Imagine the cinematic release of The Golden Compass being accompanied by a direct marketing strategy to sell the film to critically minded, libertarian-loving atheists. Picture meeting halls of humanist, rationalists and anti-authoritarian activists lapping up well selected snippets from this fantasy movie. [Read more of John Moore’s guest film review below]
With atheists and agnostics making up a sizeable share of American and world movie audiences, any film distribution company would be mad to ignore this demographic group. Of course there has already been a precedent set with the Walt Disney company targeting The Chronicles of Narnia to the Christian evangelist community. Disney was not afraid to promote the underlying Christian conservative messages in CS Lewis’ work and sell it to an eagerly awaiting religious market. Alas, New Line Cinema chose to strongly distance itself and their film adaptation from the underlying messages and themes in Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass. It is with regret, but probably not with surprise, that most Pullman fans viewed a movie devoid of the underlying anti-religious, anti-authoritarian themes that characterizes the three books making up the trilogy, His Dark Materials.
There seems to be a fear to judge the film version of The Golden Compass in terms of its treatment of the central themes and ideas of the book version. Frank Furedi, in a recent review of the film on spiked-online.com dismissed critics who ‘deconstruct’ children’s films for ‘messages’ and ‘real meanings’. He pours scorn on those who choose to engage with kids’ films beyond their mere ‘entertainment and artistic merit’. However, to not centre on the central political themes and concerns of the film and book versions of Pullman’s work would be to do a gross disservice to the author, Pullman, and his millions of fans. Politics, religion and liberation are central concerns of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Furedi quotes the reaction of a group of 12-year-old boys to the film, who thought the film was ‘brilliant’ but ‘saw no Big Lessons from the film’. All of the boys are, Furedi tells us, big Pullman fans. If Furedi is arguing that children and adolescents view art from a purely entertainment-centred view, then he is being patronizing and dismissive of young people’s intellect.
Children are just as capable as adults of reading films on a rich level in terms of themes, messages, ideas and issues. Pullman has said that he sees his readers as intelligent and that he therefore pays his readers, ‘the compliment of assuming that they are intellectually adventurous’. This is far from being an elitist statement, as Pullman views all humans as being potentially either ‘stupid’ or intelligent. As one of the few writers who compliments children’s intelligence, Pullman should be commended. Clearly, any serious discussion of the film The Golden Compass must engage with the messages and ideas present (or absent). Otherwise we are treating the viewers and readers we address as ‘stupid’ and shallow.
Before the film was even released, fans were accusing its creators, and even Pullman himself, of selling out! This strong reaction to New Line’s production clearly comes from Pullman’s readers’ intellectual engagement with his central political and social concerns. Pullman has been quoted as saying his books are about, ‘killing god’. As a result Peter Hitchens in a British paper labelled him ‘the most dangerous author in Britain’. The Catholic Herald even went as far as saying his books were ‘far more worthy of bonfire than Harry Potter’. The Rough Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials interprets his ‘killing god’ statement as the killing of ‘the old idea of a God who looks after members of the human race, punishing us or our sins and rewarding us in heaven for our virtues’.
Yet Pullman is not just some shallow anti-religious atheist. His attacks on religion centre on the underlying authoritarian, anti-democratic nature of various faiths. His books are not just about attacking religion, but more importantly about celebrating liberation. They celebrate rebellion and conclude with a war against heaven and religious tyranny, carried out by gay angels, good witches and other beings. The final book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, ends with Lyra, the adolescent hero of the film and book, dedicating herself to building the ‘Republic of Heaven’. This is, as the ghost of the character John Parry tells the reader, the paradise we must build in our own worlds. According to Rough Guide, the phrase ‘Republic of Heaven’ was popularised by the 17th century Christian communist Gerrard Winstanley. Pullman’s allusion to Parry, and his radical followers the True Levellers/The Diggers, points to the authors left radical perspective. Has the film version of Pullman’s first book in his trilogy lived up to the richness and radicalness of his books? Unfortunately, not.
Although the Vatican and various conservative Christian lobby groups were quick to condemn the film version of The Golden Compass, they had little real need for concern. In the novel version, the Magisterium, the governing body of the church, is behind Nazi-like experiments on children. The aim of these experiments is to discover the nature of sin. The church uses its supreme power to suppress facts that would deflate its legitimacy and power. All references to the church, as well as to the Bible and sin, have been removed from the film version, with New Line and director Chris Weiz desperate to avoid a backlash from religious groups. Why such as strong reaction then. As a Reuter’s reviewer pointed out, Catholic groups have decried this very watered down version of The Golden Compass because they fear ‘even a diluted version of the book might draw people to read the bestselling trilogy’ (See Vatican blasts Golden Compass).
Director Chris Weiz has made clear his intention to moderate and evade the more contentious aspects of the novel: ‘To me that was about not being aggressive and offending the individual audience goer who might be religious’. Furthermore, ‘I don't really believe that when it comes down to it, His Dark Materials is an aggressively anti-religious or anti-Catholic series of books’. (See Compass under ire over religious content).
Weiz is thus either totally ignorant of Pullmans’ own claim that his books are about ‘killing god’ or he is being disingenuous in the extreme. In contrast to Weiz, co-star of the film, Daniel Craig, has publicly acknowledged the anti-religious themes of the books, and their dilution in the film version. In fact he’s said how he would have welcomed the inclusion of more overt religious content: ‘I wish there was, because I think the debate that Philip Pullman raises is incredibly healthy’.
With the removal of religious references and the dilution and often outright omittance of Pullman’s central religious and political concerns, the film adaptation of The Golden Compass is a pale and soulless version of the book. The lack of impact of the film was succinctly summarised by a review on bridgetothestars.com in regards to its portrayal of the films antagonists in the form of the Magisterium:
The movie’s Magisterium, alas, is a cartoon villain, with no indication of a driving belief philosophy behind its domination of Brytain (and Europe). The removal of their religious motivations makes the institution incredibly bland, a mere band of thugs with a domineering power for no apparent reason.
The Golden Compass should have been a great film. Pullman’s novels stand up there with Tolkien’s great works and they are already being cited as classics. Weiz is no Peter Jackson, and in contrast to Jackson he has shown little interest in infusing his film with the spirit, passion and social concerns of its author.