A young girl embarks on an adventure to different lands, with the help of a talking polar bear and a balloon-riding cowboy. With stunning visuals and a promise by producers that it is the next "Lord of the Rings," the fantasy film "The Golden Compass" is one of the most highly anticipated movies of the holiday season.
Before rushing out to buy tickets, however, Catholic parents may want to learn more about the history of the movie, which was adapted from the first of a series of children's books by British author Philip Pullman.
Pullman is a gifted writer. His prose is graceful, his imagination rich and his powers of observation keen. Nevertheless, his work must be viewed with extreme caution, for he instills atheism through his artful stories -- while primly claiming not to do so.
Pullman's award-winning trilogy "His Dark Materials" consists of "The Golden Compass" (1995), "The Subtle Knife" (1997) and "The Amber Spyglass" (2000). The lavish movie version of the first volume, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, comes to theaters Dec. 7. Spurred by this event, countless children will also be getting the printed trilogy and its trail of movie tie-ins for Christmas.
The film adaptation may turn out to be less offensive than its source material. To protect a $180 million investment, director Chris Weitz and parent studio New Line Cinema have muted Pullman's message somewhat. By stopping three chapters short of the book's end, they spare audiences a twisted discourse on the Fall of Man in Genesis and the Church's response to original sin that anticipates far more strident anti-Christian material in "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass."
Of course, if "The Golden Compass" fails at the box office, volumes two and three won't reach the screen. Most fantasy films have underperformed this year and theater schedules are crowded this December with holiday films and award hopefuls.
Earlier this fall, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for a protest of the movie and its source material (see box on Page 13). In a media release, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said: "We are fighting a deceitful stealth campaign on the part of the film's producers. Our goal is to educate Christians so that they know exactly what the film's pernicious agenda really is." Unfortunately, the boycott could backfire by generating extra publicity for the movie.
The overall title of Pullman's trilogy is "His Dark Materials," a phrase taken from John Milton's "Paradise Lost." Pullman, an avowed atheist who's proclaimed that he's "of the devil's party," turns Milton's plot inside out to invent his own myth. Pullman says the rebel angels were right to oppose the tyrannical Kingdom of Heaven. After their defeat, they brought the first parents of all sentient species to self-awareness and freedom.
Pullman agrees with Christianity's ancient Gnostic enemies: losing innocence gains wisdom. The Fall should be "celebrated, not lamented."
Pullman's story relies on the old science fictional premise that a countless multitude of parallel worlds invisibly coexist in the universe. His characters move among several of these while fomenting rebellion against God the Almighty Authority. Pullman inserts distinctions among his worlds cleverly, but the different paths of historical development aren't especially plausible.
Magic as well as science operates in Pullman's trilogy. A physicist and a witch pledge sisterhood, men turn into angels and a shaman's spell propels a hot-air balloon. Theoretical physics is "experimental theology." The mystical and the material interact because "spirit loved matter." Thus matter and spirit are one.
Pullman's muddled metaphysics has no room for pure spirit as Catholic theology understands it. His angels have coalesced spontaneously from elementary particles of consciousness called Dust in the trilogy. To human sight, they have wings and sexually differentiated "subtle bodies" that can alter appearance but slowly weaken, age and die. They envy the carnal pleasures of enfleshed beings. Angels can communicate directly or through divination devices.
The highly condensed plot summaries given on Page 12 don't do justice to Pullman's complexity. When he smugly declares that he's only "telling a story" and letting readers draw their own conclusions, he is well aware of the power of stories to implant ideas. His characters even demonstrate this within the text, as when Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has turned her back on the faith, channels the children's mutual attraction with reminisces of her own romances.
But Pullman's literary gifts are directed toward objectionable ends. "I am trying to undermine the basis of Christian beliefs," he told the Washington Post in 2001.
The pace of propagandizing quickens from book to book. "The Golden Compass" depicts one arm of a theocratic Church cutting off children's psyches to preserve their innocence just as the Catholic Church used to permit the castration of boys to preserve their singing voices.
"The Subtle Knife" repeatedly denounces the Church as the deadly enemy of "the joys and the truthfulness of life."
"The Amber Spyglass" exposes God the Authority as merely the eldest angel who's tyrannized all other beings. "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." Life will be richer without hope of heaven or fear of hell.
Pullman cleverly preserves deniability. The Authority is only a "metaphor" and not really God. He made a horrible example of Christianity because he knows it best.
Despite its Romish trappings, his Church is not the actual Catholic Church but merely an example of faith perverted by power and zealotry. Yet outraged by "brutal monks" and "sadistic nuns," Pullman has admitted that he was "trying to hit a target worth hitting."
Pullman can't fall back on the excuse that his characters' opinions aren't necessarily his own when there's a clear pattern of correspondence between anti-religious elements in the books and anti-religious opinions expressed by the author personally. Although he regards Jesus as "a great religious genius" whose message was perverted by his followers, Pullman claims that he has yet to encounter any evidence for the existence of God.
Pullman has produced an astonishing blend of ancient Gnosticism and modern paganism. As in Gnostic myth, ultimate Deity is unknowable, but the God of the Old Testament is an interloper and an oppressor. The serpent in Eden enlightened Adam and Eve with wisdom. But like pagans, sentient beings should exalt in nature while living and joyfully dissolve back into nature at death.
"The Golden Compass" film will come and go. But Pullman's trilogy will linger in bookstores, libraries and school reading lists for many years. Quietly reject both forms of this baleful story.
'The Golden Compass'
The first book in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, "The Golden Compass" introduces Pullman's 12-year-old heroine, Lyra Belacqua. She lives in an alternate Oxford, England, dominated by a grim analog of the Catholic Church called the Magisterium. It has priests, nuns, bishops and cardinals, but no pontiff since Pope John Calvin moved the Vatican -- complete with Swiss Guard -- to Geneva. Its rival bureaucracies exercise total control over life throughout much of the globe, crushing natural impulses, sniffing out sin and hunting heretics. Christ is curiously absent from its teaching.
Like all humans in her world, Lyra has a personal daemon, one named Pantalaimon. This isn't a devil but an externalized psyche in talking animal form that is changeable for children, stable for adults. Daemons are normally opposite in sex to their humans. They live and die with them, manifesting their humans' inner essence. Humans severed from their daemons lose their imagination and free will. Lyra's adulterous parents, furious Lord Asriel and sinister Mrs. Coulter, have a snow leopard and a golden monkey for their daemons, respectively. Unappealing clerical daemons include a snake, a lizard, a frog and a beetle.
Lyra is a wild and heedless girl erratically educated by Oxford scholars -- and an accomplished liar. Given the golden compass (called an alethiometer, or "truth meter," in the books), she learns to read this clockwork oracle by instinct. It guides her on a quest to the Arctic to rescue her favorite playmate, Roger, and other children who've been mysteriously kidnapped. Lyra is aided by gyptian [gypsy] boat people, a cowboy balloonist, a witch-queen and a talking polar bear in armor. The lost children are saved from monstrous scientific experiments run by Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, on behalf of the Magisterium. Lyra's helper the polar bear kills a rival to regain his throne.
The film apparently will end at this point, but the book continues. Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, who's plotting a new revolt against God, sacrifices her friend Roger to blast an opening between parallel worlds. Lyra follows Lord Asriel through the breach.
'The Subtle Knife'
"The Subtle Knife," Book 2 of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, opens in our England where the trilogy's young hero, 12-year-old Will Parry, discovers a window into a parallel world. He steps into the Italianate city, Cittagazze, where Lyra is hiding, and they become friends. The city only has children inhabiting it, since specters that roam the city eat away the souls of adults. Will wins the subtle knife -- called "god-destroyer" -- that can slice through anything, even the fabric of the universe.
Returning to Will's Oxford, Lyra finds an ally in physicist Mary Malone, an ex-nun who's spurned her faith. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter has learned that Lyra is prophesied to be the New Eve. When the children return to Lyra's world, she kidnaps the girl.
"The Amber Spyglass"
Lyra is being held captive by her mother at the start of "The Amber Spyglass," the trilogy's final book. Helped by two homosexually bonded angels, Will escapes Mrs. Coulter's wiles and rescues Lyra. The Magisterium plans to destroy Lyra while Lord Asriel prepares to attack God the Authority, now recognized as a senile imposter.
Using the subtle knife, Will and Lyra break into the land of the dead, a shadowy prison where the ghosts of all sentient beings are tormented by harpies. They release the ghosts to blissful extinction. During the final Armageddon assault, Lyra and Will unwittingly annihilate the Authority while her parents destroy the Regent of Heaven along with themselves.
Reunited with Mary in a primitive paradise, she plays the Serpent to their Adam and Eve. The children discover erotic love, kiss and the universe is saved. But all the survivors must return to their own home worlds to build the new god-free Republic of Heaven.
Sandra Miesel writes from Indiana.
Read more background information about The Golden Compass in the TCA Questions of the Day by clicking here»
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