All That's Golden Doesn't Glitter: New Line's Fantasy Film the Golden Compass Is a Watered-Down Version of the First Book in Author Philip Pullman's Blatantly Anti-Christian His Dark Materials Trilogy

By Scaliger, Charles | The New American, December 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

All That's Golden Doesn't Glitter: New Line's Fantasy Film the Golden Compass Is a Watered-Down Version of the First Book in Author Philip Pullman's Blatantly Anti-Christian His Dark Materials Trilogy


Scaliger, Charles, The New American


"There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book," British author Philip Pullman once proclaimed. Good storytelling, Pullman believes, is largely the province of children's, not adult, fiction, since, with the latter, "stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness.... The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do."

Those of us who still treat children's literature, and particularly that catch-all category known as "fantasy" (Pullman's specialty), as a guilty pleasure would heartily agree with those sentiments. From C.S. Lewis' Narnia series to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time to Elizabeth George Speare's The Bronze Bow, the best children's storytelling seems uniquely adapted to deal with the biggest of big themes. Children, and adults who preserve a child-like sense of wonder, have the capacity to suspend disbelief to a degree that allows the storyteller much greater imaginative freedom. The many inconsistencies and implausible plot twists in the Harry Potter series, for example, pale against the backdrop of author J.K. Rowling's florid imaginative tapestry.

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Much the same could be said of Pullman's best-known work, the coming-of-age fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, of which the first book, The Golden Compass, debuted on the silver screen this month. For more than a thousand pages, Pullman's richly imagined story follows the exploits of the precocious waif Lyra Belacqua, who travels the length and breadth of a parallel world (several parallel worlds, in fact) to rescue her best friend, who has been kidnapped by a sinister cabal. But in stark contrast to all other fantasy works of note, including the controversial Potter series, His Dark Materials (consisting also of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) is a piece of aggressive, unalloyed anti-Christian propaganda.

"'His Dark Materials' may be the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen" effused one article in The New Yorker. "Pullman's heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists. The series offers an extended celebration of the marvels of science: discoveries and theories from the outer reaches of cosmology--about dark matter and the possible existence of multiple universes--are threaded into the story" Oh, yes, and God and the Church are the bad guys.

Pullman himself has never been coy about his intentions. An unabashed atheist, Pullman told one interviewer, "I don't think it's possible that there is a God; I have the greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words 'spiritual' or 'spirituality.'" Pullman sees his work as a direct challenge to the likes of Tolkien (whose Lord of the Rings series he dismisses as insubstantial "fancy spun candy"), and of C.S. Lewis (the very beginning of The Golden Compass features Lyra hiding in a large wardrobe, in an unmistakable act of negative homage to Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).

It is Lewis especially who inspires Pullman to most unliterary levels of invective; in an essay in the British newspaper The Guardian, Pullman denounced Lewis' Narnia series, deriding what he deemed "the misogyny, the racism, the sadomasochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole [Narnia] cycle." The Narnia books teach that "death is better than life; boys are better than girls ... and so on," Pullman sputtered. Elsewhere, Pullman has criticized Lewis' penchant for preferring innocence over worldliness, childhood over adulthood: "The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood--whether it's a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis--is simply wrong. …

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