beware the golden compass (no, or at least for different reasons)

I’ve had a couple of people forward to me mass emails about the new Nicole Kidman movie coming out, The Golden Compass. Here is the essence of the emails:

It’s called The Golden Compass, and while it will be a watered-down version, it is based on a series of children’s books about killing God (It is the anti-Narnia). … The movie has been dumbed down to fool kids and their parents in the hope that they will buy his trilogy where in the end the children kill God and everyone can do as they please.

The email then directs me to, which confirms this as true.  (What is – in fact – true is that Pullman himself is anti-religious.) These emails have bothered me and I haven’t been able to enunciate why terribly well. Today I saw an essay by Laura Miller in the LA Times that captures many of my sentiments.

First, I believe people are attaching too much ideology / conspiracy to what is more likely Hollywood’s effort to make a big movie.

Most preposterous, of course, is the idea that anyone would make a $180-million movie with the purpose of tricking children into reading a seditious book. What self-respecting kid ever needed that much encouragement to ferret out whatever the adults are trying to hide?

Second, no one needs to “fool” the kids into reading these books.

Also — whoops! — no one’s been hiding “His Dark Materials.” To date, 15 million copies of Pullman’s books have been sold worldwide. “The Golden Compass” won not only the 1995 Carnegie Medal, a prize awarded by British children’s librarians, but also the “Carnegie of Carnegies,” as the public’s favorite book in the prize’s 70-year history. The final novel in the trilogy, “The Amber Spyglass,” won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001, the first children’s book ever to do so. It’s safe to say that copies of the trilogy reside in every decent children’s library in the nation.

Finally, my experience in reading (okay, listening to) the books was that they are more against organized religion (which does have a mixed record, one must admit) than against God per se (even though some of the characters in the books and Pullman himself have claimed the latter).  And if my children are so on the edge that this fantasy movie is going to convert them to atheism rather than provoke a valuable discussion, then we are facing a deeper problem. (I’d be equally concerned if someone’s commitment to Christianity were based on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, much as I love them.)

 A couple more choice excerpts.

Yes, it’s true, as the e-mails virtually shriek, that 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.” It’s also true that these statements have been taken out of context — not just out of the context of a particular interview or newspaper editorial, but out of the context of an entire culture, a culture of conversation, debate and consideration, rather than paranoia, alarmism and extremism.

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.”

Now, you might not go to this movie because the reviews have been pretty mixed (50% on RottenTomatoes as of today). Stick to Enchanted (93%), which will teach your children about witchcraft and monarchy instead, since those are great values.

[If you’re a glutton for punishment, I wrote more about my views on Pullman’s religious arguments in my review of the third book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. I also reviewed The Golden Compass and its sequel The Subtle Knife.]

2 thoughts on “beware the golden compass (no, or at least for different reasons)”

  1. I got about half a dozen of those emails too and I had the same reaction. I thought it was ridiculous that people were getting so worked up about it, especially if they have not read the books. It reminded me of the many emails I got a couple years ago urging me to write to Oprah because that Nibley Beck woman’s book was going to be featured on the show (which I think never happened?). The book had not even come out yet.

    The Golden Compass emails had that same alarmist, paranoid tone. Thanks for the links.

  2. Thanks, Calandria, I had the same reaction back when Martha Beck’s book was yet to come out. In fact, that one bothered me even more; I loved her earlier book, Expecting Adam, and I read the alarmist email which mentioned her claim that her father had abused her. The idea that everyone would assume this was false just because her father is a famous Mormon (not a General Authority even, just a famous intellectual mormon) saddened me so much that I wrote her a note. (Since then, I’ve been more or less convinced that she was not abused, per the comments that all of her siblings have made; but I don’t doubt that she believes she was abused.) Anyway, it was the pre-judgement and – as you say – the alarmist nature of the emails.

    People, these are not the big issues!

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