COMMENTARY: Atheism and The Golden Compass. by Norodin M. Makalay

The Golden Compass, a children’s fantasy movie, is an adaptation of the first of a trilogy of bestseller books called His Dark Materials written by British author Phillip Pullman, a self-professed proud agnostic and atheist.

Released during the Christmas season, the $180-million film is one of New Line Cinema’s biggest-budget projects ever and was presumed to be a blockbuster to match box-office records of megahit series Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

Pullman is a bestselling author who belongs to secular humanist societies in England. He has affirmed that he doesn’t profess any religion, doesn’t think it is possible that there is a God, and has “the greatest difficulty” in understanding what is meant by the words “spiritual” or “spirituality.” He has been accused of thumping Christianity and promoting atheism.

The books of His Dark Materials trilogy have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. The title of the trilogy had been taken by Pullman from a line in Paradise Lost.

The first book in His Dark Materials carries the title North Lights in the UK, but it is published as The Golden Compass in the US, Canada, and some European countries. Because of the popularity of the title The Golden Compass, New Line Cinema adopted the title for the film adaptation although it was reported that Pullman still prefers the original title Northern Lights to be used.

The first volume was published in 1995. It rejects organized religion. It won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Literature in 1995. It has recently been awarded the Carnegie of Carnegies for the best children’s book of the past 70 years.

The Subtle Knife forms the second book of the trilogy.

The third volume is called The Amber Spyglass. It concludes with a boy and girl, allegorically representing Adam and Eve, partaking in the fall of a wicked entity called “the Authority.” It is the first children’s book to win The Whitbread Prize in 2001.
The award-winning fictional trilogy tells the saga of a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) who lives in a “parallel universe” where an individual’s soul, called “daemon,” dwells outside the human body in animal-form. The land is ruled by a despotic, hypocritical, and dogmatic entity called Magisterium. Lyra journeys to manifold worlds inhabited by gypsies, witches, fighter bears, and other bizarre creatures to overthrow the oppressive forces of a senile God.

The movie is a watered down version of the first book. Rejection of religion, abuse of power in the fictionalized Church, and other key themes of the award-winning trilogy were diluted in the film adaptation. The filmmakers, however, say that majority of the narratives have been retained.
Movie director Chris Weitz said in the books “the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots.” The film “has been watered down a little,” but that it still attacks a world that is “dominated by the Magisterium, which seeks to control all humanity, and whose greatest threat, is the curiosity of a child.”

However, the film adaptation has still drawn fire from both religious and secular groups and personalities.

Religious critics dismiss it as skepticism about God, rejection of organized religion, and “selling of atheism for kids.” They argue that that each volume of His Dark Materials gets worse vis-à-vis Pullman’s hatred of God. Secular critics criticize it for “the dilution of the religious elements from the novels.”

In 2002, Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist, dismissed the themes of the trilogy as anti-religion and anti-God. He labeled Pullman “The Most Dangerous Author in Britain.”
In 2001 and 2003 interviews, Pullman was noted to have said that he was “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” and “My books are about killing God,” respectively.

Last October, the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States condemned the film and called for its boycott. League president William Donohue produced a pamphlet titled The Golden Compass: Unmasked.

He said that “the worst elements in the movie” have been “dumbed down” in order to placate the Christians, to make money, and so that “unsuspecting Christian parents may want to take their kid to the movie… then we’ll buy the books… which are profoundly anti-Catholic and at the same time selling atheism.”

He cited the boycott campaign a success after the movie has a lower-than-expected opening weekend turnout in North America.

Other evangelical groups adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to the film before deciding on any action. Some religious scholars have challenged the view that the story carries atheistic themes and encouraged parents to talk with their children.

Last November, a review of the film by the of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting suggested to Catholic parents to “talk through any thorny philosophical issues” with their children, instead of a boycott.

The review appeared on the website of the Catholic News Service and in Catholic newspapers across the country. It was however removed from the website later.

In response to Donohue’s call for a boycott, Pullman asked “why don’t we trust” readers and filmgoers. “It causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world.”

The Society National Secular Society, an organization that promotes secularism—of which Pullman is an honorary associate—is upset that the Magisterium has been redefined in the film as a general dogmatic authority.

Terry Sanderson, president of the Society, said that removing the anti-religious elements of Pullman’s book is “taking the heart out of it, losing the point of it, castrating it.”

Despite criticisms, however, Pullman has found support from some Christians, one of them is Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams. They cite that the negative depiction of the Church in the trilogy implies an attack on dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself.

Director Weitz has described His Dark Materials “not an atheistic work, but a highly spiritual and reverent piece of writing.”

Nicole Kidman, who plays Marisa Coulter in the film (Lyra’s mother and the villain), has also defended the film, saying she wouldn’t be able to do the film “if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.”

Some say that the movie is not about promoting atheism to the children but encouraging critical thinking in them and also respecting their ability to do so in “a society where children are raised in a spiritual and intellectual torpor.”

Other commentators claim that Kidman stars in the movie so it will be advertised a lot; the “books weave a magic the film simply cannot match,” and a negative publicity is still publicity, and the opposite criticisms may spell an increase in the film’s box office.

Meanwhile, New Line Cinema has already prepared a screenplay based on The Subtle Knife supposedly for release in 2009. However, the “disappointing” initial return of the first film, compared to the success of other recent film adaptation of fantasy epics, is certainly something worth looking into.

Although moderate parents may not take offense at the film, the books, the author, and the agenda behind—and may allow their children to watch the film in the privacy of their homes because the movie houses are filled with Metro Manila Film Festival entries—they must be careful. Parental guidance is necessary as Pullman compels the young minds to do a very critical thing, which is to think and explore for themselves a vast realm of decisive accounts, ideas, feelings, opinions and judgments, and may settle on something. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Norodin Makalay is a contributor of MindaNews).