There’s nothing like controversy to promote a film. A row in the media grabs the public’s attention more effectively than official publicity campaigns ever can. So New Line Cinema and director Chris Weitz must be delighted at the fuss being made over The Golden Compass which opens in cinemas next week. There was already a great deal going for the film: it has a glittering cast, it’s such a visually rich story that the publicity department had plenty to play with, and it’s an adaptation of the first part of Philip Pullman’s already hugely popular His Dark Materials trilogy.
It’s this last point which is the key to it all, of course. Pullman is well-known as an atheist, and while his other books rarely touch on questions of religion, it’s right at the heart of the trilogy. Inevitably, his perspectives on the subject don’t go down too well in some quarters. The fact that, in the world of the first book (Northern Lights/The Golden Compass), the Church power structures (the Magisterium) form a cruel and oppressive totalitarian regime gets up some people’s noses right from the start. It may be in a parallel universe, but there are clear connections with pre-Reformation Catholicism, and it is equally clear that these people are the villains. The theological temperature rises when a connection is suggested between original sin and Dust, the mysterious particles which are associated with all humans, especially after the onset of puberty.
Things intensify in the second book, The Subtle Knife, when it becomes clear that a rebellion is being mounted against God, ‘the Authority’. In the final part of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, the Authority is exposed as a fraud and disposed of in a surprisingly anti-climactic moment during a great battle. There is strong criticism of religion from a witch (another cause of teeth-gnashing, since the witches are positive characters) and Christianity is dismissed by a former nun from our world as ‘a very powerful and convincing mistake’.
It’s hardly surprising that some Christians don’t respond to this too well. The arrival on the big screen ofThe Golden Compass means that many new readers, often young ones, will be discovering the books – and that’s a prospect which horrifies some groups. Most outspoken, or at least, most quoted, is the American Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which accuses the film of ‘selling atheism to kids’1 and has called for people to boycott the film. New Line had wanted to avoid this kind of scenario, so asked Weitz to tone down the religious elements. He claims that he had no problem doing so because the story is an attack on the totalitarian authority, not on the Catholic or any other church. Daniel Craig, who plays Lord Asriel, agrees: ‘These books are not anti-religious. Mainly they're anti-misuse of power – whether it's religious or political. They sell Dan Brown now in the Vatican so I'm sure they'll be selling this there too eventually because it presents a very healthy debate.’2
Pullman himself is happy with the way the film-makers have handled this. For him, too, it’s about abused authority generally, not religious authority in particular. The Magisterium is still despotic, but it’s no longer obviously religious, despite dark references to heresy and original sin. It has perhaps also helped that Weitz has decided to hold over the scenes which relate to the last three chapters of the book until the beginning of the second film. There are sound narrative reasons for this: heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) has apparently succeeded in her quest, and the scenes in question will work well to bridge back to the first film. But these chapters also include Lord Asriel explicitly discussing theological matters and hinting strongly at what his own quest is: rebellion against the very highest religious authorities.
The question is, are the film-makers being sneaky or practical? The Catholic League’s president, Bill Donahue has no doubt that it’s the former: ‘The protest is this: It's being done at Christmastime, and when parents don't find the film troubling, they're going to buy the books for their kids as Christmas gifts. They're doing it through the back door, in a stealth fashion, because each book becomes more provocative, more aggressive and more anti-Christian. I've never seen anything quite like this before, to use a movie like this.’ Ironically, some atheists are also very angry because they believe that the film-makers are too scared of the religious lobby to make a film which is true to Pullman’s real vision.
Weitz, however, is adamant that they are neither cutting out the film’s heart, nor deliberately creating something that, taken on its own, would not cause a blip on the Christian radar. He does admit that he had to make compromises in order to get the film off the ground. He also confesses that he ‘would be happy if it made more people read the books - not because I am pursuing any sort of atheist agenda (this is a ridiculous idea), but because they are great works of literature, beautiful, permanent, and unassailable.’3 I don’t believe that Weitz is being deceptive here, because he recognises that the next two films (if they get made) will be far more controversial. He comments:
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. This is important: whereas The Golden Compass had to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books. There is simply no way to adapt them without dealing with Lyra’s destined role, her secret name, and the war in the heavens. I will not be involved with any ‘watering down’ of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third films. If I sense that this is not possible, there’s no point my continuing to work on them.4
Pullman himself insists that, while he is an atheist, he does not have an atheist agenda. He says, ‘I am a story teller. If I wanted to send a message I would have written a sermon.’5 Yet he also famously remarked that ‘my books are about killing God’ and, ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief’. I’m not sure he can have it both ways. He has also said that he wants to explore the questions which he considers are the ‘most important of all’: Is there a God? What does it mean to be human? What is our purpose? Inevitably, he comes at those questions from a particular angle. But such questions are absolutely fundamental and we should neither be afraid of asking them, nor of considering someone else’s answers – even when they are profoundly different from our own. If we believe that our answers are true, we should engage through calm, reasoned discussion, not through closing our eyes, blocking our ears and telling everyone else to do the same.