Big screen “blasphemy”

January 11, 2008

I HAVE yet to meet anyone who has read Philip Pullman's trilogy of "children's books," His Dark Materials, and doesn't love them.

And this is not a phenomenon restricted to my personal network: an estimated 15 million copies have sold worldwide; they have won prestigious prizes including the Whitbread and the Carnegie of Carnegies; they have received glowing reviews in venues such as the Guardian and the New York Review of Books; they have been adapted for the stage, in a smash-hit National Theater production; and last month, the first novel was released as a film by New Line Cinema.

There are many reasons why these three novels, The Golden Compass (first published in the United Kingdom as The Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, are so astonishingly popular.

Pullman creates an imaginative world, or rather, several parallel worlds, all fantastical--inhabited by armored bears, flying witches, fallen angels and souls that manifest as creatures--and yet as tangible and emotionally powerful as the real world.

Review: Movies

The Golden Compass, directed by Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

His language is rhythmic, rich and varied, evoking all the senses. The author has acknowledged his debt to the Common Book of Prayer and the King James Bible (which he speculates are "beautiful accidentally because they happen to have been written at a time when English prose was peculiarly rich and pungent").

The trilogy is also a response to Milton's Paradise Lost: the overarching story echoes that of the battle between heaven and hell told in Milton's poem, from which the title is taken.

But Pullman's is a secular response. He frequently credits the Romantic poet William Blake, another pervasive influence, for "explaining Milton so well by saying he's of the devil's party without knowing it...all his imaginative energy is engaged by this rebel God."

He also reverses the Fall: while Christianity condemns Eve's disobedience as the source of original sin, Pullman celebrates Eve's curiosity as the source of human knowledge. And the Authority, God, described by Pullman in interview as "suffering from billions of years of senile decay" has to be destroyed by the forces of liberation, including the witches and armored bears, led by a 12-year-old girl named Lyra and a boy named Will.

In the process, the books write back against the racism and misogyny of C.S. Lewis' Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and assert the capacity of humans to fight for their own "republic of heaven" on earth. Needless to say, all this has horrified Christian fundamentalists.

Peter Hitchens has labeled Pullman "the most dangerous author in Britain," the Association of Christian Teachers called the books "shameless blasphemy," and the Catholic League is boycotting the film for promoting the books and "selling atheism to kids."

To which Pullman replies: "the qualities which my books criticize are intolerance, fanaticism, cruelty, and the qualities they celebrate are love, kindness, openness, curiosity. I think the moral majority is not a majority at all and that the power of the organized Christian Right is a phantom."

The film version of The Golden Compass inevitably had to confront Hollywood's squeamishness toward anything that so powerfully challenges right-wing ideology. Director Chris Weitz, daunted by the task of adapting what one critic calls "a creation myth for the 21st century," left production for a period before returning to complete the film.

As Newsweek put it, "a vocal slice of the fan universe branded him a sellout" for softening the novels' critique of the church. Some feel that the film more generally failed to capture the emotional depth and complexity of the novel.

But for others, including me, the film is pure joy as a visual accompaniment to the novel: the look of the film--the sets, the costumes, the special effects--is breathtaking, and the cast, which includes Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ian McKellan, to name just a few, is perfect.

At the center of it all is the utterly convincing Dakota Blue Richards, who had never acted before, but tried for the part after falling in love with Lyra in the National Theater production. And more, as Pullman says of the production team: "they told the story really pretty well." So well, that the Golden Compass has gone to the top of Children's Books lists across the country, just as the right-wingers feared!

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