'Golden Compass' movie opening to controversy
It's the world of author Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, and on Dec. 7 a movie based on the first book in that series, "The Golden Compass," hits theaters. For weeks now, the movie has been the focus of e-mails from concerned Christians, curious if what they heard about it is true. In this instance -- as even the truth-or-fiction website Snopes.com affirms -- the rumors mostly are fact.
Pullman himself is not sure whether he's an atheist or an agnostic, but his own words leave little doubt that he has a strong distaste for Christianity -- at least Christianity as he sees it.
The entire series has been dubbed the "anti-Narnia," with Pullman regularly expressing disdain for C.S. Lewis' fictional world and even once calling it "propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology." He has sought to write a completely different fictional tale, and he has succeeded. He said in a 2001 interview, "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief," and two years later told another newspaper, "My books are about killing God."
Pullman has been more toned down in recent interviews, perhaps because New Line Cinema has invested more than $150 million in the first installment and because it needs to be successful if the final two books are to make it to the big screen.
Launched in 1995, the book series has been wildly popular across the Atlantic and won several awards in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., Al Roker of NBC's "Today Show" recently even made The Golden Compass part of his children's book club. And, children are reading it: During an interview with Roker, Pullman took videotaped questions from children about the The Golden Compass. He also took questions on the show's website, where one boy, an 8 year old in Virginia, said he was reading the book with his class. It is being sold nationwide in schools through Scholastic, which also is selling the other two books and claims the The Golden Compass is appropriate for grades four and up.
The movie itself focuses on a 12-year-old girl named Lyra and her daemon (pronounced "demon") -- her soul in the form of a talking animal. Everyone in her world, in fact, has a daemon, which could range from a monkey to a lion. Early in the movie her friend Roger is kidnapped, and she sets out to find him.
The movie -- rated PG-13 -- reportedly avoids using the word "church" and instead calls it the "Magisterium," a Roman Catholic term. Additionally, in the second and third books "God" is regularly called the "Authority." The book and movie gets it name from a golden device that can, according to the books, determine truth itself.
In fact, the most anti-religious elements are found not in the first book but in the latter two. Movie director Chris Weitz has said some of the more controversial ideas have been removed from The Golden Compass to make it more palatable for the public. Weitz said his goal is to make sure controversial scenes and dialogue -- critical to the plot -- are included in any future movies.
"The whole point, to me, of ensuring that 'The Golden Compass' is a financial success is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful, more literal adaptation of the second and third books," he said Nov. 14 on an MTV movie blog.
If that's the case, then the next two movies could be even more controversial. For instance:
-- In the second book in the trilogy, "The Subtle Knife," one of the main characters, Will, is told he possesses "the one weapon in all the universes" -- a magical knife -- that can "defeat the tyrant." That tyrant, he is told, is "The Authority. God."
-- In "The Amber Spyglass," the third and final book of the series, Will is told -- by two fallen, homosexual angels, no less -- that "The Authority" has many names, "God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty." These were names God "gave himself" even though "he was never the creator." Instead, Will is told, the Authority simply was the first angel formed out of "Dust" and thereafter God proceeded to tell "those who came after him that he had created them."
-- In another scene in The Amber Spyglass, one of the homosexual angels tells Will that churches "tell their believers that they'll live in Heaven, but that's a lie." Instead, believers go to a "prison camp."
-- In one of the final chapters of The Amber Spyglass, an ex-nun named Mary tells Will and Lyra, "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." Mary also tells them that after she learned there was no God, she soon discovered that "physics was more interesting anyway."
One of Pullman's apparent themes is that science and reason trump faith.
"I don't think it's a reach to say that faith and enjoyment are antithetical in Pullman's worldview," Adam Holz, associate editor of Focus on the Family's Plugged In, told Baptist Press. "He seems to say that it's impossible to have a life of joy, of pleasure, and be a member of the church."
Pullman himself has said his books have Christian themes because that was his world as a child -- his father was an Anglican clergyman. If he had grown up as a Jew, he has said, his books likely would have had Jewish themes. His biggest contentions with Christianity specifically and religion in general are the atrocities committed over the centuries in God's name. That theme seems to have made it into the movie; the narrator in the trailer says the world of The Golden Compass "is dominated by the Magisterium, which seeks to control all humanity."
"[I]f there is a God and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against," Pullman told the Telegraph newspaper in 2002. "As you look back over the history of the Christian church, it's a record of terrible infamy and cruelty and persecution and tyranny. How they have the bloody nerve to go on [the BBC's] 'Thought for the Day' and tell us all to be good when, given the slightest chance, they'd be hanging the rest of us and flogging the homosexuals and persecuting the witches."
In that same interview he talked about his desire to write books for all age groups.
"I wanted to reach everyone, and the best way I could do that was to write for children and hope that they'd tell their parents ... which is what happened," he said.
The trilogy ends with Lyra, Will and their companions killing "God" and then resolving how their own relationship (they're in love) will continue.
Cedarville University President Bill Brown told BP he hopes the movie will present Christians the opportunity to discuss their faith publicly in the media -- in the same way "The Da Vinci Code" presented such an occasion.
"The God he has in his books -- particularly in the last book -- is not the Creator God," Brown said, emphasizing the evil nature of the trilogy's God. "It's just a weak being that is blown away at the very end.... I'm opposed to that view of God and to that view of the church, too."
Holz said he's concerned about the books' impact on children.
"Not only has the story got a deeply anti-Christian component to it, but [Pullman is] aiming that story at children who may not have the discernment to notice or understand the message he's delivering," Holz said. "I think Christians need to be aware of where he is coming from. Even if they tone down the anti-church references in all the movies, we're concerned that it's still going to lead people back to the books, because it's going to make people curious."
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.