By Fr. George Welzbacher
December 16, 2007
On Friday, December 7th, the screens came alive in our nation's movie theatres with the much touted first installment-The Golden Compass-in a projected three unit set of films based on the trilogy His Dark Materials, a fantasy written by British atheist Philip Pullman with young readers principally in mind. The recipient of numerous prestigious awards, Mr. Pullman's fantasy transmits the message that God and angels and men are nothing more than matter-Dust- thinking itself. The product of a feverish and ingenious imagination, the trilogy offers a cast of lust-driven angels and a senile deity alluded to always as "The Authority", who is served by a consummately evil organization known simply as "The Magisterium", the term, of course, by which Catholics denote the teaching authority within Christ's Church. Mr. Pullman's "Magisterium" reveals in its structure a close parallel to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. The overthrow of this deity and its evil Magisterium is the ultimate mission of the fantasy's heroine, a young girl named Lyra Belacqua, who is assisted in her endeavour by her equally young friend Will and by an apostate Catholic nun turned physicist, Dr. Mary Malone, in collaboration with sundry rebel angels.
In its American edition the first book in Mr. Pullman's trilogy bore the title, The Golden Compass. (In the original British edition it was entitled Northern Lights). The film adaptation uses the American title. If The Golden Compass does well at the box office a subsidiary of the Time Warner media empire, New Line Cinema, plans to film adaptations of the other two books as well, viz., The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The script-writer and director of The Golden Compass, Chris Weitz (self-described as "a lapsed Catholic and crypto-Buddhist"), will preside over the entire enterprise if all goes forward as planned.
On the film's first weekend in the theatres it was the King of the Roost at the box office, though with a considerably lower "take" than the studio had anticipated. Some studio sentinels regarded this as ominous. Only time will tell whether the film will recoup its $180 million dollar production cost, a figure incidentally that does not include the major expense of grand slam marketing. My own hunch is that The Golden Compass will at least break even, though whether it will ever rack up a significant profit remains to be seen. It will probably do much better in Europe than here in the U.S.A., though even here it may prove to be a "late bloomer."
Philip Pullman makes no bones of the fact that his trilogy is atheistic propaganda for the young. In interviews he has been candid in admitting that his fantasy is "all about killing God." And indeed in The Amber Spyglass, in the chapter entitled "The End of The Authority", Lyra and Will witness The Authority's death; they come upon a crystal litter abandoned by The Authority's attendants, who have fled from the victorious rebel angels. As Will cuts open the crystal litter with his magic knife, he and Lyra find themselves face to face with The Authority himself, an incredibly old and decrepit, incoherently jabbering being who, exposed at last to buffeting winds, disintegrates, swiftly fading into nothingness.
In Pullman's fantasy The Authority had evolved eons ago from primeval cosmic dust, to become simply the First of the Angels; he thereupon claimed falsely to have been the Creator of all things. In protest against this claim some of the angels have revolted under the leadership of Lucifer (who in Pullman's telling is feminine-no matter that real angels are not composed of matter; as pure spirits they are genderiess, though in the Bible whenever they appear to human beings they assume the male form). Lucifer' revolt ultimately triumphs.
Before The Authority's defeat two of Lucifer's angels (a homoerotic couple) describe The Authority to Will in language as ludicrous as blasphemous: "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, The Almighty-those were all names He gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves-the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself ... It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, The Authority was first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she [Lucifer] found out the truth, so he banished her. We serve her still ..[though] The Authority still reigns in the Kingdom...."
Courtesy of Mr. Pullman's neo-Gnostic delirium each of the human beings who figure in his fantasy is equipped with a daemon, a kind of soul or spiritual companion that is external to the person's body and that takes the form of an animal, an animal whose basic characteristics most closely reflect the dominant urge of the individual in question. Children's daemons, as Mr. Pullman will have it, often morph from one animal form to another as their urges change. Later on, in adolescence, their daemon tends to become somewhat more fixed.
Had enough of this nonsense? Well, to cut to the chase, the film version of the triology's first book, The Golden Compass, mutes the anti-religious content almost to the vanishing point, so much so that for those unfamiliar with the written text it becomes difficult to decide just what exactly it is that Lyra's project is all about, which in turn makes it difficult to sustain interest. I found the film to be boring. For moviegoers who do not require a discernible plot-line the special effects are admittedly impressive, though by now digital magic is beginning to seem just a bit "ho-hum". The PG-13 rating is appropriate; the ferocious aggressiveness of some of the daemons and in particular a fight to the death between two huge polar bears could easily cause younger children to have nightmares. But the real danger from the filmed adaptation of The Golden Compass is that its relative innocuousness vis-a-vis religion could lead parents or grandparents to give the books as presents to their loved ones, and that would be not unlike presenting Halloween trick-or-treaters with a bag of poisoned candy. There are also the electronic spin-offs, the computer games now being sold that are inspired by Mr. Pullman's trilogy, games that might well be spiritually toxic. Parents should check the games out with care. Finally, if The Golden Compass is a box office success, thus providing a green light for production of the subsequent installments, who knows whether these will be similarly sensitive to a conscience that acknowledges Christ? Indeed, unless Books Two and Three are utterly transformed, they can scarcely fail to offend a Christian.
* * * * *To provide some "triangulation" on this whole issue, may I share with you the review that appeared in The Wall Street Journal for December 7th, written by Joe Morgenstern, followed by Peter Vere's commentary in the national edition of The Washington Times for October 29th.
* * * * *'The Golden Compass'
By Joe Morgenstem
The Alternate Victorian universe of "The Golden Compass" looks magical, seethes with elusive profundities and makes remarkably little sense, though the murkiness makes perfect sense on a shallower level.
That's because this elaborate fantasy was adapted from a trilogy of novels for young adults by the British author Philip Pullman, an outspoken atheist. Something had to give--either the big budget, and the risks it entailed, or the antireligious elements of Mr. Pullman's widely read epic, which centers on a preteen orphan named Lyra Belacqua and identifies the source of all evil in the universe as "The Magisterium," an obvious stand-in for the Holy Church. (At least one Catholic group has called for a boycott of the film in advance of today's release.)
The film's scale certainly hasn't suffered. Sequence after sequence of the sumptuous production, which was adapted and directed by Chris Weitz, summons up visual wonders- dueling digital polar bears, a Jules Verne dirigible cruising over London, an Oxford of green lawns and gleaming scientific instruments, and, at every turn, people's souls strolling alongside them in the form of animals called daemons.
The script retains the Magisterium, an all-seeing and all-knowing institution that kidnaps children and ships them off to an Arctic facility where their souls are permanently separated from their bodies. But any religious implications have been scrupulously excised, and replaced by an all-purpose, all-familiar fascism vaguely evocative of "Star Wars." And the Dust of the Pullman novels, which equated with Original Sin (at least from the Magisterium's point of view), now represents, even more vaguely, a connection to knowledge, or an awareness of other worlds.
Vagueness colors all, banishing emotional connections in the process. It's hard to care about Lyra's cosmic struggles against the Magisterium-she's played by an attractive newcomer, Dakota Blue Richards-when you're confused about her relationship with Nicole Kidman's wicked but tender Marisa Coulter (or, for that matter, about why Lyra's vague Cockney accent comes and goes). Similarly, it's hard to sustain interest in the good polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, when, despite Ian McKelien's rich voice, he reminds you of more interesting creatures in "The Lord of the Rings." Daniel Craig makes a puzzlingly brief appearance as the mysterious explorer Lord Asriel, and Sam Elliott shows up as a foxy American aeronaut.
As for how the movie ends, the short answer is that it doesn't. Rather than reconnect poor Lyra with the father she's been yearning to find, as in the book, this chronically disconnected screen version reaches a climax that's all about the next film in the series. Instead of closure we get coming attractions.
* * * * *Parents fear acclaimed Pullman stories point away from God
By Pete Vere
J. K. Rowling sparked headlines this month by declaring that a major character in her Harry Potter book series is homosexual. Christian critics, meanwhile, are paying more attention to Britain's second-most-popular children's author.
His name is Phillip Pullman, whose best-known work is the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, which has won critical acclaim, but Mr. Pullman's critics charge that the books undermine the Christian faith and promote atheism.
The first book, "The Golden Compass" (originally titled "Northern Lights"), won England's Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Prize. The American Library Association deemed it a Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. "The Golden Compass" also attracted the attention of Hollywood. A movie adaptation starring Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards is due for release Dec. 7.
Mr. Pullman's critics say the story inverts the Christian imagery used by C.S. Lewis in "The Chronicles of Namia," portrays the Catholic Church as evil and depicts the Judeo-Christian God as an evil liar.
Sophia A. Sproule, assistant editor of This Rock magazine, a Catholic monthly based in San Diego, was stunned when she read Mr. Pullman's work for the first time. Miss Sproule, whose master's degree is in English literature, described the author as well-versed in the tradition of British fantasy that began with "Alice in Wonderland," continued with J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and Mr. Lewis' "Narnia" series and recently gave rise to Mrs. Rowling's much-loved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"Like his predecessors Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, Pullman is an Oxonian with a facile command of classical mythology literary allusion, and inventive nomenclature," Miss Sproule said. "Drawing on a mythos suggested by the works of John Milton and William Blake, he creates a daring, exciting world--or worlds, as it happens-that engage the imagination and the intellect. His sly references to the Namia books will no doubt spark the recognition of readers, young and old, who have long cherished the children's classic."
Miss Sproule sees "The Golden Compass" and the other books in Mr. Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy as a source of concern for Catholic parents, describing the books' negative portrayal of God and the church as potentially damaging to the spiritual well-being of young readers.
"Pullman, an outspoken atheist and critic of religion, offers in these novels a vitriolic denunciation of religious faith in general, especially of Christianity and most pointedly of the Catholic Church (a version of it, anyway)," Miss Sproule said.
"Whether or not one believes that 'mere fiction' should be cause for alarrn, the simple truth is that to enter into a fantasy realm is to accept the world presented on its own terms," she said, adding that the Pullman books represent "not merely a wholesale rejection of religion-it is an invitation to reject God."
Seattle blogger Mark Shea (markshea,blogspot.com), one of the rnost-quoted Catholic defenders of "Harry Potter," has frequently criticized those who fail to distinguish between the fantasy use of magic in Harry Potter and the occult. Yet he too is concerned with Mr. Pullman's work, as well as its marketing to children.
"Pullman's a zealous atheist, so you get what you pay for." Mr. Shea said. "Unlike Rowling, Pullman is not subtle. He states in interviews that he is writing an anti-Namia series."
Like much of Mr. Lewis' work, Narnia presents heavily Christian allegorical themes and images. "What Pullman wants to do is proselytize for atheism," Mr. Shea said. "Pullman is writing with an agenda. He's a good writer, which makes his books even more insidious."
Of particular concern to Mr. Shea is Mr. Pullman's use of children's literature. Most atheists promote their ideas through dry academic treatises, Mr. Shea said, "but the masses don't pay attention to that. They pay attention to story and fiction. And this is where Pullman is dangerous-he promotes atheism through a children's story."
Miss Kidman assured Entertainment Weekly during an interview that the books' anti-Catholic elements were toned down for the movie. "I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence," the actress said. "I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic."
Hollywood screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi said it is not possible to tone down the anti-Christian elements of the story without compromising Mr. Pullman's work. Miss Nicolosi is chairwoman of Act One, a training and mentoring organization for Christians starting out in Hollywood, and the co-editor of "Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture."
Miss Nicolosi first became aware of Mr. Pullman's work a few years ago when the idea was first proposed to adapt "The Golden Compass" for the screen. A friend's agent asked her to pitch on the project. The friend wanted to know whether the project was reconcilable with her Christian faith.
"We read [the book] and there was just no way we could come in on this," said Miss Nicolosi, who describes Mr. Pullman's fantasy universe as nihilistic and rooted in chaos. "You cannot fix that in a rewrite without changing the story Pullman is trying to tell-which is an atheistic, and at times polemical story. It isn't fair to Pullman to gut him from his own story and present it in the same light as 'The Lord of the Rings."'