Kidman Says Religious Content of 'The Golden Compass' Has Been "Watered Down" What, you expected something different? Nicole Kidman has spoken with Entertainment Weekly (and by extension The Sydney Herald), seemingly to quell a firestorm that I didn't even know was raging -- concerns that New Line's The Golden Compass will upset Catholics. Kidman strongly suggests to EW that the film adaption of Philip Pullman's blatantly anti-theistic His Dark Materials books will not retain material that would upset religious folks. She says the religious message put forth in the film version of The Golden Compass "has been watered down a little," and she goes on to say that "I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic." So in other words, 'nothing interesting to see here -- move on.' This movie just continues to fall lower and lower on my 'to see' list.
First Things reviewed the series in 2001. Here are a few quotes from that review.
...The Amber Spyglass, just won the prestigious British Book Award for the Children’s Book of the Year (the first book won in 1996), and is currently just behind Rowling on the New York Times children’s bestseller list.
Pullman conceived of the series after writing down its first words, “Lyra and her daemon.” The idea of daemons (pronounced “demons”) has ante cedents in the daimon or spirit that Socrates claimed as an aid in his judgment, and in the tradition of guar dian angels. A daemon is a part of the human soul that takes the visible form of an animal, or many animals-the daemons of children change shape constantly, but settle down at puberty into just one shape as a person’s character becomes more definite. So the helmsman of a boat might have a seagull as his daemon, while Pantalaimon, Lyra Belacqua’s daemon, begins the series as a moth but shifts into a mouse, a dragon, an ermine, a mountain lion, a cat, and just about any animal shape you can think of. It is extraordinarily painful for daemons to go far from their people (it feels like your heart is being torn from your breast), and when Lyra sees at one stage a boy without a daemon, she is revolted:
"The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon, with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child. Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick."
This device of the daemon, which is one of the great inventions of fantastic fiction, frames Pullman’s whole trilogy. The reader comes to love daemons, especially Lyra’s Pantalaimon, and one can easily imagine thousands of children (and not a few adults) wishing they had one.
The Golden Compass really begins when street urchins and servants’ children begin disappearing all over Europe (in the parallel world in which the action takes place). Word spreads on the streets that the Gobblers have stolen them, and are performing terrible experiments on them way up in the Arctic Circle. A mysterious substance called Dust seems to be involved, but the Church has forbidden any discussion of Dust, for it falls in the realm of philosophical speculation rather than theological research, and because it may have something to do with Original Sin. When Lyra’s best friend Roger and another boy are taken by the Gobblers, Lyra becomes determined to rescue them, and her adventures begin. There is a prophecy about Lyra that she will determine the fate of the universe, although she must do so without knowing what she is doing.
In The Subtle Knife, book two of the series, we meet Will Parry, a boy from Oxford in our world, who also is destined to play a major role in the history of the cosmos-he finds and bears a knife called God-killer that can cut a passage between worlds. He and Lyra meet in Cittigàzze, an Italianate city in yet a third world. Will is looking for his father, an explorer who Will thinks has travelled into a different world, and Lyra’s alethiometer (a truth-telling device, the golden compass of the first book) tells her she should help him. Lyra wants also to help her father, the mysterious Lord Asriel, who is preparing to overthrow the Authority (“God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty-those were all names he gave himself,” an angel tells Will). He can do this, he thinks, because what the Church calls God is really only the name for the first angel, who tried to trick all the other creatures into submitting to him. Some of the angels rebelled centuries ago, but lost, and now Lord Asriel is rallying the remnant of those who favor truth over the Authority’s lies to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven and replace it with the Republic of Heaven.
The Amber Spyglass adds to the mix a fourth world, where the mulafeh, elephant-like people who roll around on wheels made from the giant seeds of giant trees, are starting to die off from the raids of giant swans and because the giant trees are dying as Dust leaves the world. So by the end of the series, Lyra and Will have to overthrow the Authority, rescue the dead (did I mention they make a trip to the realm of the dead à la Dante?), save the mulefah, heal the breach between the worlds, prevent the Gobblers from intercising children’s daemons, and establish the Republic of Heaven, all the while remaining in a state of innocence so that they can either relive or renounce Eve’s choice in the Garden of Eden.
Pullman has set himself an ambitious task, trying to tell a complex yet realistic tale about the death of God and the true nature and destiny of man. He has the talent to have pulled it off, but unfortunately, his atheism gets in the way. For unlike John Milton and his other hero William Blake, Pullman is a Richard Dawkins-type materialist, and his atheism fatally flaws The Amber Spyglass, and therefore, retroactively, the whole series. Pullman, who raised more than a few eyebrows with an article in the Guardian excoriating C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories for their tendency to lapse into preaching, falls prey to that same bad habit himself. Indeed, to facilitate his preaching, he breaks many of the rules of fantasy-writing in this third volume, and although this probably makes his novel more appropriate for children, it seriously weakens it as art.
Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are. The great religions all provide this. One could even hold, as did Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, that a religion is just a story of the world, which in the case of Christianity (they held) happens to be true. A Christian fantasist in his act of subcreation can borrow heavily from the true mythic world created by the Christian God; the fantasist might change some of the names and other details, but the basic infinitely rich story has already been told.
The Christian myth has such a powerful hold over our narrative imagination that it is probably impossible to write a believable epic, especially one about the Last Things, without relying on it extensively. Pullman challenges the most fantastic and yet most persuasive parts of the Christian myth-Creation, the Fall, Sin, Death, Heaven, Hell-and one credits him for gumption. If his alternative were more compelling, I would recommend parents keep their children away. (Pullman has just signed to do a “reference work” called The Book of Dust which will lay out the creation myth in full, and thus probably won’t be appropriate-or interesting-for children.)
As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.
I'm not sure if I agree with that last passage in the review. While it might be ok for adults who can read it in that context, children will not read it in that way. I have not read the books, but based on everything I have read from religious and secular sources it's very dangerous to the faith of our young people.
If you want more information on the movie and the series it is available from The Catholic League.
Update: The Golden Compass book is being promoted by NBC's today show. It's Al Roker's Children's Book for his book club!
Update 2: Tom Peters (American Papist) has a great post on the books.AmericanPapist: Not Your Average Catholic!: The Golden Compass is pointing towards anti-Catholicism
Also, I will be writing a term paper for my English course on the book. I will post it once I finish and submit it.