‘Golden Compass’ Tanks: Big Front, Big Back, Small Victory

It’s been two weeks since The Golden Compass opened in theatres around the world and I have been buried in owls about this movie. I can honestly say in the last month that I have read more about the adaptation of Philip Pullman’s first Dark Materials novel than I have about any Harry Potter movie, perhaps all the Harry Potter movies put together.

For your convenience, I have collected a host of the more interesting links for any of you that follow this sort of Culture War event, KidLit division, and some of my own thoughts about the front and back about the poor performance of the movie against expectations.

Get Religion.org’s TMatt, a friend of this weBlog, offers a compare and contrast paper of Golden Compass and the first Narnia movie. Yep, C. S. Lewis may be a dangerous, horrible writer in Pullman’s estimation, but Narnia spanks Dark Materials in earnings one on one.

A Baptist Press story celebrating the poor showing of Golden Compass out of the gate and the second weekend also notes that the movie has done very well overseas:

But while the movie has had average success in the U.S., it has done quite well overseas and in other countries, finishing first in its first two weekends. According to Hollywood Reporter, The Golden Compass has made $91.2 million so far outside America, including $25.1 million in the U.K.; $11.2 million in Spain; $9.9 million in France; and $9.2 million in Germany.

All the numbers for box office performance, to include Compass’ 65.8% drop in second weekend earnings can be tracked at Box Office Mojo.com.

Taki takes an interesting view of the controversy; what if the books had been anti-Semitic or Muslim bashing rather than taking aim at “the Magisterium”? Would Hollywood have rushed the film into production?

Somehow, one doubts that either the USCCB or Hollywood studios would have taken such a benign view of Pullman if his villainous organization were named “The Synagogue,” his villains wore rabbinical rather than clerical garb, and he had been quoted as saying “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Jewish belief” and “my books are about killing Yahweh.” Opponents of bigotry would have been outraged—and rightly so. Had the film’s opening been accompanied by a psychopath’s shooting spree at synagogues (see the Dec. 9 massacre at two Colorado church facilities), the media would have been convulsed with discussion of a putative connection between these two events.

Michael Medved
at Jewish World Review makes similar comments.

The Catholic Archbishop in St. Louis did not pull his punches: “Don’t see this film” was his pastoral instruction.

Recently, the pastors in our nation have cautioned the faithful, especially parents, regarding the film “The Golden Compass.” Through George Henry, superintendent of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, parents and teachers were warned that the author of the books (“His Dark Materials,” by Philip Pullman) from which the movie is drawn is an avowed atheist who has a particular hatred of the Catholic Church.

As archbishop, I caution all Catholics regarding the atheistic and anti-Catholic nature of Pullman’s writings, upon which “The Golden Compass” is based. If you wish further and more in-depth information, I recommend the publication of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, “The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked,” which can be obtained through the League’s website, www.catholicleague.org. I also commend the book by Peter Vere and Sandra Miesel, “Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy,” published by Ignatius Press (www.ignatius.com).

Before concluding, I wish also to correct an erroneous statement made in a commentary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, titled “After ruckus over its roots, ‘Compass’ film mollifies some” (Dec. 8, 2007, p. A23). The commentary claims that the Catholic bishops of our nation viewed the film and praised it. The statement is false. A most defective review of the film was published by Catholic News Service. The review has by now been removed from the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The review was not based on a viewing of the film by bishops and was not endorsed by the bishops.

A Wall Street Journal Op-ed piece by a frenetic academic contrasts the controversy over Pullman’s book-cum-movie with “The Controversy” about Harry Potter. His conclusion? This Pullman guy can really write, Oxford grad that he is, so his books are good for children, unlike Ms. Rowling’s pablum. To his credit, he does say “The Controversy” was silly and that the hub bub about Pullman is based on substantive attacks on the faith:

So is the ferment about “His Dark Materials” just Harry Potter vs. Fundamentalists redux, a clash that generates heat but no light? Probably not.

First of all, “His Dark Materials,” unlike the Harry Potter series, is real literature and, as such, deserves serious attention. Mr. Pullman, a graduate of Oxford University with a degree in English, knows his stuff. The books are loaded with allusions to Greek mythology and philosophy, Milton, Blake and the Bible, with images ranging from the obvious (the Garden of Eden) to the obscure (the bene elim, or angelic Watchers mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4). These allusions, unlike the throwaway Latinisms of Hogwarts’ spells, drive the plot, characters and themes of Mr. Pullman’s series. Indeed, a child who investigates them would begin to gain the rudiments of a classical education.

Moreover, again in contrast to J.K. Rowling’s books (which were criticized by some Christians for their use of magic and witchcraft), Mr. Pullman’s series is bluntly anti-Christian. In the third book, “The Amber Spyglass,” a former nun tells the two child protagonists, Lyra and Will, that “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” The church and its members do nothing but evil.

In the article Pullman’s film destroys a False God Sam Smith, a professor of English at Messiah College, offers up his “hidden key to the Dark Materials.” They’re really very Christian in their message, he argues, and it’s a real shame that they pulled so much of Pullman’s important Christian meaning from the movie. This is quite the stretch, so I’ll quote from it at length, so you can be sure I’m not making this up:

My elder daughter read Pullman’s trilogy in her early teens, about the same time I first read Pullman. My younger daughter, age 11, read His Dark Materials this past summer, and she frequently revisits these novels by listening to the dramatized audio version. Like most Christian readers of Pullman’s books (including many of my students at Messiah College), we didn’t lose our faith or find ourselves tempted to embrace atheism. Why not?

I suspect we didn’t experience this because we didn’t find our Christian faith under attack in Pullman’s trilogy. The god served by the Magisterium in Lyra Belacqua’s world is not the God incarnated in the Jesus presented by the gospel writers. In the gospels, Jesus rejects the kingdoms of this world and their political power in order to live the “perfect Love which casts out all fear.”

In contrast, the god killed off by Pullman’s protagonists is all about exercising political power and establishing a kingdom of this world — Pullman’s god is one who takes the bait Satan vainly offers to Jesus in the wilderness temptation. This god is essentially POWER, and those in his service desire power more than love and the free-will necessary for living love. This god has no son who embodies his love for humanity — this god only wishes to control human behavior and perpetuate the power of “the Church.”

Followers of Jesus know that such a god is an idol and worthy of being destroyed. Followers of Jesus can only rejoice when Pullman kills off this god, for the death of this god creates more room for LOVE to thrive. Followers of Jesus realize that Pullman’s story threatens and exposes only those religious and political leaders who desire and seek the very political power Jesus rejects.

Of course, this isn’t what really interests the kids when they’re in the middle of reading Pullman’s story. But Pullman’s fiction, in its destruction of a false god, does offer its young readers a critical resource for resisting the seductions of prominent religious and political leaders who will entice them to give themselves over to POWER, to bow down and worship an idol who offers them the kingdoms of this world. That’s one of the successes of Pullman’s book.

The film, unfortunately, will not give us this atheist author’s surprisingly Christian critique of idolizing power. The timidity of Hollywood has cut away the daemon that animates Pullman’s fiction, opting instead to sell us the same pablum it typically offers in order to secure the bottom line.

This is a shame, really, as Pullman’s prophetic voice — like the voice of one crying in the wilderness — opens the way for the advent of the Christ-child in a world dominated by the will to power, including those who assert their power in the name of that Christ-child.

Pullman’s favorite poet, William Blake, once remarked about Pullman’s other favorite poet, John Milton, that he was “of the devil’s party without knowing it.” Echoing this, I suggest that in His Dark Materials, Pullman is of Jesus’ party without knowing it. Why? Because Pullman insists that the force of love surpasses the force of power — and that is the heart of the gospel, precisely what we followers of Jesus learn from our Lord.

Having argued against the current of opinion with respect to Ms. Rowling and been jeered at by Fandom and Christians alike, I sympathize with the effort Prof. Smith is making. Pullman, a strident atheist, cannot jettison his Christian values, as Prof. Smith says, even if he is assaulting the visible vehicle of those values. Interesting — and true.

And then we have the reviews. I think, on the whole, that film reviewers liked the movie less than Archbishop Burke. Apparently it just wasn’t a good movie. Entertainment Weekly panned it, The New York Post savaged it, Bloggers were not much kinder, even Reuters jumped on. Granted, bad reviews can help a good film or leave a bad film with record box office, but the combination of Christian dislike for the message and bad reviews? That’s hard for a kid movie to overcome, in the domestic take at least:

Fox Searchlight’s “Juno” had a huge debut, hauling in $420,113 in just seven theaters, averaging a whopping $60,016 a cinema. The film stars Ellen Page as a whipsmart pregnant teen who seeks out what she thinks is the perfect couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) to adopt her baby.

Focus Features’ “Atonement,” a drama starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, opened well with $816,883 in 32 theaters for a $25,528 average. The film centers on the consequences of a teen’s false criminal accusations against her sister’s lover.

By comparison, “The Golden Compass” averaged $7,405 in 3,528 theaters.

And there are other interesting stories in The Daily Herald, The Curt Jester, Crunchy Con, Christianity Today, and the stray blog that are all worth a peek if you’re having trouble sleeping or just consumed by this subject. I swear I didn’t just google up this collection. These are urls that were sent to me or that I ran across in my daily reading. Scary.

As I said, I suspect the double whammy of bad reviews and alarmed Christian parents threw a blanket over any potential domestic box office Compass might have made. The alarm was especially strident in the Catholic blogosphere (“St. Blogs”). I check in at Mark Shea’s ‘Catholic and Enjoying It’ weBlog more often than I probably should, deadlines and all (he puts up links to some really funny YouTube clips and homeschooling pieces that keep me coming back). His thoughts on Pullman and especially the supposed endorsement of the film by the US Catholic Bishops are worth reviewing; fortunately, Mark has gathered these posts all in one convenient spot. If this gathering of links hasn’t exhausted your interest in the subject, go thee hence!

As HogPro All Pros all know, what John knows about film and the film industry can be written on the nail of his pinky finger with a Sharpie (broad tip) and still leave room for his flamboyant John Hancock. I defer to friend of this weBlog, Janet ‘Quoth the Maven’ Batchler in all things Hollywood. She wrote:

Gee, Time Magazine presents Philip Pullman and “His Dark Materials” as an alternative to potential Person-of-the-Year J.K. Rowling. Would that be the Time Magazine that’s part of Time-Warner? You know, the Time-Warner that owns Warner Bros., which owns as one of its subsidiaries New Line Pictures? And wouldn’t New Line Pictures be the producer/distributor of “The Golden Compass”?

What a surprise that they should publish this article the week the movie is released!

… By the way, “Golden Compass” originally had an anticipated opening weekend of $50 million. Last week that estimate was drastically dropped to $32 million, which was widely considered a rank failure for a movie costing between $180 mil and $250 mil (depending on whom you listen to).

The movie actually opened at $26 mil. There are rumors that the head of New Line will lose his job (i.e., not have his contract renewed next year) over this. I think we can assume that the 2nd and 3rd books are unlikely to be filmed. (Let’s just hope the foreign box office is as bad as domestic.)

…We have an inner longing to hear stories that meet our inmost spiritual needs — the need for heroes, the need for transcendance, the need for beauty, etc. — Stories, as it were, that reflect in some way the Great Story.

So should we be surprised that the movie, which would seem to be the opposite of what we long for, tanked?

Because Compass did not tank, however, in the overseas market, I suspect we will see Parts 2 and 3 of this series on the silver screen. What, then, was the front and back of this controversy?

The front, I think, is that there is a boundary to idiocy in the marketplace. The folks making movies will only be able to insult their audience so far before the market recoils. Selling an atheist’s story about the murder of God to an even superficially Christian nation crosses that line, however much the story has been muted or neutered of the author’s more strident positions. The blogosphere and media will report said author’s more obnoxious and forthright comments, all from the public record, the attempts to put words in the mouths of Catholic bishops will not pass notice and escape exposure, and parents who care about such things will not take their children to that author’s movie.

The back to this is only what Michael Medved said years ago. Making movies, counter to what people think, is not about making as much money as possible (though it helps a project if it seems potentially profitable); it’s about creating a positive buzz in Hollywood. Golden Compass, if only by arousing the Christian beast, has certainly done that. It may not have met profit expectations, but because of its overseas success and future sales on DVD and in other venues it is certainly a profitable venture. I would be very surprised if it is not followed by screenplays and productions for the remaining two Dark Materials books. Anything less would be to admit defeat to the medieval and backward tastes of the marketplace.

I’d also expect safer projects to have an easier time of the marathon-hurdle event selling a movie idea is said to be. You’d expect the Jackson version of The Hobbit to get an okay at last when Golden Compass has tanked versus expectations. The Narnia and Harry Potter film franchises are only stronger, as hard as that is to believe, because of Golden Compass’ weak box office. I’d look for film projects for Lilith, The Little White Horse, The Man Who Was Thursday, and other public domain fantasy fiction.

Hollywood makes movies for Hollywood. The Golden Compass’ existence demonstrates Hollywood is more than indifferent to the concerns and preferences of their largely Christian audience and to the evidence about what sort of movies work and what kind die. Boycotts will not change this fact of life. They may, however, have a little influence on how many edifying films enter the production cycle. If the aim of the blogosphere’s and churches’ alarm about Compass was to prevent the making of two more Pullman films, I think it was a failed effort. If it was to break the logjam preventing a Jackson version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it succeeded magnificently.

Your comments and corrections, please.


  1. John,

    If Golden Compass tanking led the way for Jackson to direct The Hobbit, I’d have preferred Compass to rake in the bucks. Urgh! I couldn’t stand his takes on LOTR.

    But I did find all the bits & pieces on Compass interesting. Perhaps what this says most is that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Kids were not converted en masse to atheism, just as they were not converted into witches by Harry Potter, or into Christians by the Narnia movies. Plus, I’d rather have my congregational youth see an occasional movie rather than indulge in a steady diet of tv.

    I did especially like the one professor who pointed out that Pullman actually echoes Christian themes, such as destroying false gods & love triumphing over power! I said something similar about how Rowling unintentionally portrays homosexuality in a negative light. The truth will out despite our best efforts to impose our views upon creation & our attempts to twist reality any which way we like.

  2. I wish they would do a film version of The Little White Horse, but I doubt they’d leave the content alone. I mean, if they even had to make Beowulf a morally ambiguous hero…

  3. Ah, THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE! It’s one of my all-time favorite books. Apparently it was made into a miniseries in Britain years ago. But I agree that Hollywood probably wouldn’t be kind to it.

    Fear not, Jackson can’t possibly direct THE HOBBIT because of other commitments. He and Fran Walsh will be executive producers. But the deal means that Jackson’s team will be doing the sets, props, and effects so the new film or films will “match” LOTR.

  4. The Little White Horse movie is in production now, I just found out. Can Lilith be far behind? Given the kabbala and occult meanings of Lilith, that would cause some culture war fireworks…

  5. Has anybody else reading this post and these comments actually read the His Dark Materials trilogy? Though I’d heard about the controversy surrounding them several years ago, I only got around to reading them this past summer. However, I must admit that while they definitely weren’t as good as the Harry Potter series, I still highly enjoyed them.

    They’re honestly very imaginative stories and though I don’t agree by any means with Pullman’s final position towards Christianity, I didn’t find the books themselves to be absolutely anti-Christian or even anti-God. Rather, I thought the books raised interesting questions about the nature of religion and the place of authority and power in religion. This was coupled with an interesting look at the importance of the individual to have the opportunity to freely choose rather than be coerced toward what is good and truthful, for when there is only coercion, what is true and good tend to be lost.

    My problem with the books came with the way they ended in the last book (and not with the death of God scene), for I didn’t think Pullman carried his ideal of growing up and developing a critical mind far enough with the main characters. For all of their questioning of the Magisterium and other people earlier in the books, they seemed incredibly naive in the end. But that’s just me.

    The stories themselves though, never seemed the slightest bit dangerous. Somewhat akin to Nietzsche’s writings, I highly valued them for the way they provoked my imagination while simultaneously prodding the critical and questioning side of me further along as well. I really believe Pullman was raising some questions that Christians ought to be raising about themselves and their beliefs and the nature of the authority and power structures in their traditions (both in the present and the past, because I don’t think anyone can deny the similarities between Pullman’s Magisterium and the Catholic inquisitorial squads of the past). Of course, I probably wouldn’t recommend them most children under 11 or 12, but that’s primarily because I don’t think they’d be able to grapple with the ideas being thrown around in the novels. A mature teenager however, should easily be ready to start pondering these kinds of questions.

    Ironically (and sadly), I think the way many Christian leaders have responded to the books (likely without even having looked at them), is a perfect example of the dangerous expression of power by religious leaders that Pullman is trying to question in these books.

    I’m interested to hear what other people who have read the books think of them, as well as what anyone thinks of this perspective which actually sees value and good coming from the books (as well as things one might disagree with), rather than forming a simplistic good/evil dichotomy and quickly throwing Pullman over (and judging him to be) on the bad side.

  6. I looked at your link, John, and have a bad feeling about the script. I don’t have the book at hand to consult, but I don’t recall the action being compressed into the space of one month. At least a new edition of the book will get it into the hands of a new generation.

  7. John, I’m glad to see that you’re covering this topic; I remember your reaction when I mentioned reading this trilogy. 😉

    Having grown up in a conservative Christian tradition, I read the books as a child solidly indoctrinated in the Christian faith. They were recommended to me by a devotee of Christian Science, who reported them as edifying and supportive of his own spiritualism. Always one for a little controversial reading, I was intrigued by his mention of the Authority-killing scene. It wasn’t what I expected.

    It is easy to say, “the books murder God!” and thus dismiss them as anti-Christian. But an honest reading of the trilogy, even just the last book if one is short of time, makes it fairly plain that this is absolutely NOT what is going on. Yes, the “Authority” is worshipped as a god by an organized religion and yes, this character is killed. Pullman does not, however, at any time introduce this character as anything even remotely resembling the God of Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion I know. If anything, the Authority seems most akin to Mr. Smith’s “idol.” And Pullman’s Church? Anyone identifying their religion with this fictional group would be severely insulting the former, to put it lightly.

    My experience of the books was far from an attack on Christianity. Rather, the books posed candid, tough questions about what “free will” is all about and the mushrooming consequences of deception and carnal idolatry. The death of the Authority was a blow to materialism, not an attack on the spiritualism of Christianity. The books spoke to the idea that there is something far more powerful and untainted than anything our superficial reality has to offer.

    Could it be that the offense taken by some in the religious community has more to do with it’s unwillingness to honestly examine itself? The reaction of much of the Christian community to Pullman’s books reminds me of the same hyper-sensitivity that threw out Harry Potter. Pullman’s series may not be the story of resurrection that Rowling’s was, but I wonder if a more honest and critical Christianity would not embrace it with open arms.

    If Pullman calls himself an atheist, so be it. But upon reading his books, I wonder if he does not believe in God more than he realizes. Clearly he has a problem with the idolatry and materialism that plagues modern Christianity, but it is my humble opinion that any honest believer would take the same position he does.

    Some may find this helpful: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21595083/ (nod to Chris)

  8. Arabella Figg says

    Chris, I haven’t read Pullman, although I think I’m going to have to do so (although the man seems personally distateful, from his interviews). I can’t comment on nor discuss what I haven’t personally read.

    You make some very good points and I’d like to add that well-written, thoughtful science fiction and fantasy can be excellent thought-provokers because they take timeless ideas/questions out of the easily-overlooked familiar. Look at the work of Madeleine L’Engle, for example. Or the fairy-tale reimaginings of Diana Napoli or Robin McKinley.

    I believe it’s far better for kids to (a) read books that (b) provoke questions than for them to sit slack-jawed playing videogames, hang at the mall improving their materialistic nature or communing at MySpace. Better to expose them to controversial ideas while at home and chew the grist together. Of course, not all kids will have parents with whom to discuss books, but if we Christians express disdain and fear of ideas, surely kids will hide their thoughts or think there’s something wrong with questioning what they observe?

    Just a thought. Let the bashing begin, preferably with foam bats.

    Kitties don’t care about ideas, but they do like to chew…

  9. globalgirlk says

    I’ve read the first two books. They were an okay read but I noticed the anti-church/God messages. I don’t like that they are advertised to children. Does he point out the problems within the church? Yes. I do not see any answers being offered. Maybe one day I will read the third book but after the first two, I had to stop.

  10. By the way, in case it wasn’t clear, for the record I myself am a practicing Catholic Christian, albeit one of a sort of postmodern variety.

    I also have not seen the movie version of The Golden Compass, so I can only share my experience of the books.

  11. I’ve read and analyzed all three of Pullman’s wretched books. The Authority is specifically identified as Yaweh, Adonai, and all the other titles of God in the OT. The specific God we’ve been worshipping has been a mere imposter angel all along. This is the old Gnostic lie. One character admits that there might possibly be a real Creator somewhere but no one else agrees or mentions this opinion. Christianity is completely rejected as a “mistake” by an ex-nun turned atheist in our own world. The Catholic Church is explicitly rejected and in Lyra’s world, all churches are denounced as enemies of joy and truth. The Magisterium is unrelentingly (and ultimately, boringly) Evil.

    Oh well, what do you expect of a man who thinks they burned witches at Salem?

  12. Arabella Figg says

    Well, Perelandra, all I have to say is “yuck.” I didn’t realize the books were so specific…using (and condemning) the OT names for God including Yaweh? All churches enemies of joy and truth? This isn’t thoughtful provocation of ideas, this is pure propaganda. So is C.S. Lewis, really, on the opposite end. Yet Pullman despises Lewis for promoting his views, so that makes Pullman a hypocrite. Now there’s an idea to discuss with the children.

    Don’t think I’ll waste my time reading these. Thanks for no brickbats.

    Merry Christmas to you all!

    The kitties can’t wait for all that wrapping paper and ribbon…

  13. Thanks Erick for expressing sentiments similar to my own. The link you provided was also useful, though I must say I can’t help but wondering if Pullman is toning down his words on being anti-religion simply in light of the movie release, since elsewhere in the past he has explicitly stated his books are an attack on Christianity and the idea of God. Still, whatever his intentions, like you suggested, the books themselves never appeared to be against all religious movements or even against Christianity.

    Arabella Figg, I think you make a very interesting point about how children might react if the approach is entirely negative. A much more positive engagement with the material while still leading them through it and helping them to think it over (and move further along toward becoming mature independent thinkers themselves) seems like a much more fruitful approach. Of course, there will be parents who don’t care what their kids do or about guiding their kids toward what is right, but I suspect there are greater issues in those cases than Pullman’s book trilogy. I’m just speculating here though…

    As for some of the other comments from Perelandra, I think you’re confusing fantasy too much with reality. Remember that this book series also has characters moving from one world to another by cutting openings with a special knife (or traveling north to some mysterious intersection of worlds), not to mention the daemons, flying witches, talking polar bears, etc.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I would think that such a fantastical reality would cause kids to question its veracity (even while enjoying its highly imaginative realms). So they might ask questions such as the following: Is the Catholic Church really that way in our own real world? Whether it is or isn’t, are the acts of the Magisterium in Pullman’s world right or wrong? If the Christianity of the novels isn’t a healthy way of living, then what does that mean for the real Christianity of our world, which may or may not at times slip into similar unhealthy forms? (After all, Jesus himself suggests this happens from time to time in history, with his criticisms of the Jewish religious authorities, the disciples, and then the churches in the Book of Revelation.)

    As for the questions about God, I think Pullman again is at least raising interesting questions. It forces the reader to ask, Who is the God of Christianity or whatever belief in God I might hold to? Are “power” and “control” the central concerns of this God (or any religion which claims to be inspired by a god)? Should a Christian live their life in fear of offending or disappointing this God, or is there more to the picture, such as God being loving? But how is God loving and how is that expressed in the faith community that I belong to?

    Power and the abuse of it, after all, seem to be quite central to Pullman’s books:

    “Religion is at its best when it’s far from power,” Pullman said. “When a religion gains power, it goes bad.”

    Noting that “His Dark Materials” was more a critique against tyrannical and theological societies than organized religion, Pullman explained that in places like Stalin’s Soviet Union (where the “holy book” was written by Marx and the “priesthood” would be the Communist Party) or his heroine Lyra’s world, history was no longer moving toward something.


    So he does sort of admit that atheists can abuse power too! Of course, one question he never raises is whether the supposedly neutral science itself might abuse power if it had an authoritative role (as it does in our own day and age), but the more I read, the more I find that rarely is a book entirely balanced, so I can’t cast Pullman aside simply for this neglect. Therefore, yes, Pullman clearly has an ax to grind and he clearly paints a caricature of Christianity, and consequently he is sort of a hypocrite, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still raise engaging questions in the process. And if you can remember that his world is a place of fantasy, then I think you’ll find yourself a little more impressed by some of his creations within it, rather than simply being angered or annoyed by the deviant usage of Christian names/symbols.

    In the end, I still think that though the books are far from the best I’ve ever read (and not as good as Harry Potter), they’re still a lot better than most of what’s out there and just like Arabella Figg, I think kids would gain a lot more from reading them versus many of the other activities they typically spend their time doing nowadays. And I also still think that merely telling people not to read the books hearkens back to the days of the Index of prohibited books in Catholic history, something that definitely reminds me of the authoritarian Magisterium in Pullman’s world.

    Is there really no good whatsoever that could come from these books? If you have the slightest bit of free time, I recommend just reading at least the first book before judging them.

  14. I can’t comment on the Pullman books as I haven’t read them.

    But a tad of news on various movie projects mentioned in this thread, FWIW.

    “The Little White Horse” is indeed in production, with a release date of Oct. 2008 slated. However, it doesn’t seem to have a distributor, which is somewhat odd. It’s shooting in Hungary.

    The movie’s current title is “The Secret of Moonacre.” (Not a great title, but I think we can guarantee that a movie titled “The Little White Horse” is doomed to crash and burn at the box office.) A previous working title was “The Moon Princess” — but again, dangerous to use the word “princess” in a movie title if you want anyone to come other than little girls. (Look at how “Cinderella Man” crashed — no one who wants to go to a boxing movie will attend something with that title!)

    As for “The Hobbit…” Yes, Peter Jackson is involved again, after 3 years of legal wrangling with New Line (the co. that produced and distributed the movie version of “LOTR”). He will not direct, as he has prior commitments to direct “The Lovely Bones” and “Tintin.” Early rumors are that Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) may direct. But it’s early. And unless they go outside the U.S., they won’t have a writer for a while.

    And they are talking about “The Hobbit” and “its sequel.” Huh? What sequel? (Wouldn’t that be LOTR itself??) Since no one has answered this rather obvious question, it would seem they are planning to split the story in half. I’m not sure why, frankly (other than the double box office sure to result). The movie(s) will shoot in 2009 for 2010/2011 release.

    How does this all tie back to “His Dark Materials”? Well, New Line also released “Golden Compass.” And Bob Shaye, the head of New Line, whose job was definitely in some jeopardy with the tanking of “Compass,” has probably just saved it by making nice with Peter Jackson. So there you go.

    This is your Hollywood correspondent, signing off and wishing you all a Merry Christmas. (Are we allowed to say that in Hollywood???!!)


  15. Janet, I’ve heard the sequel to The Hobbit will cover some of the events found in the LotR Appendices, following the story of Bilbo & the Dwarves and leading up to the events of LotR. Which probably means we’ll get to see Aragorn and Arwen again.
    A happy Christmas to everyone!

  16. janet wrote:
    “I can’t comment on the Pullman books as I haven’t read them.”

    I think it is possible to comment on the Pullman books & other works without having read them. After all, one wouldn’t say you couldn’t comment on the dangers of drug abuse unless you had first toked up or dropped acid yourself. We can comment on all sorts of things without actually having done them or read them, but the trick is to know what you’re talking about, which still involves doing research.

  17. I have read His Dark Materials. I really enjoyed the series as a whole, though not so much the last book. The characters were never as strong or interesting as Jo’s, but some of the devices, the alethiometer and the subtle knife, were wonderful. I also loved the parts about the daemons and cutting them away (horrid though it was).

    I am Southern Baptist, though I have attended an independent, non-denominational church and would rather be back there. I don’t see much resemblance at all between my church and the Magisterium, but there is no doubt in my mind that Pullman meant to criticize the church with his depiction. Still, I am not much offended by this part of the series. There are evil people everywhere: slums and churches alike.

    I am offended by most of the third book, though it would not stop me from reading or recommending the series. I would not recommend the series for younger readers, but certainly young adults should be capable of reading the series and drawing their own conclusions. I think it is important not to censor or ban everything that offends because that would make us too restrictive and controlling – which is part of Pullman’s point.

  18. Thanks Ginevra!

    It looks as though you too had a similar experience to my own in reading the books.

    John, just as you were the first with Harry Potter, perhaps you could also be the first Christian to really show what good might be found in His Dark Materials. Just a thought. 😉

    And for the record, though it may seem like I’ve been pestering everyone a lot about the value of His Dark Materials, please don’t think of me only as some sort of highly critical guest. I’m really a huge fan of all John’s work on the Harry Potter books and I give him a thousand thanks for such wonderful thought provoking theories and interpretations. Please keep up the good work!

    By the way, John, I never got around to responding to you a while back because I was busy at the time, but thanks also for naming my post on Rowling’s church background the “post of the week” way back when. It was quite an honor to receive such kind words from the “professor” himself.

  19. I, too, am a practicing Catholic and one who has no issue with valid criticisms of past and current church wrongs, be they not really knowing what to do with us ladies sometimes or torturing folks in the Inquisition. My question to the HDM trilogy supporters would be this:

    Is there good church in the books? That is, are there people within the church that do actually fit the Christian ideal (not necessarily without difficulty, but not like the overarching Magisterium which seems to pursue power and not charity).

    For comparison, the film The Mission (1986, Jeremy Irons, Robert de Niro) has some serious criticisms of the Church. The basic story, for those who haven’t seen, is that there are Jesuits who actually care about the native peoples in South America, meanwhile a cardinal has been called in to help Spain and Portugal decide how to divvie up the ‘goods’– the natives’ lands and them (who are taken as slaves). The Church is shown to be cooperating with evil, even as the cardinal (or bishop perhaps) realises that he is doing so. But the faith of the Jesuits and the native peoples is real– we have a true depiction of what “church” should be– loving kindness, faith, etc.– versus stately power. The film offers very valid criticisms of the church, but it does not reject God, the Church, Christianity, faith, etc. It shows what those things are at their best as well as their worst.

    I too have not read HDM. I plan to if I can find the time because I wish to be informed, and I know some folks who are faithful and faith-filled who like them. My issue is that it’s not enough to point out what’s wrong to kids. I teach high school confirmation class and have volunteered with kids in grades K-3. If they read those books, they’re not going to read it the way an adult would, evaluating the critique and comparing it with the reality. They’re going to say, “The Magisterium is bad,” (which is correct in Pullman’s universe). That’s not meant to insult kids– but I don’t think it’s being unfair to assume that parents will need to discuss those issues with kids, and I frankly don’t see that happening in most families, unfortunately (after all, we now have commercials reminding families to eat dinner together- I thought that was what families did).

    The other problem is the co-optation of church terms. I thought hard about this with JKR’s work, too, with terms like “apparition.” But she uses the words literally, which doesn’t affect the meaning of “the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes.” Pullman, however, has chosen the term for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and made it a horrible, twisted, awful, power-hungry and ultimately evil institution. I taught my 10th graders about the Magisterium in October. I didn’t realise at the time I was fighting uphill against a false meaning that will now have a multi-million dollar film spreading it globally.

    “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.” — GK Chesterton. Pullman has a lot of valid critiques in any likelihood. But he doesn’t seem from the myriad articles I’ve read to have considered there are right things about the Church. He also strikes me as turning disingenuous and a bit dishonest– he used to be much more open and acknowledged publicly he was basically assaulting God and religion- these days he claims he’s just trying to sell books. He also billed the books as children’s lit so that his work wouldn’t get ‘side-lined’ as fantasy and would reach a bigger audience (coincidentally, a much more impressionable one as well).

    anyway, I need to get off this topic I think, but I would definitely appreciate the insights of those who have read Pullman and think his works are not problematic to persons of faith to my question and example towards the top (of course, I welcome all other insights as well!)


  20. Arabella Figg says

    Chris, Erick and Ginevra, you’ve posted some very thoughtful comments on the Pullman books and I appreciate it. Although curious, I choose to not read the books; it’s more because I have so many other books and things I feel are more worth my time.

    However, I stick by my thoughts that kids (at appropriate ages) should be guided through controversial ideas, helped toward independent critical thinking and not see their elders as fearful of ideas. I also still see Pullman, through the comments here, as hypocritical and a propagandist. But, if kids are helped to see this and how that affects the slants of literature, that might be the best value they receive from the books.

    Christians need to get out of the “duck and cover” mentality when it comes to grappling with things outside their comfort zone.

    I read things some Christians would question (such as Harry Potter!). I recently read The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta because I thought it would be incendiary to Christians and wanted to be able to discuss it. Laugh on me. Pullman took front and center and, as far as I know, Perotta made no waves with a thoughtful, though weak, R-rated book with what I felt was a dishonest ending.

    I’m eager to read The Little White Horse; never heard of it.

    Hope you all had a great Christmas, the kitties are in tissue paper heaven…

  21. Dear lord, what a mess the makers and writers made out of this film.

    It started off interesting with hope then very quickly it descended into a mess of re-written scripts TOTALLY different to the book. The scenes themselves looked beautiful but everything else after that was a complete mess. Plots were left unexplained, the reasons for many, many characters existents and actions were not even explained or touched on

    as well as their very actions being completely changed or invented

    totally from thin air! You were left wondering many a time “why is this happening” – “who did that happen?” – “what has this got to do with the story” – what the heck is going on?” and “would someone please explain why ALL of the characters are doing what they are doing? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

    The makers of this film TOTALLY took a meat cleaver to the story. Cut huge and I mean HUGE chunks out, totally twisted scenes around to an unbelievable extent, let characters live that actually die, NEVER explained backgrounds of anything! Leaving out the fact that they rewrote the whole book and made a complete shambles of it, just as a non-reader, many have commented to me in the cinema, on the way out and afterward to this present day (June 2008) the equivalent of “you could tell they pulled the good guts out of it”.

    Dear god, if your going to make a film from a book, stick with the book or make up one of your own completely. Don’t waste our time and your own by buying the rights to a book and then ripping it to shreds and sticking it back together again in an unintelligible mess. What is the point of buying the rights to a book in the first place if your going to totally re-write it (and screw it up in the process too to boot)?

    I understand that the makers were spineless and cowered to the religious nuts by removing anything that made any intelligence to those with brains. The effect of this cowardice left behind a film that was a total waste of time, an insult to the original writer of the book and a waste of talent that should have been used better in a greater film than this mixed, unexplained unmitigated disaster.

    If there is going to be sequels and going by this film, I hope to all heavens there is NOT – can we the audience have a change of makers, scriptwriters and a producer, a director with a brain and at least someone with guts to stand up against the zealous religious right.

    To sum up: what a complete mess and waste of talent.

    This film could have been so, so so much better.

    Rating: one out of ten.

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