A softer, gentler Golden Compass

(Updated) A movie based on the first book of a trilogy whose author says “My books are about killing God” is about to hit the big screen. In the His Dark Materials series, author Philip Pullman sets out a complex treatise against organized religion in the context of a textured and believable alternative universe.

The Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times both say that Pullman disdains “The Lord of the Rings” and detests “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

The Pullman trilogy is, among other things, a carefully argued brief against organized religion, and aims at nothing less than to reimagine the story of the Fall in a way that does away with the notion of original sin. God eventually turns out to be a pathetic imposter, not unlike the Wizard of Oz.

Pullman says, when his work is compared to C.S. Lewis’, that “Narnia” is the Christian one and “mine is the non-Christian.”

So a funny thing happened on the way to the silver screen, Hollywood couldn’t commit. They softened the edges. Previously, marketers worried that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its overtly Christian message would “drive away moviegoers who preferred to see wicked witches and talking lions.” Now, they are worried about marketing a movie with a sham, weakling God.

Writes Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic Monthly:

In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable. The studio settled on villains that, as Emmerich put it, “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian/KGB/SS” stew. The movie’s main theme became, in one producer’s summary, “One small child can save the world.” With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.

Pullman response to these changes has been relatively placid. He has had some control over portions of the production, yet his controversial writings and anti-religious beliefs has made the producers and other in Hollywood nervous.

In the past, Pullman has defended the “good faith of the film-makers” and denied any “betrayal.” On the surface, his relationship with the studio has remained “cordial,” as he put it. The director, Chris Weitz, has made several pilgrimages to Oxford, and the two men exchange e-mails. Pullman got to review a video of the final 50 candidates for the part of Lyra, and he has made script suggestions. Still, the studio publicist seemed nervous when she heard I was going to visit him. All things being equal, Pullman told me, New Line would prefer he were, well, the late author of The Golden Compass. Dead? “Yes! Absolutely!” If something happened to him, there “would be expressions of the most heartfelt regrets, yet privately they would be saying, ‘Thank God.’”

Pullman writes in the Times of London that he had no interest in micro-managing the production, believing that the story could survive the transformation into a film.

There were fans of the book – many of them – who let me know they expected me to watch over the process with a beady eye and pounce at once to correct any errors, omissions or general backsliding on the part of the film makers. But I wasn’t interested in doing that. In the first place, I judged that the people in charge of making the film were men and women of integrity and intelligence and I was happy to let them get on with it without my interference. In the second place I had plenty of other things to do. And in the third place it’s neither productive nor interesting to nag, fret and fuss over something that you haven’t got very much influence over anyway.

Besides, I thought the story was robust enough to survive its transfer from book to screen. It ought to be robust: it has been told many times already, starting with chapter three of the Book of Genesis and continuing with Paradise Lost. And although my version of it started as a novel, and it was as good a novel as I could make it, I’ve never regarded it as being so precious and exquisite that it would shatter at a touch.

At the same time, Pullman is aware that if he discusses his theology too much, he might “talk the next two films of the trilogy out of existence.”

But in his writing, Pullman tries to use the grandeur of religious imagery and spiritual themes to re-frame religious belief from he thinks is fundamentally destructive into something essentially creative, but non-theistic.

Pullman has expressed admiration for Richard Dawkins, a fellow British atheist. Like him, Pullman views the prevailing forms of religion as destructive and oppressive forces in history. “Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him,” he once said. But his views are not as coldly antiseptic as Dawkins’s. He grew up going to Sunday school and has only fond memories of serving as a choirboy in his grandfather’s rural Anglican parish. One of Pullman’s favorite subjects is the moral power of stories, and he can sound preacher-like when he addresses it. “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he once wrote. Pullman’s own books are full of the mysticism and grandeur often associated with religion, which is no doubt part of their appeal. “We need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things the Kingdom of Heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver,” he said in a 2000 speech.

When pressed, Pullman grants that he’s not really trying to kill God, but rather the outdated idea of God as an old guy with a beard in the sky. In his novels, he replaces the idea of God with “Dust,” made up of invisible particles that begin to cluster around people when they hit puberty. The Church believes Dust to be the physical evidence of original sin and hopes to eradicate it. But over the course of the series, Pullman reveals it to be the opposite: evidence of human consciousness, a kind of godlike energy that surrounds everyone. People accumulate Dust by “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on.” It starts to build up around puberty because, for Pullman, sexual awakening triggers the beginning of self-knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To him, the loss of sexual innocence is not a tragedy; it’s the springboard to a productive and virtuous adulthood.

The question for Christians is how to at once respond to and understand the films. The “Dark Materials” trilogy is not as well known in the United States and it is in Great Britain, so the films will be the first introduction to Pullman’s writings and thinking. To boycott the films sight unseen, something that the Catholic League has already organized, seems to draw attention to the films. Besides, a boycott will not engage the content of the film.

The task may be for Christians to at once acknowledge the historic symptoms of abuse and violence that has plagued organized religion, while moving the conversation into the deeper points of contact.

What do you think?

Read more:

Times OnLine: My Golden Compass sets a true course

The Atlantic.com: How Hollywood Saved God.

The New York Times: The Golden Compass-Unholy Production With a Fairy-Tale Ending

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