Saturday, December 01, 2007

Film: The Golden Compass

Long before it's release, The Golden Compass has received a lot of attention. The film is based on the best-selling book by Philip Pullman, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

First, the trailer:

Plot summary

Based on author Philip Pullman's bestselling and award-winning novel, The Golden Compass tells the first story in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass is an exciting fantasy adventure, set in an alternative world where people's souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars, and Gyptians and witches co-exist. At the center of the story is Lyra (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old girl who starts out trying to rescue a friend who's been kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers - and winds up on an epic quest to save not only her world, but ours as well.

Now, some controversy, via the LA Times:

What's really astonishing, and telling, is how long it's taken America's religious fear-mongers to notice Pullman. He's never hidden his skepticism about God or his rejection of organized religion. A quick Internet search turns up a 2004 essay he wrote deploring "theocracies" for a newspaper in his native Britain, and his own Web site states that he thinks it "perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it." "His Dark Materials" features a sympathetic character, an ex-nun, who describes Christianity as "a very powerful and convincing mistake," while "The Amber Spyglass" concludes with the two child heroes participating in the dissolution of "the Authority," a senile, pretender God who has falsely passed himself off as the creator of the universe.

Only with a movie attached, however, does an outfit like Focus on the Family deem the "blasphemous and heretical" content of Pullman's fiction worthy of their attention. The Catholic League is calling for a boycott of the film and books; evangelical Protestant organizations have settled for simply urging their constituencies to approach both with extreme caution. Whether the controversy will harm the film or wrap it in the glamour of the forbidden remains to be seen. As for the books, well, you have to wonder how much actual reading goes on in the sort of household that welcomes e-mails like the ones denouncing "The Golden Compass," anyway.

Yes, it's true, as the e-mails virtually shriek, that Pullman once told an interviewer "His Dark Materials" is about "killing God," and that he wrote an op-ed piece describing C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" as "ugly and poisonous." It's also true that these statements have been taken out of context -- not just out of the context of a particular interview or newspaper editorial, but out of the context of an entire culture, a culture of conversation, debate and consideration, rather than paranoia, alarmism and extremism.

I first met Pullman in England, at an annual lecture sponsored by a trust dedicated to the furthering of religious education. I buttonholed Simon Pettitt, an Anglican priest and the trust's chairman, to marvel at this; his counterparts in the United States, I said, would never have invited a figure like Pullman to speak at a flagship public event. And yet, Pettitt is no renegade. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has enthused about "His Dark Materials" and participated in an onstage discussion with Pullman when a stage version of "His Dark Materials" was produced by the National Theatre in London.

"In America," I told Pettitt, "religious groups gain political advantage and rally their followers by presenting themselves as embattled. Actually listening to the other side is tantamount to admitting you're not really being persecuted." With a look of mild pity, he replied, "In order to come to views, you don't just listen to people you agree with. Education is a good thing, and, therefore, so is openness to different views."

Although Pullman has some vehement detractors among Britain's Christians, the liberal clergy there have more often valued his books for tackling the great questions of existence: life, death, morality and humanity's role in the universe. They regard his fiction as a springboard for discussion, the kind of discussion that does sometimes lead people to embrace God. They recognize him not as an enemy but as an ally in a society increasingly colonized by the vapid preoccupations of consumer culture.

Pullman also turned out to be no dogmatist. His practice of tossing out provocative statements struck me as a habit acquired during his years as a middle-school teacher, intended not to shut out opposing ideas but to flush them from the underbrush of adolescent inertia. He too is interested in what the other side has to say. This curiosity is in keeping with an ideal he calls "the democracy of reading," in which "to-and-fro between reader and text" leaves each "free to engage honestly with the other."

The article is a bit longer and worth the read.

The theme of animals representing human souls sounds vaguely shamanic to me, which is kind of cool. I'm actually quite looking forward to seeing this. I have no idea how I never read the books, but then I haven't read much fiction in the last 15 years (not even Harry Potter).


Origen said...

I thoroughly recommend reading the books before seeing the movies; apparently the movies really water down the religious/anti-religious elements.

Also, for all the guff about Pullman being a staunch atheist, his books are actually quite 'spiritual', in the best non-wanky sense of the word. He has a lot of speculative stuff about the nature of God and consciousness that's a cut above Harry Potter/Narnia et al. And most importantly of all, he writes well.

I was given the books as a christmas present and I wasn't really expecting them to be any good, but I pretty much spent a good couple of days reading them all straight through. Well worth a look.

jaz said...

Pullman literally reawakened my faith in storytelling. He is a master of the craft and his books, His Dark Materials and otherwise, are well worth reading.

william harryman said...

Thanks guys!

I'm sold -- I'll pick up the book(s) tomorrow and read it (or them) before I see the film. I tend to be disappointed when I see a film of a book, but hopefully not in this case.


Dave T said...

Indeed, the books are very worthwhile. I was first introduced to them years ago in an Integral Naked thread where Ashley recommended I get them for my son. I later was reminded of them by a reference to the second book in the series in one of Saul Williams songs, and I finally picked them up and read them.

I went to see a preview of the movie with my son tonight. It was quite good. The spiritual and religious references were a bit watered down, but only to the degree they had to be to fit the medium. I didn't come away at all feeling like they intentionally "dumbed" it down.

My son has read the books more recently than me, and he pointed out that they changed the ending a bit to mark the story a bit less dark. And, he also thinks they'll have a hard time translating the second book to a movie, unless they are willing to get quite a lot darker than this first one.

It should be interesting to see how the movie performs and if they continue the series. It deserves to do well. Though... I'm curious to hear what folks who haven't read the books have to say about it.