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Golden Compass Director Spinning Like a Top

John on November 26, 2007 at 11:29 am

From MTV’s movieblog, Golden Compass director Chris Weitz answers questions about the book’s meaning with nuance:

QUESTION #5 (from HisDarkMaterials.org):
The potential of the upcoming film has become somewhat controversial, mainly due to the misguided notion that the books are deliberately and vehemently anti-religious and that the aim of the series was to “kill” God. Most notable, The Catholic League recently published a rather overzealous article that has been widely spread across a variety of media. How would you react to the statements made; that Philip Pullman is simply a messenger for a virulently atheist cause and is endeavoring to ensnare as many children as possible with his anti-religious message?

Is this a question or an answer? Oh, wait…

ANSWER:
Hey guys, great website. Well, I agree with you. I think that the charge that Pullman wants to “kill God,” in children’s minds or anybody else’s, is wrongheaded, and has been supported with some really selective cutting and pasting. I think Pullman probably has an issue with a certain view of God – which is to say, as a subject worth killing people over. In that regard, the institution that I think most closely resembles the Magisterium is the government of Iran. I think it’s a shame that people are reacting to a movie they haven’t seen by attacking a book they haven’t understood. I also think that “His Dark Materials” is some of the finest literature written in the last fifty years, whether it be for children or adults, and that anyone who reads it with an open mind is likely to come to the conclusion that the “agenda” of the books, if there is one, is to promote and applaud loyalty, kindness, and the courage to follow one’s inner sense of justice.

Yes, if taking Pullman’s own words from an article in the Washington Post is unfair, I’m guilty. Pullman told the Washington Post just a few years ago, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” I’m sure he wishes he could take it back, but it’s there in black and white.

In any case, it’s not as if no one could tell without him letting on. Here’s what the Telegraph drama reviewer, who loves the books, said of them in 2004:

His Dark Materials isn’t just anti-clerical, it is specifically anti-Christian, and often seems like a furious riposte to the comforting religious certainties of, say, C S Lewis’s Narnia stories. As one of the most sympathetic characters, a nun who has lost her faith, remarks towards the end: “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”

A nun who abandons her faith and says Christianity is a mistake. Wow, that really is nuanced and hard to interpret. What could it mean? Must be about Iran I suppose.

QUESTION #6: (from Darren):
You have said that “I will not be involved with any ‘watering down’ of books two and three” whilst Nicole Kidman has been quoted as saying “I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.” Without ‘watering down’ the main subject matter of the remaining books, how do you propose to deal with the sensitivities of Ms. Kidman?

Wait, I thought we just said the books weren’t anti-religion or anti-Catholic. Wasn’t that the point of question #5? I thought so. So why are we concerned about watering them down? Watering down what? Their non-existent anti-Catholicism? How do you water down something that isn’t there? Hold on to your hats, it’s time to get really nuanced…

ANSWER:
I think the key to your question is whether books two and three are anti-Catholic or not. Some people, for instance Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, think that they are. I do not. My feeling about how some people have approached the intellectual and theological content of “His Dark Materials” is that they’re refusing to deal with its variety and subtlety. If you look at the proto-myths behind books 2 and 3, you come up with the Gnostic idea of a demiurge – a fallen angel who sets himself up as God and rules by oppression. To use this rather obscure early Christian philosophy as a root-myth is to me not specifically anti-Catholic, any more than a film involving a Greek myth would. It sets up an alternate series of events in an alternate world.

Yes, it could be interpreted as an attack on Gnosticism…If only Pullman and his characters hadn’t so clearly labeled it Christianity.

Still not convinced this book is anti-religion. Okay, here’s impartial Snopes.com concluding that, yes indeed, the books are anti-religious. (Snopes notes that public atheist Peter Hitchens [brother of Christopher Hitchens who is the author of God is Not Great], has said Pullman is the man atheists would be praying for, if they prayed.) Back to the nuance…

Also important is the idea of the “felix culpa” – the notion that the fall of man was not a bad thing but a good one. This is a medieval theological concept, invoking the fall as the opportunity without which the messiah would not have come. In “His Dark Materials,” the “felix culpa” is Lyra’s falling in love with Will. Again, I don’t see how one is more anti-Catholic an idea than the other.

Um…I haven’t studied this recently, but I’m thinking the “felix culpa” was the idea that without the fall there would be no savior, and thus the fall was not without benefit. That’s not the same as saying — as Pullman’s books do — that the fall itself was our salvation from an evil creator and that there is no savior. There’s a little nuance the director seems to have missed. Pullman is decidedly not in agreement with medieval theologians of any stripe. Rambling on…

It’s true that Pullman takes issue with dogma and with the abuse of religion for political power, but the critique about dogma applies far more widely than Catholicism or even religion; and the last time that the Catholic church directly exerted political power on a state level was during the middle ages.

Yes, that’s true, however the books are not set in the middle ages. In fact, it was only a few years ago that Pullman wrote the books. It was even more recently that he said his goal in writing them was to destroy the Christian faith. His message may have wider application but his actual target is not in doubt.

And not to get nuanced, but Pullman isn’t merely attacking the misuse of religion. He has said plainly that he can not conceive of God or “spirituality” at all. In other words, all religion is dogma to him. There is no such thing as good religion in Pullman’s view. All of it constitutes an abuse in his eyes.

In other words, I think that an accurate adaptation of “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” would not be anti-Catholic. What would be anti-Catholic would be to go out of one’s way to attack people’s beliefs, which I sometimes think is what people have in mind when they want to apply their own ideas and glosses of “His Dark Materials,” which have been formed outside of the context of the books, to the films.

In other words, we’ve reinterpreted Pullman’s meaning such that it’s not anti-Catholic or anti-religious — even though the author has explicitly said so to reputable press outlets on several occasions. Of course that was before the golden box office loomed on the horizon.

Everyone involved in this film is desperate to convince us it’s not anti-religion. There’s money on the line. A film like this is a big investment. That’s part of it I’m sure, but Phillip Pullman hasn’t sold out his convictions. On the contrary, this is a case of the ends justifying the means. Atheists who get what he’s doing and why would surely be praying for him to get away with it…if they prayed that is.

Don’t protest, don’t write letters, don’t organize a boycott. Just skip it.

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