I know most people are focused on the movie than the book. But some movies are based on a story. If you want to get to the heart of where the author originally wanted to go, then read first, watch later. This goes for adults as well as shortcutting high school English students.
The Golden Compass, as I stated in the last post, is an alternate Earth. Please keep that in mind. The world that Pullman has created is his own. It is not this world. But his worldview, how he believes and understands the universe, is the underpinnings of his created Earth in the book series.
The book begins with the hero of the series, Lyra. She is 11. She is rambunctious and feisty. She gets involved in the play wars of the boys from around her. In fact, she is often the leader. She has been abandoned into the care of one of the colleges of Oxford. She is cared for by Scholars, priests, administrators, and servants of the college. Her parents, she is told, were killed early in her life. Her only relative is an uncle who pays her infrequent visits.
The one companion she has is actually a creature of unknown origin. Perhaps it is her conscience or her soul, as one reviewer wrote. But she isn't the only one with one of the companions, these daemon. Everyone in this world has a daemon. Daemons are almost magical. They can change form. They share an empathic link with their human. And they cannot move very far from their human. If they do it causes great discomfort to both.
Lyra is brought into an adventure when she hides herself in a wardrobe (a nod to Lewis?, whom Pullman does not like)and hears her uncle describe an expedition into the frozen North. Through a series of harrowing twists and turns, Lyra finally makes her journey northward, gathering companions along the way. I won't reveal any of the plot more than it is a journey adventure.
The subtext of the book, though, comes out loud and clear: people should be free to think and choose what they want. That's right. It is not about destroying the church. Pullman does make the church to be the "villain" in this story. And he does not use religion in general in this book. He uses the imagery, language, and architecture of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church in particular. They work behind the scenes of policy and commissions to control freedom of thought and limiting the choices of people. The church exists to control and dominate, to limit and remove freedom. The adventure is the effort to save our freedom to think for ourselves.
Here is where I believe that Pullman has a limited view of the church. Somehow he has come to understand that people are limited in their choices when they choose a religious life. He makes it sound as if religious beliefs are filled with boundaries and limitations. But my experience, growing in knowledge and understanding, is that we are not limited. Instead, we have a greater sense of freedom.
Book 1 does not set out to destroy the church. But it does entice people to think that free thought and free will choice and religion are mutually exclusive. The truth, as I see it, is that we were given the powerful gift to use our minds and apply them to everything that comes before us.
We can use logic and memory to evaluate and judge for ourselves whatever course we want. Because some of us choose to believe that there is a God who has the power to create reality, bend reality, break into reality, and communicate with what has been created (us), then that is within our freedom to choose. We are not limited in that choice. Instead, most who choose to believe AND pursue God find freedom and life.