Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James T. KeaneDecember 24, 2007

A long time ago in a fantasy land far away from here, there lived a young man who was a graduate student in Classical Philosophy. He and his many postmodernist colleagues were full of nostalgia for the past and contempt for the present, and loved to reminisce about the literature of their childhood. One day the subject turned to C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. "Oh, I loved those books so much—they were like entering a whole different world!" gushed the most enlightened and post-Christian sage of the graduate student lounge, but then her face suddenly clouded. "Until I got older, she added, and realized it was about all that."

All that, of course, was the Christianity to which Lewis drew countless (and often rather obvious) allusions in his six-book fantasy series. What my erstwhile partner in cynicism had loved about the books were the sorcerers and witches and toast with jam and talking beavers and fantastical kingdoms ruled over by bookish children that populated their pages; only as an adult did she notice Aslan talked and acted an awful lot like Jesus. This discovery had, as we liked to say in those days, problematized her hermeneutic with respect to the text.

The release of "The Golden Compass" this past month has introduced a new problem of hermeneutics into the public sphere, because the novel on which "The Golden Compass" is based starts from a radically different point of view from that of Lewis, or Tolkien, or even J.K. Rowling. Philip Pullman, we are told, wants to kill God; while he's at it, he wants to destroy organized religion as well. In both his fiction and his public comments over the years, Pullman has drawn an almost Manichean distinction between the naiveté and corruption-by-power of adherents to religious creeds on the one hand, and the heroism and dignity of atheists on the other.

The ultimate goal of his heroes in the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which the The Golden Compass is the first novel, is to forsake the notion of an otherworldly Kingdom of Heaven and create instead a Republic of Heaven among the living. In the novels, this fantasy Republic of the future sounds suspiciously like Sweden but with talking bears, or Venezuela without oil.

Pullman has sold millions of copies of the His Dark Materials trilogy by creating an imaginary world where the heroes of Lewis's and Tolkien's fantasy worlds might be considered the enemy of his child protagonists. In The Golden Compass and its sequels, an evil Magisterium seeks to brainwash rebellious children and separate them from their souls, all while propping up a false religion and seeking to frustrate the advances of science and of self-understanding. In other words, the exciting elements are still the sorcerers and witches and toast with jam, but the real action comes with the quest to overthrow God.

It sounds disgusting, on the face of it—rank propaganda for the cause of militant atheism, coated with sugar so the kids will swallow it all the more easily. And viewers should make no mistake: In the book on which this film is based, Pullman makes no bones about who are the heroes and villains in the world, and the latter include obvious parallels to organized religion, Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church in both organization and character. Many Christians and Catholics have railed against both Pullman's novels and the new film, including Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and, more recently, Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Archdiocese of Denver.

Pullman and the film's backers have claimed that the film has been significantly bowdlerized with the intention of removing any anti-religious elements. While significant changes have been made (the movie departs from the book in its lack of theological discussion or historical background for the Magisterium), "The Golden Compass" still includes a number of patently obvious references to a church whose leaders are out to keep the world under theocratic rule. In this sense, Pullman's soothing words that the theology has been left out are simply untrue.

Should Christians boycott this film as a result? To a degree, they already are, as the movie's per-screen earnings collapsed after its first week, making the prospect of two sequels a financially dicey proposition for the studios. However, I suspect the lack of an audience for "The Golden Compass" was not due to calls for a boycott or outrage on the part of Catholics. Rather, it seems more likely that moviegoers stayed away because it is not a very good film.

Never mind the overly complicated plot, set up with endless exposition but little clear presentation of the motivations of the various characters and groups depicted. One might also dismiss the gloomy special effects and scenery choices, both of which included an excess of snow and ice. Ultimately "The Golden Compass" has problems that center around two much more important elements: the acting and the dialogue.

Simply put, not a single character in this film beyond the young heroine Lyra Belacqua (played by Dakota Blue Richards with a passable degree of adolescent snarl) was particularly believable, and some, such as the aforementioned priests of the Magisterium, were comical in their mawkish attempts to appear evil. Similarly, Nicole Kidman, who played the evil Mrs. Coulter (I assume her first name was Ann), acted her role as if the director's primary suggestion was that she show no range of emotion at all: an ice queen in affect as well as in role. The script is similarly awkward, particularly when any of the supposed heroes of the film deliver what is intended as a rousing speech. The original script for "The Golden Compass" was by renowned wordsmith Tom Stoppard, but director Chris Weitz replaced his screenplay in favor of Weitz's own adaptation of the Pullman novel. It is tempting to imagine Stoppard's efforts would have been a significant improvement.

There are some strengths among these weaknesses, of course: the story does convey well a child's sense that the everyday world is hiding a more exciting and exotic reality, and Weitz by and large captures those elements of Pullman's novel that made it a best-seller, including some wonderfully anthropomorphized creatures as well as a real sense of menace. A central conceit of Pullman's story is that in the alternate universe in which these books (and film) are set, each individual's soul is embodied in an animal which accompanies its human at all times, and these talking beasts are cleverly and believably done. Audiences beyond children and fantasy aficionados will find moments to enjoy.

But what of the earlier question: Is "The Golden Compass" an appropriate film for Christians? Should parents take their children to see it, knowing it may spark their interest in reading the books? But of course—we should not fear books or underestimate our children. Parents should be happy if their children want to read them. The potential harm is far outweighed by the definite good achieved by getting kids to read in general. Anti-Catholic fiction in this country has been around for as long as the United States has existed—think of the lurid escaped-from-the-convent potboilers of another century—and the church has survived and flourished.

Both The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy had explicitly pro-Christian themes, and one could easily find many of those themes still present in their cinematic adaptations. Those films, particularly the LOTR series, sold hundreds of millions of tickets, and exposed a significant portion of the world's population to the artistic preoccupations of their deeply Christian creators. So why should Catholics generously support those films but then blow a rhetorical gasket when a fantasy series instead makes our religious institutions out to be the bureaucratic home of cartoonish supervillains? We are perhaps better served by demonstrating our faith is not damaged by what is ultimately little more than bad art.

I think back to my fellow graduate student from a decade ago, and realize that despite our different opinions on almost all matters religious, we would still agree on this much: Authorial intent need not be the only lens through which one judges or appreciates literature or art. If children fall in love with The Golden Compass, so be it. If they ask for the books for Christmas, perhaps they should be allowed to read them. Also buy The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But we should not be surprised if the wholesome influence of those latter books fails to turn our children into God-fearing Christians. Children mostly want the wizards and the talking bears and for the kids to be made kings.

More: Films
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
16 years 3 months ago
As a former professor of Child Growth and Development, I would not recommend reading or buying any anti-Catholic books for children as there is not enough time in life to read all the quality literature for children and young adults. The slightest possibility of harm to their development should be fair warning to thinking adults. Why risk possible harm when there is a better choice? As a Roman Catholic why would anyone want to support a basically evil man with the purchase of anything so clearly stated as anti-God? There are better ways to help the world with your money. It is as simple as that! THINK!
16 years 3 months ago
I worry about the words "God fearing." Most of my life was spent fearing God. It was fear - not love. Does not God love us? We do sin of course and need to recognize the effects of sin. What of God's love? MJC
Laura Veras
16 years 3 months ago
I am 19 years old (Roman Catholic, attending a Jesuit university, and in my school's American Cathlic Studies program))and I read this trilogy several years ago. I am saddened that so many parents are reacting this way, underestimating the ability of their own children to understand that these books are simply fiction. Of all the things in this world that can lead a person away from faith, a few books should be the least of your worries. And if a book really causes someone to lose their faith, then I would argue they never really had true faith to begin with. Im not saying you should buy the books for them, but please allow children to read what they want; let books of all kinds expand their horizons, so that they can make more informed decisions. And I'd also add that works of fiction are not meant to instruct us in theological matters, we rely on our Church for that. Peace
Laura Veras
16 years 3 months ago
I am 19 years old (Roman Catholic, attending a Jesuit university, and in my school's American Cathlic Studies program))and I read this trilogy several years ago. I am saddened that so many parents are reacting this way, underestimating the ability of their own children to understand that these books are simply fiction. Of all the things in this world that can lead a person away from faith, a few books should be the least of your worries. And if a book really causes someone to lose their faith, then I would argue they never really had true faith to begin with. Im not saying you should buy the books for them, but please allow children to read what they want; let books of all kinds expand their horizons, so that they can make more informed decisions. And I'd also add that works of fiction are not meant to instruct us in theological matters, we rely on our Church for that. Peace
Joe Clarke
16 years 3 months ago
I'm not so sure that Tolkien's LOTR has such an "explicitly pro-Christian theme". Tolkien's themes are more primordial, even archetypical, which is probably why they are enjoyed in many non-Christian cultures. Fundamental good versus evil; with the good not so invincible to the seductive evil of power. Tolkien relies on the power of a tale well-told; the engagement of the imagination in an epic adventure, and not any message that might be secreted within the characters or situations of the book. Tolkien hated the idea that his work was considered by some as allegorical and that it's real meaning and value was in deciphering the correlative to current day belief or events. It is ultimately a work of artistic creation (I'd even say sacramental) that does not need to be reduced or justified by a pro or anti Christian theme.
16 years 3 months ago
I think that it is fascinating the way the Catholic Body can find anti-religion in anything that is not an outright analogy to Jesus Christ, Himself, or to God, or to organized religion, or more particularly, the Catholic Church, itself. In the pages of a fantasy novel, written by a self-confessed atheist, they can manage to find a plot to destroy The Church, or organized religion, even to kill God. It seems that they've managed to forget one important aspect of the God they serve and preach about. It is impossible to kill God. God is a non-corporeal entity. Non-corporeal entities cannot be killed. It is a scientific, and a religious impossibility. Even an atheist would know this. Especially an atheist who happens to be a novelist, writing fantasy novels. This would be an important precept of the fantasy world about which he writes. Non-corporeal entities cannot be killed. Therefore, it would be pointless to write a novel that tries to do so. Even an atheist would know that writing about religion or God in a fantasy novel would surely doom the work to never be published, much less being read. It would be literary suicide to include such concepts in a fantasy novel, or any kind of fiction, for that matter. Even the Catholics would have to admit, that novels that deal with God and religion are the least read fiction on the shelves. God and religion are relegated to the Non-Fiction section, and sure most certainly stay there. Every good author would know this, and would adhere to this. So, though Mr. Pullman may be an atheist, which would preclude his mentioning a God he doesn't even believe in within the pages of his novel - either pro or con, I'm fairly certain, as even the Catholics should be, that his novel is not an attack on religion, nor is it an attack on God. And, so far, in all of my reading, the only work I've found that even attempts to destroy any organized religion, or to do away with God, is the very work upon which the Catholics have based all their teachings. The Holy Bible. Since the Catholics can find nothing wrong with the Bible and its attacks on God, I think they need to get up off Mr. Pullman and his series of novels. It's fiction, folks. It's not a religious treatise. It's a Fantasy Novel, a series of Fantasy Novels, and Fantasy movies. Just because it doesn't come right out and support the Catholic Church and their teachings, does not make it anti-God, nor anti-religion. It's a darned good novel, and a darned good movie. Entertainment. That's all. Fantasy. Escapism. Nothing more. I don't know about you, but my God isn't threatened by "The Golden Compass," or any of the other works.
Alan Miceli
16 years 3 months ago
I think many parents would take issue with your call to let their children read these books. A large part of our responsibility is to protect our kids from media sources that lie to them about the nature of good and evil. We have made choices that carry heavy responsibilities. We baptized them. We try to open their minds and hearts to the Eucharist. Given all of that, why would we offer such literature when so much good reading is available? They will have plenty of time when they become adults to read this trilogy.
16 years 3 months ago
Agreed with the review. Let the thing speak for itself. Most children, and clearly their parents, will note the emptiness of these books and productions in comparison to Tolkien and Lewis and for that matter, L'engle. By the way, loved the delicious reference to the evil Mrs. (Ann) Coulter. That aside, I think these books speak for their own lack of faith and heart.
16 years 3 months ago
I understand that the theme of overthrowing God can even be found in the Christian Bible yet it is because of darkness that such a concept ever existed. So why hint at any means of endorsement? There is enough darkness without emphasizing it in a movie that can never be called theological. When darkness closes over Light ... children should never read it. (Lest the one who laughs at Prayer and Praise see and think he has a chance to sway them).
15 years 6 months ago
First of all, I want to commend the author for encouraging an open mind about the books and the movie. The books are so wonderful. If Christians and Catholics would lower their defenses and read them, they would see that they are wonderful pieces of literature, and the church has nothing to worry about. The movie is mediocre--no need to worry there. Pullman is against the institutions that have for millenniums squandered free speech and free thought, and to just "do what the church says." He does not like organized religion, and he turns the God that we know into, essentially, a fraud. But he never questions spirituality, or goodness, or charity. He is mostly encouraging people to think for themselves. That's it. He never, ever EVER encourages "evil." If there is such a thing. I don't believe there is. I am no longer Catholic. I can relate to the teachings of love, but I cannot to some teachings that don't feel right to me, for me. But I respect the institution, and I am really glad the author wrote such a good article on The Golden Compass. I would encourage him to read the books. They are fiction, after all. :)

The latest from america

Speaking with Catholic News Service before formally taking possession of his titular church in Rome April 21, Cardinal Christophe Pierre described the reality of the church in the United States as a “paradox.”
Listen to Gemma’s homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, in which she explains how her experience of poverty in Brazil gave radical significance to Christ’s words: “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.”
PreachApril 22, 2024
Scott Loudon and his team filming his documentary, ‘Anonimo’ (photo courtesy of Scott Loudon)
This week, a music festival returns to the Chiquitos missions in Bolivia, which the Jesuits established between 1691 and 1760. The story of the Jesuit "reductions" was made popular by the 1986 film ‘The Mission.’
The world can change for the better only when people are out in the world, “not lying on the couch,” Pope Francis told some 6,000 Italian schoolchildren.
Cindy Wooden April 19, 2024