Reading Time: 4 minutes


Lyra Belacqua is an orphan living at Jordan College in the Oxford of an alternate universe. In Lyra’s world every person is accompanied by a daemon, a physical representation of their soul in animal form. Because she is young, Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon can change his shape to appear as any animal he chooses. Adults’ daemons settle into one shape and don’t change.

Lyra overhears a conversation between the master of Jordan College and Fra Pavel, a representative of the powerful and sinister religious body called the Magisterium. They’re discussing an expedition to the far north planned by Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel; he wants to study a mysterious substance called Dust that seems to enter Lyra’s world from parallel universes.

Even before we meet Lyra, boys and girls have been disappearing, snatched off the streets. The children call the kidnappers Gobblers. Lyra and her friend Roger promise one another that if either is caught, the other will come to the rescue. That night, while Lyra is at dinner being introduced to Mrs. Coulter, Roger and another friend, Billy Costa are taken by the Gobblers.

Lyra is taken with her new acquaintance and agrees eagerly when Mrs. Coulter, who is also planning a trip to the far north, proposes that Lyra come along as her assistant. The morning of Lyra’s departure, the master gives her a strange golden instrument called an alethiometer. He tells her that it is capable of telling the truth, but he can’t tell her much about how it works. He admonishes her to keep the alethiometer to herself…

I saw The Golden Compass with my son Connor on opening day after reading the book to him. I promised y’all a dual father-son review at the time, but life intervened. Here it is at last, a few weeks before the DVD release…


review by Connor McGowan (12)

I thought the movie was very good, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “Why did they skip through that so fast?” and “What happened to that other thing that he took a whole chapter explaining in the book?” After the movie, my dad agreed with me but explained that you can’t fit a book that large and detailed into a two-hour movie and keep it interesting for kids.

I remember thinking the same thing in the first Harry Potter movie. One of my favorite scenes in the book was the potions room in the dungeon, when Hermione solved the task. I was SO MAD when they left that out! But they have to make choices, I guess.

The special effects were just amazing, especially with the snow bears and the daemons. But I didn’t feel the same connection between the daemons and the humans as I did in the book. I wanted my own daemon more than anything.

Overall for me, keeping in mind the limitations of the movie’s director, I liked it enough to see it again. Unfortunately, it did horribly on its opening weekend and there were only a handful of people in the theatre with us.


review by Dale McGowan (45)

[NOTE: I’ve reconsidered and rephrased some of these comments in the next post.]


10. It’s bloody difficult to make a 2-hour reduction of a book of the scope, depth, and texture of The Golden Compass. That said, they blew it.

9. Despite predictions to the contrary, it is made entirely clear that “the Magisterium” is the church and the Authority is God. The officers look like catholic cardinals, the Magisterium buildings are decorated with saints and icons, Asriel is accused of “heresy,” its opponents are called freethinkers, and Mrs. Coulter refers to the “error of our ancestors” that brought “dust” (sin) into the world. Plenty clear.

8. The human/daemon relationship was made so intensely real in the book that both Connor and I longed for daemons of our own. This was the most remarkable, most brilliant, most emotionally captivating element of the book, yet the movie fails to make daemons anything more than beloved pets.

7. In the book, the witches are thousand-year-old beings, transcendent and wise, with an entirely different perspective on existence, amazing and original seers and sages. In the movie, they fly. That’s about it.

6. I spent the six months prior to the film’s release depressed because I thought chirpy, doe-eyed Dakota Fanning had been cast as Lyra. Turns out it’s Dakota Blue Richards, and she’s PERFECT. Strong, petulant, independent, but also vulnerable and good.

5. The music is absolutely terrible — a combination of overwrought wallpaper (never shuts up) and Mickey Mousing (imitates small visual actions with musical gestures).

4. The bear fight, despite some fine CGI, somehow manages to be a yawner.

3. Sam Elliott is spot-on as Lee Scoresby.

2. Coulter’s monkey is exquisitely creepy and hateworthy.

1. The ending is indescribably, epically, abysmally lame.

Anyone who has not read the book should read it before seeing the movie, then skip the movie. [Fine. That was over-the-top. See the movie.]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.