Has anyone slogged through Philip Pullman’s "The Golden Compass," part of his bestselling trilogy, known as "His Dark Materials"? An excellent article in The Atlantic, called "How Hollywood Saved God" shows how the book’s frankly anti-Catholic plotline was successfully watered down for a new holiday film, out of a rightful fear of offending Catholics. (The book’s collective villains are called "The Magisterium.") Christians, as Hanna Rosin points out in her piece, were also offended by the book, in which one of the main plot points concerned the elimination of God. The upcoming movie, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, will dramatically play down these associations, which is probably good business around Christmastime. Still, it’s not surprising that Bill Donohue and the Catholic League would be on guard. See the movie, buy the book, is his fear. For his part, Pullman has called the Catholic protesters "nitwits". In this case, I agree with Donohue: Rosin’s article seems to warn that when parents buy their kids something they expect to mirror "The Chronicles of Narnia," they might be surprised (or appalled) when they learn that it’s less like C.S. Lewis than Christopher Hitchens. Readers who have actually read the book (and seen the movie) are welcome to weigh in. James Martin, S.J.

Comments

Anonymous | 12/3/2007 - 3:38am
I would simply like to raise one point based on a comment above: "I absolutely disagree that it's anti-Christian. The characters called the "Magisterium" are a bunch of arrogant, over-privileged, power-hungry thugs who profess an ideology they know to be false. If Catholics recognize their Church in that description, their problem is with Christ, not with Philip Pullman." The term "magisterium" is not a generic term; it is a decidedly Catholic word and concept. How can this work not be anti-Catholic when a Catholic institution is associated by name, symbol, structure (hierarchy), and even action (absolution) with a vile "fictional" organization? Certainly this fictional portrayal is parody, but parodies are powerful engines of propaganda - need we recall the amazing successes propaganda worked with fictionalized caricatures of Jews in the prior century? The problem with this work of "fiction" is that there is too much reality mixed in, a reality that has been twisted and distorted to meet ideological ends. Would we be nearly so disinterested and ready to accept this kind of a caricature if it were of someone we truly loved? If a "fictional" book were written in which the hero battled against an evil, oppressive, thug of a woman who looked like your mother, talked like your mother, came from the same town as your mother, and even had the same name as your mother, would you not be a little upset? Particularly if you knew that the author hated your mother??? Let us not be naive... Our response to these attacks must be in harmony with our faith - rioting in the streets is not a Christian response, nor hatemail, etc. But let us not, in an attempt to show that we are not the evil portrayed in these works of "fiction," allow our silence to voice assent to these distortions of the beliefs we hold dear. By our articulate discussion and example of genuine faith must we not defend the faith we treasure above all when we see it being distorted and trivialized?
Anonymous | 11/30/2007 - 5:47pm
I haven’t seen the film, but have read the books. They are imaginative, original, cleverly written. Their young protagonists are decent, honorable, generous, loving , and willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the greater good. And yes, they are enlightened, good and virtuous citizens of “The Republic of Heaven” at the last. The evil, authoritarian “Magisterium” in the book controls the lives of the people of a fantasy world geographically similar to our earth, but one in which culture and history have taken decidedly different turns at key points. You can read this central agency as an image of the Catholic Church, if you are so disposed. The titles, structure, the jargon and the décor would be right on the money. But the “Church” in Lyra’s world is driven to its excesses by such an inadequate understanding of human nature and such a grotesquely mistaken theology as to make it, one would hope, recognizably a satiric caricature. Yes, the books are written in response to the novels of C.S. Lewis, whose work Pullman frankly loathes. I like Lewis’s fantasy books well enough to overlook some of the unpleasant attitudes of their implied author. And I like Pullman’s books well enough to enjoy them despite disagreeing with some of the views projected in them. His Dark Materials owes something to the Narnia books, but in a way, more to Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. Like the last book of the Lewis trilogy, the last Pullman is the weakest: overplotted, tendentious, though with a few wonderful set pieces. It is actually quite easy to see how the filmmakers might de-emphasize the thematics in the first two films, but hard to see how they could do that in so idea-centered a book as that last one. My bet is that it won’t get made. Meanwhile, here’s a link to the sensible, laid-back NCCB review of the film. http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/07mv242.htm
Anonymous | 11/30/2007 - 8:17am
And yet, the tone of the Catholic objection bothers me. Constructing the ideal children's library by subtraction, rather than actually investing time to find some great Catholic authors or even write the book themselves. A friend characterized the series as starting with a decent first book, then going downhill from there. It's what usually happens when the muse is set aside for personal polemics. The movie's rated PG-13. Do we think so little of our kids that we take the underaged to films like this, giving in to the market crunch? Do we think so little of our teens that we wouldn't give them the opportunity to be tested and come to their own conclusions about Pullman rather than be spoon-fed Donohue's opinion? I'd say that Pullman is pleased that the fuss will generate more personal profit for him. If you ask me, Catholic energies are better spent elsewhere.
Anonymous | 12/3/2007 - 3:39am
I would simply like to raise one point based on a comment above: "I absolutely disagree that it's anti-Christian. The characters called the "Magisterium" are a bunch of arrogant, over-privileged, power-hungry thugs who profess an ideology they know to be false. If Catholics recognize their Church in that description, their problem is with Christ, not with Philip Pullman." The term "magisterium" is not a generic term; it is a decidedly Catholic word and concept. How can this work not be anti-Catholic when a Catholic institution is associated by name, symbol, structure (hierarchy), and even action (absolution) with a vile "fictional" organization? Certainly this fictional portrayal is parody, but parodies are powerful engines of propaganda - need we recall the amazing successes propaganda worked with fictionalized caricatures of Jews in the prior century? The problem with this work of "fiction" is that there is too much reality mixed in, a reality that has been twisted and distorted to meet ideological ends. Would we be nearly so disinterested and ready to accept this kind of a caricature if it were of someone we truly loved? If a "fictional" book were written in which the hero battled against an evil, oppressive, thug of a woman who looked like your mother, talked like your mother, came from the same town as your mother, and even had the same name as your mother, would you not be a little upset? Particularly if you knew that the author hated your mother??? Let us not be naive... Our response to these attacks must be in harmony with our faith - rioting in the streets is not a Christian response, nor hatemail, etc. But let us not, in an attempt to show that we are not the evil portrayed in these works of "fiction," allow our silence to voice assent to these distortions of the beliefs we hold dear. By our articulate discussion and example of genuine faith must we not defend the faith we treasure above all when we see it being distorted and trivialized?
Anonymous | 11/29/2007 - 8:41pm
I read the trilogy. I thought it was quite good. As with a lot of trilogies the author didn't leave enough plot for the third book, and the action dragged a little bit. I absolutely disagree that it's anti-Christian. The characters called the "Magisterium" are a bunch of arrogant, over-privileged, power-hungry thugs who profess an ideology they know to be false. If Catholics recognize their Church in that description, their problem is with Christ, not with Philip Pullman.
Anonymous | 12/13/2007 - 12:47pm
With all respect to Fr. Griesbach, I have not heard one suggestion that anyone should riot in the streets over the Golden Compass; nor have I seen any hatemail on the subject or even hateful postings. (A wonderful tribute to those who have the courage to speak up on behalf of our faith!) While I typically prefer to allow books and movies to be tested in the marketplace of ideas, Mr. Pullman has made his agenda all too clear: he seeks the propagation of atheism among children and others who are ideologically vulnerable. (We should read his statements and take them at face value.) The use of a fantasy adventure film to accomplish this goal is indeed a bit pernicious. It's my duty as a parent to protect my kids. We won't be seeing the movie, reading the books, or otherwise lining Mr. Pullman's pockets.
Anonymous | 12/1/2007 - 12:00pm
"And yet, the tone of the Catholic objection bothers me" I think it's so far been incredibly measured. The William Donahue's of the world will give their rants, but considering the directness of the affront of the books ("My books are about killing God." -- and yes, I understand that the movies tone it down), I don't think there's been any over-heated responses. "Constructing the ideal children's library by subtraction, rather than actually investing time to find some great Catholic authors or even write the book themselves." Really? When a best-selling book about killing God becomes a major-motion picture, the Christian's only response should be to write another book or say, "Read Tolkein, instead!"? There's no room for calling evil evil? "Do we think so little of our kids..." etc. etc. Come on now: if you're kids are in school, they have friends who will see it, and then they will want to see it. So parents need to be forewarned. Unless you think Christians should completely withdraw from the world, but I don't think you believe that, and neither do I. There's simply nothing wrong with Christians defending their faith, and it strikes me as slightly insane that a Christian would disagree with that. I might feel a smidgen of sympathy for your argument if the same people saying to give this movie a chance weren't the same people who were calling "The Passion of the Christ" propaganda.
Anonymous | 11/30/2007 - 5:14pm
Update: Sister Rose Pacatte, of Pauline Media, an astute commentator on the media and culture, writes that her analysis and media literacy guide for the faith community on The Golden Compass are located on the web here: http://journals.aol.com/rosepacatte/MyMovies/
Anonymous | 11/28/2007 - 5:28pm
I read the trilogy some years ago, taking decreased pleasure in each volume. Pullman's a very talented writer, but I became dismayed by the increasingly strident anti-Christian polemic in the second book, and found the third quite offensive. It's not just a question of being offended by his ideas, however. I found that the polemic undermined the storytelling. Pullman insists, as I recall, that all religious people are bad or deluded: as they become enlightened, they inevitably become irreligious. It's simplistic and unpersuasive. He also seems to be less than gracious in his public remarks about other imaginative writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for whom he professes nothing but contempt.
Anonymous | 11/28/2007 - 3:07pm
The University Bookman published a review of the trilogy, which covered these issues: http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/spilt-religion-philip-pullmans-his-dark-materials/
Anonymous | 11/28/2007 - 11:41am
I've read the books and typed up some quotes (here: http://www.lovingit.co.uk/2007/11/his-dark-materials.html) Pullman clearly intends to sow seeds of doubt in God and to offend Christians. The way he acts suprised when asked about it in inverviews is nothing short of misleading. He knows what he has set out to do and the whole "offended? Christians? oh the silly billies I didn't mean anything by it" stuff is just unbelievable.
Anonymous | 11/28/2007 - 9:51am
I read the books when I was in middle school and high school. Everyone was reading them then. They were recommended reading by the public school. I remember reading "The Golden Compass" and not thinking that it was anti-Christian but at that point I didn't know what Magisterium meant. I first suspected the anti-Christian sentiments in the second, and by the third, it was clearly anti-Christian. I don't know if a "boycott" is something we should be calling. We should just educate parents that this is not a children's film.
Anonymous | 11/28/2007 - 8:57pm
Interesting article in the Boston Globe that defends the book(s) as acutally Christian. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2007/11/25/god_in_the_dust/?p1=MEWell_Pos1
Anonymous | 11/27/2007 - 10:18pm
I read the whole trilogy about 10 years ago, when my youngest child was 10 and developing an interest in fantasy. It's the only time in his life that I said, "Don't read this." It's a repulsive piece of anti-Catholic and anti-religious propaganda. The ending is appalling, and it's not just the anti-God aspect; it's the sexual relationship between the two very young heroes. Parents should at least know what they are getting when they buy these books.