill with the alethiometer, the Golden Compass of the title, by asking Lyra to discover who on the ship was once Serafina's lover. In the book, a test is done earlier that does not involve Serafina, but the book also provides information on Serafina's love life, material highly inappropriate for a children's book.
Lyra uses the alethiometer, which in effect is a divination tool (divination is significant in the books; in the second book the Taoist divinatory tool, the I Ching, comes into play). I find it interesting that rebellion against an "Authority" and divination figure so prominently in the stories since God tells Saul through His prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15.23 that "rebellion is as the sin of divination." Some versions use the word "witchcraft" here but the Hebrew term essentially refers to occult practices that involve seeking answers from sources other than the one true God; in some cases, "divination" and "witchcraft" are interchangeable (this is why some Bibles say that Saul consulted the "medium at Endor" while others say "the witch at Endor;" ("witchcraft" in the Bible does not refer to the modern Neopagan religion of Witchcraft). In Deuteronomy 18.10-12, God denounces divination along with casting spells, communing with the dead, reading omens, sorcery, and other occult practices as detestable actions.
Watching the movie, it is hard not to think about the word "daemon" since it is mentioned rather frequently. On a list that discusses fantasy fiction, someone posted the information that, according to the article "Philip Pullman: His Wonderful Materials," by Catherine M. Andronik (to Book Report, Nov/Dec 2001, Vol. 20 Issue 3, pg. 40), Pullman discovered the idea of daemons via automatic writing. Ms. Andronik writes: "Pullman had begun the first book with just Lyra, no daemon. He felt that something was missing, that Lyra should be talking to someone or something in that first scene in the Great Hall of Jordan College - but she was alone, in hiding. Then, 'it was like automatic writing, the only time this has ever happened to me: I wrote the words "Lyra and her daemon." I had no idea what it meant, or what a daemon was.'"
So perhaps it is no accident that divinatory tools figure so strongly in the books.
On his site, Pullman states "the daemon is that part of you that helps you grow towards wisdom" (http://www.philip-pullman.com/about_the_writing.asp). On the Golden Compass website (http://www.goldencompassmovie.com/), there is a "working alethiometer' and the site invitingly states that there "you can meet your daemon." This invitation is repeated on the Neopets site at http://www.neopets.com/games/play.phtml?game_id=947 where it says: "Take the quiz to meet your animal companion. You will be asked 10 multiple-choice questions about your personality. At the end of the quiz, your score will be tallied, and the form of your daemon will be revealed." At the very least, this draws children more closely to the stories and to a desensitization to the regular word, "demon." This is a linguistic connection, but one has to wonder if down the road (maybe through future books) other parallels will be unconsciously made leading to the acceptance of demons as good things. It is not hard to imagine this given that the culture is receptive to books attacking Christianity.
Many reviewers have commented that the Harry Potter series seems especially harmless compared to the Pullman trilogy. Even though Pullman's books were written first, they were eclipsed by the Harry Potter material. However, I think the reviewers miss the point that the Harry Potter books played a role in paving the way for the widespread acceptance and popularity of "His Dark Materials." If one can accept a child hero who practices occult arts, what is the next barrier to fall? From casting spells to a soul companion called a daemon to an attack on Christian beliefs ---- not much of a stretch actually. Conceptually, it is a package deal. Remember, "Rebellion is as the sin of divination." The divination and occult spells in the Harry Potter books are as much rebellion against God as are Pullman's themes of seeking man's will over the will of God, and these messages are reaching children, the most vulnerable and therefore the most receptive readers, in a post-Christian culture where truth is no longer viewed as absolute.