Passing the Nicole Kidman's Grandmother Test

Nicole Kidman says her grandmother, a devout Catholic, would have been happy with her work in the soon-to-be-released The Golden Compass. This even though the book, the first of what producers hope will be a triology of films base on Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials series, begins a story that culminates in the overthrow of religion by humanism.

According to a wire story posted on the SciFi Channel website

The books have been lambasted as anti-religious and, more specifically, anti-Catholic, for their themes and the depiction of the Magisterium, a powerful and oppressive group that many feel too closely resembles the Roman Catholic Church.

But Kidman said that she had no interest in making a film that was anti-religious or anti-Catholic. "I come from a Catholic family, so that's not something that my grandmother would be very happy about," she told reporters. "And I don't really think that's what I'm involved in."

All of which is rather odd, because Pullman's book are unquestionably an attack on religion, and hierarchical organized religions the likes of Roman Catholicism in particular. The only way to reconcile such a perspective is if the philosophical undercurrent of the Golden Compass has indeed been watered down, as many fans of the books fear, a notion given some credence by quotes like this one:

For his part, writer-director Chris Weitz acknowledged the controversy swirling around the movie. "I always knew I'd kind of be stuck between a rock and a hard place, between fans worried about the books being watered down and religious people worried that the books are sort of a recruiting poster for atheism, which I don't think that they are," he told reporters. "Philip Pullman is an atheist, but I don't think that His Dark Materials are an aggressive attack either on the Catholic Church or on religion."

Pullman, however, is reportedly (albeit via hearsay) relatively happy with what the directors has done to his children's fantasy. The Times of London says

Pullman, a frequent visitor to Shepperton Studios, was apparently happy to stand on the sidelines and watch proceedings. "The first time I met him he knocked on my dressing-room door," recalls the 27-year-old [Eva] Green, [last seen as the Bond girl in Casino Royale] who plays the 400-year-old witch Serafina Pekkala. "I opened it and he was standing there and said [adopts deep voice]: 'Let's talk about Serafina...' I thought: 'Oh my God, does he think I'm going to be all right?'

"But he was lovely. He's very articulate and very enigmatic but he's a sweet man and I hope he won't be disappointed. He was like a child and kept saying 'Oh I love that scene...' It must be amazing when you are the author and you see your words come alive in front of your eyes."

Pullman's own words are less helpful. On his website, he writes that "As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don't think it's the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means." On the other hand, he's made no secret of the impetus for writing the books -- a response to C.S. Lewis's Christian-allegory-drenched Narnia series.

Pullman once told an interviewer "His Dark Materials" is about "killing God," and that he wrote an op-ed piece describing C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" as "ugly and poisonous." (LA Times).

Them's fighting words, and they explain why an email campaign has been flitting about the net for weeks now in hopes of discouraging anyone from going to see the film, which opens in a few days. Whoever started the campaign wrote that "The movie is a watered down version of the first book and is designed to be very attractive in the hope unsuspecting parents will take their children to see the the movie and that the children will want the books for Christmas."

Which would be a good thing, because the books are wonderful, and I am looking forward to the day my son is old enough to read and appreciate them. They're literally wonderful regardless of the philosophical message between the lines. The fact that that message is one that disparages superstitious dogma is just icing on the cake. Besides, I have enough confidence in my son's innate intelligence that he'll be able to enjoy Pullman's stories for their imaginative qualities alone. Just as he'll enjoy the Narnia books.

So who cares if this first film has watered down Pullman's anti-theism? Not me. As the LA Times' Laura Miller points out:

Pullman also turned out to be no dogmatist. His practice of tossing out provocative statements struck me as a habit acquired during his years as a middle-school teacher, intended not to shut out opposing ideas but to flush them from the underbrush of adolescent inertia. He too is interested in what the other side has to say. This curiosity is in keeping with an ideal he calls "the democracy of reading," in which "to-and-fro between reader and text" leaves each "free to engage honestly with the other."

It's also -- let's face it -- the only sensible attitude for a writer of fiction to adopt. Stories are wayward and so are readers, as the millions of kids who have loved Lewis' Narnia books without succumbing to their Christian symbolism can testify. Donna Freitas, a liberal American Catholic theologian and coauthor (with Jason King) of a book about Pullman's trilogy, "Killing the Impostor God," hails "His Dark Materials" as a "religious classic," in which the old patriarchal model of God is "killed" to make way for a new divinity, "fit for our age." She calls Pullman a "reluctant theologian," and the author has praised her book as among the best yet written about his work.

That interpretation makes little sense to me, but the fact that reactions are so varied only strengthens to the case for exposing our kids to Pullman's genius. Let them see the films, but more important, let them read the books.

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My wife and I got a sneak peek at the movie Saturday evening. I think it is somewhat toned down from the book, with only one instance where going against the Magisterium is described as "heresy." On the other hand, I think it's the later books that are more explicit in making the Magisterium resemble a very controlling church, so we'll see what happens with those.

begins a story that culminates in the overthrow of religion by humanism.

Say what? The books features a magical device that can tell the future, witches, angels, demons, God, prophecies and talking animals. I think it would be more accurate to say that the book culminates in the overthrow of organized, authoritarian, oppressive religion.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 04 Dec 2007 #permalink

Creationist Chuck Norris doesn't want you to see the Golden Compass. Defy Chuck Norris.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 04 Dec 2007 #permalink

Bill Donohue of The Catholic League doesn't want you to see The Golden Compass. Defy Bill Donohue.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 04 Dec 2007 #permalink

Have you ever seen a really happy person who is a Fox Noise contributor?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 05 Dec 2007 #permalink