Anyone trying to navigate their way through the film adaptations of "His Dark Materials" — without having read the books — is going to need their own golden compass. After all, within the installments of Philip Pullman's trilogy, even his own characters have a lot of questions that need answering, such as our heroine Lyra's ever-pressing, "What is Dust?" — and she's the one with the alethiometer! (More on that in a bit.) So if the buzz on Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig's upcoming film series has left you wondering what's so dark about this material, here's a few things you'll need to know about this anti-"Narnia."
First of all, there are three books — "The Golden Compass" (named for the aforementioned alethiometer), "The Subtle Knife," and "The Amber Spyglass." ("They're three of my favorite books," Daniel Craig says.) The first concerns a preteen girl named Lyra — played in the film version by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards — who gets caught up in a conspiracy to kidnap children and sever them from their souls. This is no mere children's story; as actress Eva Green, who plays the witch Serafina, puts it, "It's more for adults."
In Lyra's world, your soul manifests itself on the outside of your body, and takes the form of an animal familiar. That's partly how you know what someone is like — by the shape of their dæmon — and it's how you can distinguish when someone's come of age, because their dæmon can no longer shift shape. Kidman's character, Mrs. Coulter, for instance, has a golden monkey for a dæmon, while Craig's character, Lord Asriel, has a snow leopard.
At first, a dæmon might seem like just a talking pet. But the relationship between human and dæmon is much more complex. Pantalaimon, Lyra's dæmon, is her parental figure, her best friend, her conscience, her guide, her alarm system, her scout — anything she needs, to a certain extent. Pan can see and know things she does not, and advise her accordingly. When she is cold, he becomes something soft and furry to warm her neck. If she is scared, he might become as small as a moth so he doesn't give away her feelings, or as large as a wildcat so he can attack, if she needs a defender. The only catch is, he can't go that far from her. They both feel intense physical pain when separated for too long or too far, because something intangible connects them. To sever that connection — and harness the extreme energy released at that moment — is the goal of more than one party in "The Golden Compass," and what leads to the traveling between parallel worlds of "The Subtle Knife."
Lyra has more than her dæmon for help in this first part of her adventures — she's also got a variety of people who accompany her on different stages of her journey, such as the wayfaring gyptians, the flying witch-clans, a Texan aeronaut, and a Panserbjørne (an armored polar bear). But Lyra's biggest advantage is that she's been given a strange and rare device called an alethiometer, the so-called "golden compass." It's an oracle of sorts, which can answer any question asked, but only once and only in symbols that have many layers of meaning. Anyone else would need a book and years of study to decipher it, but Lyra has an intuitive grasp of what the symbols mean. Despite this, she's still got a lot of unanswered questions, such as why children in her town of Oxford and elsewhere have been disappearing, what's being done to them, and how this all relates to a mysterious particle called Dust.
Some fear Dust as physical evidence of Original Sin, while others interpret it as consciousness or wisdom — the latter view being the one adopted by the filmmakers. Either way, it's invisible to the naked eye, and can only been seen through special devices. And because it's attracted to adults more than children, whose dæmons are not yet fixed, people in Lyra's world began to draw a connection between the two — hence the soul intercision experiments, which are operated on the premise that Dust is evil and to be feared. In our world, where "The Subtle Knife" picks up, Dust is studied as dark matter.
One sticky point, small in "The Golden Compass" but more crucial later on, is that the revisionist Church of Lyra's world is what sanctioned these experiments. In the film version, the Church is more simply referred to as the Magisterium, since, as one of the film's producers puts it, "Religion is out." With Pullman's blessing, the focus instead is on fascism, control and choice. But it begs the question, what's going to happen in the film version of "The Amber Spyglass" when the time comes for the battle with God and the angels? If the first two films are a success, will New Line become more comfortable reinserting the Gnostic thought of the books, or will they keep God out of it entirely? That's a question no alethiometer — at least not in this world — can answer.
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