The recent success of The Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings trilogy spilled a few drops of blood into the entertainment waters. It seemed that the genre of epic fantasy — preferably, epic fantasy with overtones of the eternal–would line the pocket books of producers with hundreds of millions of dollars for years to come. In search of the next blockbuster, filmmakers have turned to The Golden Compass, the first in a trilogy that rocked British young-adult literature. But Americans, American Christians particularly, are not buying it as the successor to Tolkien and Lewis. Why not?
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is no lightweight kid lit. Lush and imaginative, it follows a scrappy girl from another world named Lyra as she is drawn towards discovering the true nature of original sin, a theological particle known as Dust. She travels between worlds brimming with witches, angels, and warrior bears with little more than her daemon, an animal-formed manifestation of her soul, and her alethiometer, a truth-telling golden compass. A prophecy foretells that the fate of the world rests upon her shoulders, and thus she is pursued by both the rebellion and the establishment in the heavenly wars that rage about her to determine, once and for all, if Man will have free will.
To what did the Christians object, exactly? The Catholic League warns of the author’s “objective to bash Christianity and promote atheism. To kids.” Not enough? The book depicts a mercy killing of God, celebrates the Fall of Adam and Eve as the liberation of mankind, and references Christianity as a “convincing mistake.” As if it followed a checklist of “How to Infuriate Conservative Christians,” the third book includes a pair of openly gay angels. And if you’re Catholic, be doubly warned–the earthly body masterminding all of the oppression, zipping around on its zeppelins literally ripping the souls out of children, is known as the Magisterium.
Let that sink in a little.
Of course, a simple anti-Catholic tract, one hopes, would not have received the critical acclaim accorded to Pullman. If one listens more closely to his interviews, Pullman claims to be fighting not so much against God, but more generally against that favorite liberal spectre of “theocracy,” using something that looks like the Catholic Church as his villain. And it isn’t just the God-fearin’ folk he finds frightening–he duly recognizes the atheistic USSR as one of the most cruel and effective theocracies in history. In an essay in the Guardian, he explains that “the real division is not between those states that are secular, and therefore democratic, and those that are religious, and therefore totalitarian. . . . You don’t need a belief in God to have a theocracy.” It’s no coincidence that he often refers to the poseur-God who is murdered in his trilogy as “the Authority,” for it is the enforcement of any authority he despises more than God. His opinion of Catholics who take offense at his book? “Nitwits,” he says.
One is tempted to write a book with a main character named “Philip Pullman,” described with his background and vital statistics, then replace his personality with that of a power-hungry tyrant who kidnaps and slaughters children to further his own goals. Perhaps go so far as to make the literary “Philip Pullman” responsible for the enormity of pain and suffering in the world. If he objects, call him a nitwit for failing to see the deeper meaning in your work.
To its credit, the film does deflect some of the characterization of the Magisterium from the Catholic Church onto the USSR. Instead of flowing liturgical robes, the shadowy figures sport brocaded military uniforms. The intricacies of Catholic churches are traded in for the utilitarian clean lines and almost futuristic architecture of a progressive Soviet society. The Magisterium’s legion of mercenaries in the final battle of the movie recall images of the Russian military, with serious Soviet troops topped in tall fur hats. This reference, however, might not be clear to one who has not read Pullman’s other comments.
The director, Chris Weitz, further discussed the books’ anti-authoritarianism in an interview where he stated that “the institution that I think most closely resembles the Magisterium is the government of Iran.” Imagine if the film had moved in that direction: Now there would be an inconvenient truth. But would a book series in which Allah was killed and children were persecuted at the hands of imams win huge critical acclaim and a movie deal–even if it were meant only to lionize free will, not attack the religion? Certainly not. It would have been blamed for causing riots around the globe, condemned as hateful, and most likely stymied in production. But why bother with rioting mobs halfway around the world when obliging Christian groups can politely boycott and create a free publicity campaign for your film?
In some respects, then, Compass has it both ways. The books created a controversy that has made the film one of the most anticipated releases of the upcoming season. Within the film, however, there is little to get into a tizzy about. Much of what would be considered heretical or offensive does not pop up until the third book in the trilogy, and a fastidious pruning of the sprawling tentacles of the Magisterium removed much of what would identify the group as Christian.
The Dust that thou art (and unto which we shall return), ceases to reflect the knotty concept of original sin. Now the golden particles seem to be little more than a discomfited moniker for something like “The Force.” Adam and Eve become a blithe reference to “some of our ancestors,” and their fall becomes a nameless “bad choice” of the past. God loses his loaded name and is referred to as merely “the Authority.” “Jesus,” “the Church,” and “sin” are conspicuously absent. Rather than fill in these newly formed blanks with an alternate explanation–no easy task, of course–the film leaves them blank.
The Magisterium becomes merely an omnipresent group whose purpose as described in the movie is to “keep things working by telling people what to do.” When it is revealed that the Magisterium intends to sever the daemons from children to protect them from the accumulation of Dust that begins at puberty, it sounds more confusing than shocking. While the book gives vision and purpose to the Magisterium by confronting at least one Christian dogma, the movie’s villains are one-dimensional baddies. Why do they desire to control the wills of others? Stripped of theological implications, the film offers little or no answer. One wonders how the producers plan to end on screen the thoroughly spiritual series, which unfortunately contorts itself into a series of didactic rants in the third book.
Minus all these weighty discussions of the mythologies in the book series, the movie comes up short and stilted. Scenes in the books are shuffled or invented out of whole cloth and characters are rearranged and renamed. Many of the questions that are posed by the variety of moralities among species of conscious beings in the world are swept away in the script, so the film focuses on CGI rather than substance.
Ineptly cannibalizing its own themes in a hope to be all things to all people, the film ends up an exercise in vapidity rather than a great new epic. Such is the price of seeking to adapt a book that propagandizes for an unpopular philosophy into a major motion picture. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, the conversation of the computer-animated daemons sparkling, and Kidman nearly shatters the screen with her icy glamour as the deliciously wicked Mrs. Coulter. Yet despite so much technical richness, the film still feels empty.
What is notable is that most of the outraged buzz circulating about the movie did not ask it to be banished from the screen. In fact, the opening line of one of the most widely circulated e-mails mildly states, “If you decide that you do not want to support something like this, I suggest that you boycott the movie and the books.” A comparison of Christian objectors to rioting Islamists provoked by cartoons and teddy bears would be laughable. And that comparison is precisely what makes it so revealing that the film (and the books) chose not to use the radical Islamic republics as its stunt double.
It was the studios that chose to water down the potency of Pullman’s message so it could appeal to a broader audience. This word of warning to fanatics of the series: Keep in mind that the Christians did not kill The Golden Compass. It committed suicide.
The greatest fans of the trilogy might say it rallies against those who would eliminate the messiness of moral complexity and free will in favor of spiritual lobotomy. It is woefully ironic, then, that the film version severs off its own soul in an attempt to be marketable.
— Emily Karrs is an NR editorial associate.