Parents cautioned about new fantasy film
By Franz Klein
LA CROSSE – Catholics are often forced to tolerate a certain level anti-religious sentiment in our increasingly secularized society. But even secular critics are saying that a trilogy whose first book is the basis of a new movie to be released Dec. 7 crosses the bounds of decency in its overt and deliberate attack on Catholicism and organized religion in general.
In its entry on New Line Cinema’s “The Golden Compass,” Snopes.com, a Web site respected for its no-nonsense accuracy in dispelling rumors, says the movie is clearly based on anti-religious themes. And the New York-based Catholic League says although the movie is called “The Golden Compass,” but it’s less than golden.
“The film has been watered down significantly, but a word like ‘Magisterium’ remains, something all Catholics would recognize, and the vast majority of non-Catholics as well,” the Catholic League’s Kiera McCaffrey said in a Catholic Times interview.
“We’re used to hearing arguments from atheists these days,” she added. “We’ve got Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and now Philip Pullman. The difference is, the first three gentlemen I mentioned are making arguments aimed at adults using discourse. But Pullman is aiming his argument at children, wrapping it up in a candy coating and feeding it to them at Christmastime.”
Directed by Chris Weitz, the movie stars Nicole Kidman. It is based on “The Golden Compass,” the first book of “His Dark Materials,” a fantasy trilogy for children. Its author is avowed British atheist Philip Pullman, who told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003 that his books “are about killing God.”
Pullman acknowledges that his books are an attempt to subvert C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia Chronicles” and even includes a child discovering a parallel world through an academic’s wardrobe in his first novel. So while Lewis was building a Christian fantasy world, Pullman said in a 2001 Washington Post interview: “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the devil’s work.”
‘Daemons’ and ‘Dust’
A fantasy world admittedly as fun for children as that of Lewis, Pullman’s literary creation includes daemons – people’s souls manifested as animals which, when they mature, exemplify their essential personality traits. Important to the storyline, the separation of a human being from his daemon turns him into an obedient zombie.
In “The Golden Compass,” readers encounter Lyra Belacqua, an 11-year-old orphan living in a fictional Oxford college. Entrusted with a truth-telling golden compass, called an “alethiometer” (“aletheia” is Greek for “truth”), Lyra leaves the college with a visiting adventurer, Mrs. Marisa Coulter, whom she later discovers is trying to steal the alethiometer from her.
Part of the “Gobblers,” Mrs. Coulter servers on the Church’s “General Oblation Board,” which kidnaps children and performs experiments on them to find out why the “Dust” isn’t as attracted to them as it is to adults. Through a medical procedure, priests remove the children’s daemons from them, rendering them zombies rather than letting the “Dust,” or sin, influence them.
Joining an expedition to the mysterious north, Lyra discovers children imprisoned in a Church experimentation facility and rescues them with the help of the aeronaut Lee Scoresby and her own armored bear, Iorek Byrnison. Together they seek out Lord Asriel, an academic who opposes the Church and studies the Dust scientifically. The first novel ends with Lyra following Lord Asriel into the parallel world from which the Dust comes.
While the movie to be released Dec. 7 only covers the first book’s plot, the second and third installments in Pullman’s series become even more explicit in their Christian references. In “The Subtle Knife,” Lyra meets her boyfriend Will Parry, finds the “subtle” knife and discovers that the Church’s Father Gomez is trying to kill her because she is to become a second Eve.
In Pullman’s final installment, “The Amber Spyglass,” a final battle between the Church and Lord Asriel’s army commences. Accusing the priests of having sexual obsessions, Mrs. Coulter joins Lord Asriel’s side to fight against the “Authority,” which is Pullman’s version of a feeble “god” who isn’t really God.
Together, Lyra and Parry encounter the Authority encased in crystal, “terrified, crying like a baby,” and release him, causing him to dissolve into the air. The Authority, having been killed, Lyra and Parry fall in love and kiss but decide they must live apart and work for a better world.
Inverted salvation history
“He actually turns the biblical account of the Garden of Eden on its head,” McCaffrey said. “Lyra, the new Eve, is going to be the mother of the new freedom through her sin. He’s taking Christian themes and Christian belief and completely inverting it. Certainly that’s an extremely harmful message to be feeding children, especially when you dress it up with all sorts of battles and magical worlds.”
According to McCaffrey, Pullman’s books are unmistakably strewn with phrases tying the “bad guys” to the Catholic Church – references include the Magisterium, papacy, cardinals, oratories and intercessors. “It’s not just that he’s presenting an atheistic message, it’s a complete denigration of Christianity in these books,” she said. “Every Christian character is vile. All the priests try to kidnap children and to perform cruel experiments on them.”
Problem with the movie
McCaffrey acknowledged that New Line Cinema’s Weitz removed most of Pullman’s anti-Catholic rhetoric. “The film was purged of some of its worst anti-Christian elements because the filmmakers have said they want it to be financially viable, and they know parents aren’t going to take their children to see it if it remains as it appears in the books,” she said.
“Pullman is even going on the ‘Today Show’ and trying to downplay what he’s said in the past,” she added.
But Peter Vere argues that’s where the real danger lies. Together with Sandra Miesel, Vere has co-authored “Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy,” a book released last week by Ignatius Press.
“If parents go to see the movie and see it as just another fantasy movie, then they’ll let their children read the books, where (Pullman) is openly attacking the Church and the existence of God,” Vere said in a Catholic Times interview. “The movie is going to create interest in the books and that’s the problem, because these books are so clearly anti-Christian.”
Vere is himself no enemy of the fantasy genre. An aficionado of J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis, Vere said he even enjoyed the Harry Potter series immensely.
Vere said he first saw the preview for “The Golden Compass” while at the theatre to see the fifth installment of Harry Potter. “I thought, that looks great, but when I read Pullman’s books I was horrified,” Vere said.
“The whole plot of the stories is that two 12-year-olds set out to kill God,” Vere explained. “At first they don’t realize that’s the quest, but that’s the whole plot of the books. That they’re anti-Christian isn’t just an accusation. Pullman says he wrote them as the anti-Narnia, the anti-C.S. Lewis.”
What’s a parent to do?
According to Vere, Catholics not only have a duty to stand up for their Church, but also a duty to protect their children’s faith. “We have a right and an obligation to safeguard our children’s moral, intellectual and spiritual formation,” he said.
Ann Lankford, director of the Diocese of La Crosse’s Office for Catechesis and Evangelization, agreed. Having heard from concerned parents, DREs and youth ministers, she has put together a flier about the movie that she hopes to distribute widely.
“I watched the trailer and thought, kids will want to go to this movie,” Lankford said. “It’s exciting, and the special effects are incredible. But the heart of what we believe in is being attacked.”
Lankford was most troubled by the fact that the movie makes good evil and evil good. “Do we really want that twisting going on in a young, developing mind?” she asked.
Both Lankford and Vere said the movie’s release could be a teaching moment.
“Parents are the guardians, protectors and teachers of their children,” Lankford said. “They definitely need to talk about the power of evil, because it really exists.”
Lankford added that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an excellent reference for parents talking to their children about the existence of evil; she mentioned paragraph 391 as being a good starting point.
Vere hopes his new book will be a useful reference for a more specific conversation about the movie. “I think parents need to know what the content of the material is before they can talk to their children about it,” he said. “In many cases, I’m finding that children have already read the books, in which case it’s even more important that their parents become aware.”
While McCaffrey said the Catholic League is calling for parents to boycott the movie due to its anti-Catholic elements and its ability to corrupt young minds, Vere has another, more practical reason to avoid it: “Why should Catholics spend money to pay someone for attacking the Church?”
Editor’s note: To obtain Ann Lankford’s flier on the movie, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-791-2656. Peter Vere’s book will be available in many Catholic bookstores, and orders can also be made by calling Ignatius Press at 800-651-1531, or by visiting http://www.ignatius.com/.