After months of controversy, the fantasy film The Golden Compass finally opens this weekend. Some fans of Philip Pullman's books have been tying themselves in knots over this. They have expressed their hope that the film will keep Pullman's original anti-God message. But at the same time they were declaring that Christians were being ridiculous for saying that there was any anti-God message at all!
So now for the $64,000 question: Is the movie openly anti-religious?
Hanna Rosin wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that New Line Cinema has "stripp[ed] out [Pullman's] theology and replac[ed] it with some vague derivative of the Force." In a sense, that is true. New Line, as Rosin recounts, has been keeping a "nervous" eye on the bottom line, knowing that blatant atheism in the movie would hurt sales. Besides, if the film would have delved fully into all of the complexities of the books' belief system, it would have come to a screeching halt.
In short, Pullman's anti-God, anti-religion message has been toned down a little in the movie. But it is still there.
The main villain in the movie is a mysterious organization called the Magisterium—a word that will be familiar to Catholics. The organization's headquarters bears a remarkable similarity to famous religious landmarks, and some of their buildings have pictures of saints on them. Their goal, we are told by various characters, is to "tell people what to do" and to put an end to "free will." The Magisterium tries to force obedience and stifle thought. And it goes to violent lengths to try to prevent children from reaching puberty and having what Nicole Kidman's character euphemistically calls "nasty thoughts and unhappy feelings."
The somewhat simplistic message that emerges is, "Question authority." But as the Ignatius Press blog points out, it comes across more like "Question authority. Just not our authority." That is, we are supposed to accept the film's assertions about what religion is like as, well, the gospel.
But it is just a story, isn't it? Of course, it is. But as Philip Pullman himself once wrote, "'Thou shalt not' might reach the head, but it takes 'Once upon a time' to reach the heart." That is exactly the point made in the new book The Pied Piper of Atheism, which draws the connection between Pullman's fantasy tales and the legendary figure who stole children away by playing music that appealed to their emotions.
No matter what the filmmakers meant to do, Pullman certainly intended to capture children's hearts and plant the seed of doubt there. And the film, watered-down as it may be, cannot help but reflect that—as will future films, for in the second and third books in Pullman's trilogy, the hatred of God is expressed much more clearly and strongly than in the first. (Despite the film's PG-13 rating for violence, which is justified, parents took younger children to the preview screenings, and more children will undoubtedly be going when the film officially opens.)
In fact, Christian parents are already being bashed by some for not wanting to take their kids to hear this anti-God message. To those parents I say, good for you. Keep questioning the culture's authority.
From BreakPoint®, December 6, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship