De-Mythologizing the Search for Self: A Comparison of Four Children’s Fantasy Films

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The necessity to rely solely on Lyra’s perspective forces the viewer to see this cinematically stunning world only through Lyra’s artificially jaded eyes.  The audience is never allowed a moment of wonder in this film such as the moment when Lucy emerges into Narnia that first time. Unlike Lucy, Lyra is too tough to allow herself the vulnerability of wonder.  She must give the appearance that nothing surprises her, frightens her, or awes her; and this shell of invincibility stands between the audience and any sense of the numinous that they might find in this story. The ability to wonder at Lyra’s world is further undercut by the film’s opening exposition in which everything about Lyra’s world – dust, parallel worlds, daemons – is explained to the viewer by Seraphina Pekkala’s matter-of-fact voiceover. The viewer is thus robbed of the pleasure afforded the reader of discovering the intricacies of Lyra’s Oxford as the story unfolds, even though the exposition is probably necessary for viewers who are only getting part of the complex trilogy in this first film.

If the set designers are the most important people behind the screens, the young actresses playing Lucy and Lyra are the most important people on them; but The Golden Compass is not a child-ensemble piece like the Potter films or Narnia. Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra carries the burden of the entire film on her shoulders in a way that Georgie Henley as Lucy does not. This is true on a mythological level as well, since there is nothing to The Golden Compass without Lyra.  Her loss of innocence is the only thing that matters.  There is nothing bigger than she is.  Her alethiometer is under her instinctive power.  The very question of dust hinges on her decision.  There is no magic, just Lyra’s adventure.

Everyone associated with the film recognized the danger of relying so heavily on a single child. Even Pullman himself was aware of this problem from a narrative standpoint. Early on, as he has related in a number of interviews, he saw that first chapters of the book “weren’t working.”  He recognized that Lyra needed something outside of herself, and this is the point at which he invented daemons to give Lyra a foil, something to push up against.  The irony that the most intriguing element of Pullman’s story comes from his need to recognize the very thing that he seeks to deny – the numinous, that which is greater than ourselves – is no doubt lost on Pullman.  The exposition of the film explains that there are many worlds, “worlds like yours where people’s souls live inside their bodies, and worlds like mine where they walk beside us as animal spirits known as daemons.”  Abbot Zerchi in A Canticle for Leibowitz posits a truth about souls that Pullman misses: “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily” (281). In Pantalaimon, Pullman has merely created an enchanting mirror of the physical version of Lyra, but both remain unconnected to anything greater than each other.

The ultimate good in Lyra’s world is human knowledge, something we spend a lifetime trying to achieve in our own strength with little hope of attaining it.  There is no significant sacrifice in Lyra’s world, no transcendent redemption.  Like the Narnia film, Compass also stars an amazing CGI animal; but, while Iorek Byrnison comes to Lyra’s aide and would probably die for her if need be, he is no Aslan on the stone table making death itself work backwards. Further, we see no change in Lyra as a result of the bear’s faithfulness that is comparable to the change we see in Edmund as he comes to realize what Aslan has done for him. Indeed, there is little love in Lyra’s world at all apart from her love for Pantalaimon and he for her.  Lyra cannot choose anything different, for this is a world in which the author makes all the choices for his characters.  Lyra’s decisions are predestined by her creator before her story begins, thus any subsequent films based on the series can only further disappoint viewers.  Lyra will never get to choose, as Will Stanton does, whether or not she will sacrifice her innocence, seek a different kind of knowledge, and save her world. The final sacrifice of her budding love for Will Parry on the altar of the Republic of Heaven cannot help but ring hollow. There will be no music of the spheres here.  The price is too small, and the prize too unbelievable, grounded as it is in human experience, to elicit our compassion.

It is no wonder that there is little, if any talk about continuing with the Pullman series.  No amount of cinematic artistry can redeem a story that has been so de-mythologized before it even gets to the screen.  Where there is no sense of eucatastrophe there can be no joy, and joy is essential to fantasy. Lewis knew this, and Adamson understood it. The various directors of the Harry Potter films have grasped it on varying levels because it is so very prevalent in Rowling’s books. It is there in Cooper’s books as well, and it may be possible to bring that series to the screen successfully as the Narnia film demonstrates.  However, when there is no sense of the numinous to work with in the text itself, there is little hope of creating a fantasy film that will fulfill our need for story or give us a glimpse of that other world for which we long and were created.