The Golden Compass – The Anti-Narnia? (Movie Review)

The Golden Compass – The Anti-Narnia?

Review by Craig A. Smith

© 2007 Shepherd Project Ministries

On Friday, The Golden Compass hits movie theaters and Christendom seems deeply concerned. Websites have gone up, blogs have been written and email chains have been set in motion, all warning parents about the dangers of what is, ostensibly, a simple children’s story. Since previously I had been only dimly aware of this book and its supposedly anti-Christian agenda, I must admit to having been a bit overwhelmed by the number of requests I received over the past few weeks for a considered Christian response. However, I did carve out time to read the book this week so that I could comment on it with first-hand experience.

If this is the first you’ve heard of The Golden Compass, or at least of the controversy, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Essentially, it boils down to this: the author of this book is one of England’s most outspoken atheists who has clearly stated that his books are “about killing God”1 and “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”2.

To be perfectly fair, this agenda is not obvious in the novel and early reviewers of the film are indicating that the movie is even more watered down in this respect. However, there are still reasons why Christians ought to be concerned. First, while the book and movie are not dramatically anti-Christian, this may be an intentional ploy designed to lure young readers in. The Golden Compass is the first in a trilogy of works in which the more inflammatory themes do not make their appearance until the second and third books. Whether or not this is intentional is difficult to say. However, there is no such uncertainty regarding the movie. Chris Weitz, director of the film adaptation, has admitted that he went into the project thinking, “if I wanted to popularize this series of extraordinary books and open them to a wider reading public than ever before, I was going to have to make some compromises.”3

Second, while it is true that the more inflammatory statements (“The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake”, for example) are held in reserve for the later installments of this trilogy it is not true that anti-Christian sentiments are completely absent from the first book or its film adaptation. The Church (referred to in the movie as the “Magisterium”, a real-life Latin term for the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church) is consistently maligned, denigrated and just generally cast in a very poor light. Not all of the villains in the story can be directly tied to the Church, but they all perpetrate their evils at the request of, or under the auspices of, the Church.

Several Catholic spokespersons have voiced the opinion that The Golden Compass is not so much anti-Christian as anti-Catholic and on the surface, this does appear to be the case. However, it seems clear to me that it is the Christian faith itself that is in Pullman’s sights and not merely the Catholic Church. For one thing, there is no Protestant church in the world of The Golden Compass – there is only “the Church” and for this reason all disparaging remarks would seem to have to be understood as applying to Christianity as a whole. Moreover, there is an odd reference early in the book to “Pope John Calvin.” Young readers are unlikely to grasp the oddity of this reference. There was, of course, no such pope. There was, however, a John Calvin, but he was one of the most famous of the Protestant Reformers. It is likely that Pullman was merely making a bit of a joke with this reference, but it seems to me to have the effect of reinforcing the notion that the Church in The Golden Compass represents Christianity as a whole, rather than merely one branch of it. In Pullman’s alternate reality, there is no Protestant Church, no Roman Catholic or Orthodox church. There is only the Church and it must, for this reason, be seen to stand for the Christian faith itself. If Pullman had been raised as a Catholic and thus taught to think of the Roman Catholic Church as “the Church”, I might be inclined to make less of an issue of this. However, he was not raised Catholic but in the Anglican Church so his terminology cannot be written off as merely subconscious preconception.

Of course, attacks on “the Church” need not necessarily constitute an attack on God, but it seems clear to me that they are one and the same in Pullman’s mind. There is no God in The Golden Compass and while one does appear in one of the later books in the trilogy, he is shown to be an imposter. At best then, Pullman’s stories promote a kind of aggressive agnosticism. However, the fact that his lead character is “destined” to “bring an end to destiny” suggests to me that what Pullman is really attempting to advocate is the belief in the absolute autonomy of human beings to make choices without reference to a sovereign creator or governor of any type; i.e. a moral, if not actual, atheism.

The third reason parents ought to be concerned about this book, and presumably the film version as well, is the simple fact that it is quite dark. There is a great deal of death, cruelty and betrayal (by traditional authority figures, I might add). Children are tortured and die. Hearts are torn out and eaten. Parents are cruel and cold. Conversely, there is very little joy to be found in this story. There are a few references to characters swelling with joy as they gaze at the stars in an arctic sky, but that’s about it. Pullman characterizes himself as a “realist” and his story certainly reflects this rather bleak outlook on life.

Fourth, the book has some disturbing hints of sexuality that are wholly inappropriate in a children’s story. Like the anti-Christian references, these are subdued in The Golden Compass, but they become more direct in the sequels. On a related note, The Golden Compass reveals that the main character was conceived in an act of adultery and this is clearly condoned.

There are some characteristics of the world of The Golden Compass which have attracted the attention of Christians. One such feature is the fact that all the humans have a personal “daemon”, a word which has raised religious hackles world-wide. However, I myself am not so concerned about this. In spite of the name, these daemons really have nothing in common with real-life demonic spirits. Since Pullman is an atheist and does not believe in a genuine spiritual world, it would be stretching things too far to think that he intends by this literary device to introduce children to the world of the occult, as some Christians have alleged. I do not believe that was his intention. However, the daemons in The Golden Compass have at least a passing similarity to the familiar, a supposed animal form of demonic spirits which are said to attach to witches. For this reason, whether Pullman intended it or not, elements of the story may serve to incite interest in the occult and parents should be aware of this.

Speaking of witches, they do figure prominently in this story, some as protagonists, some as antagonists, so again there might be reason to think that this book could interest impressionable young readers in the occult.

One of the more interesting observations that I made while reading this story was the superficial similarities between The Golden Compass and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. In both stories, children are the main characters, there are talking animals and other worlds that can be crossed between. There is even a wardrobe that features prominently at the beginning of each tale! However, beyond these superficial similarities, the differences are vast. For instance, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the other worlds are all creations of Aslan, the Jesus-figure; in The Golden Compass, the other worlds are alternate realities brought into existence by human choices and collapsing probability waves (concepts borrowed from current speculation in the field of quantum physics). The humanistic world-view of The Golden Compass is a stark, and likely deliberate, contrast to the theism of Narnia. So, should Christian parents allow their children to see the film and/or read the books? I would have to say that I think that would be a mistake. This is especially the case for younger children, although I should also say that the books are not really child-friendly.

The language and complexity of ideas in these books restricts their accessibility to early adolescents. In any event, for the reasons mentioned above, introducing children to the world of The Golden Compass is not to be recommended, whether through the pages of a book or the big screen of a movie theater.

However, if your children have friends who are likely to see the movie, it might be a good idea to read the book yourself and be prepared to talk with them about it. Whether or not you should help your children prepare to do the same themselves depends entirely on your assessment of whether they are spiritually and mentally mature enough. For the record, if you think you’ll have the opportunity to interact with non-believers about this book/film, I do recommend that you either read the book or see the movie. It’s very difficult to build common ground from which to share the truth when you don’t know first-hand what the book/film says. Being able to say “I read that and I thought that…” is far more effective than “I read an article that said that…” The former establishes a rapport while the latter often inspires immediate defensiveness.

But of course the most important thing to do is not to build common ground but to build bridges from that common ground to the truth of the Gospel. In this case, that’s fairly easy to do. One of the most effective things you can do is simply point to another book about a magical world with talking animals and children who do amazing things: The Chronicles of Narnia. The symbolism and implicit theology of Narnia provides abundant opportunities for sharing the truth about Jesus.

Who knows? The Golden Compass may just end up pointing the way to Truth after all!

1 Philip Pullman, quoted by Steve Meacham in “The Shed Where God Died” – Dec. 13, 2003 ( )

2 Philip Pullman, quoted by Alona Wartofsky in “The Last Word – Philip Pullman’s Trilogy for Young Adults Ends in God’s Death, and Remarkably Few Critics” – The Washington Post, Feb. 19, 2001.

3 Chris Weitz, quoted in “‘Golden Compass’ Director Chris Weitz Answers Your Questions: Part I” – MTV Movie Blogs, November 17, 2007.