Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Sci Fi Catholic on The Golden Compass

Update: Don't miss our Golden Compass Link List and our movie review!

The film adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass is the talk of the Catholic blogosphere, and I suppose I have to weigh in on it. The movie opens on the seventh, and you can bet I'll be there, though I can't say I'm especially enthusiastic about it.

The issue goes something like this. Philip Pullman wrote a trilogy of novels entitled His Dark Materials. The first novel, The Golden Compass, is quite good, with a well-developed and interesting alternate world, a likable heroine, a number of interesting characters, and some pretty good adventure.

In the second book, The Subtle Knife, things start to go down the tubes. Pullman's brilliant world development drops several notches in quality and detail. He does manage to introduce a very cool hero and a few interesting artifacts, but the novel is noticeably lower in quality than the first. It's in the second book that Pullman really starts to get his hate on. Some of the things he says about Christians are the sort of things that get an author in big trouble if he says them about, say, Black people or Muslims.

As for the third and final book, The Amber Spyglass, a couple who run a Seattle bookstore, who I once spoke to about these novels, put it best: "The third book sucked." Pullman's wild, angry anti-religious rants reach fever pitch in the third novel, the plot coherency collapses utterly, the allegories make no sense, and the climax is so ridiculous, nonsensical, melodramatic, and sentimental, it left me laughing for three days straight. I'm not exaggerating. I thought The Amber Spyglass was hysterical.

Ultimately, the greatest problem with the novel series is an artistic one. Pullman forgoes use of his considerable talents and brushes aside his own story in order to preach to the reader about how awful religion is. Worse still, his accusations are content-free. When I think back over the things of which Pullman accuses Christians, this is what I come up with:

  • Christians smell bad.

  • Christians spill food down their shirts.

  • Christians hate science.

  • Christians perform weird scientific experiments on children.

  • Christians hate sex.

  • Christians like to have sex with children.

  • Christians think aliens with wheels on their feet are sinful for using wheels (huh?).

  • Christians have some goofy ritual that makes murder morally acceptable.

  • Christians kill gnomes.

  • Christians think children shouldn't do kinky things with fruit.

Wow, those are some serious accusations. How can religion survive with a brilliant critic like Pullman around?

Harry Forbes and John Mulderig with Catholic New Service have given the movie a more-or-less positive review, but I'm becoming increasingly unimpressed with their reviews, and I'm particularly unimpressed with this one. They appear blissfully unaware that the books have a definite agenda.

You can see what's unimpressive over at American Papist, a blog I respect but rarely agree with when the topic is speculative fiction. Thomas Peters has a lengthy post on the movie, which you really ought to read. He sidetracks a bit, and a few of the things he says are unnecessary (I don't see anything sinister about Ian McKellen doing voice work), but it's still a good read.

Wiser still is the lengthy and thoughtful interview with Jeffrey Overstreet at Christianity Today. In particular, note these paragraphs:

Pullman's trilogy poses a threat if our children read these books without any discussion about the claims made by the characters in the story, or without any parental guidance. The stories pose a threat if their parents and teachers are not reading the books too, and participating in the experience, talking about what the storyteller is doing.

They also could pose a threat if parents forbid these stories in such a way that the child becomes fascinated by the forbidden book. In elementary school, I discovered that adults had crossed out certain words from storybooks like Huckleberry Finn. This became the most interesting aspect of the book for me: I held the pages up the light, fascinated by what had been crossed out. If we make these books seem more powerful and dangerous than they are, and outlaw them, we have just thrown fuel on the fires of curiosity. Better to teach our kids discernment, so that if they do read the books, they can see Pullman's deception for themselves. (And this raises the question: How many adults are discerning enough to read these books "with eyes to see"?)

Teachers who encourage children to accept Pullman's naive definition of Christianity are encouraging religious illiteracy, and exposing their own. In extreme cases, they're glorifying religious bigotry. The author has said, "If there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against." For a man who likes to talk about the value of "tolerance," that's a pretty striking show of the opposite.

Now, I can't say anything definite about the movie because I haven't seen it yet, but according to every article I've read, the filmmakers are trying to dump most of the anti-religious content. Some advance reviewers, on the other hand, seem to think the anti-religious content is still obvious. I can of course say nothing about it one way or the other, yet.

When I think about His Dark Materials, the first emotion I have is irritation. I'm irritated at Pullman for dragging me through three massive books with no payoff other than the amusing image of Pullman jumping around and screaming and a considerably less amusing (though in its own way, ludicrously funny), badly written kiddie masturbation scene. The series starts off so well, yet is so irritatingly disappointing in its development and conclusion.

I'm also irritated with the movie (though I haven't seen it yet) for trying to throw out Pullman's anti-religious tirades. These tirades make up the novels' only content. Without them, we have no content, so what are these movies about, exactly? I don't appreciate gutless filmmakers.

What I am trying to say is this: these novels are awful. They do not deserve the approbation they have received, and they do not deserve film adaptations. Cynical, even conspiracy-theorist as it may be to say so, I have a hard time believing these books would have gained the recognition they have if they weren't attacks on religion. They simply aren't that good.

As for Peters at American Papist, I think he unfortunately gets sidetracked in his post. You could criticize all kinds of things in His Dark Materials without getting stuck on matters like this (he is quoting Forbes and Mulderig in the first paragraph):

"The script also makes use of some of the occult concepts found in the books, such as the diabolically named "daemons" -- animal companions to each person, identified as their human counterpart's visible soul."

Again, occult? daemons? visible souls? Such material in a children's book is a serious matter. A child's imagination is a precious thing that should be guarded carefully.

The "daemons" of His Dark Materials are not morally problematic. As Philip Pullman has explained in interviews, the "daemons" are named after Socrates's daemon, his inner voice (presumably his conscience) that advised him what to do and say, and when to stop speaking. As for "occult," the word is meaningless until we make sure how we're using it. Pullman is an atheist; he is not trying to convince children to use Ouija boards or Tarot cards. There is little or nothing in the novels that could be defined as "occult."

I do not think the novels hold anything problematic to an intelligent adult, but I would not give them to young children. As for the movie, parents will need to think carefully before bringing children, and I would suggest they're probably better off simply avoiding it. As for the boycott, I'm taking no position, but I will be seeing the film myself to review it. I'm not exactly trembling with anticipation.
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