“The Golden Compass”: Atheism for kids?


For the past 20 years or so,
I’ve given my brother grief for reviewing Dune

on his cable-access show without actually having seen the movie. So
it feels a little wrong for me to blog about The Golden Compass,
given that I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie. But I’m not
claiming knowledge beyond the Entertainment Weekly
article on the religion controversy swirling about the film, so I’m pretty
sure I can still claim the moral high ground.

In case you haven’t heard,
there are two levels of controversy. First, the books (The Golden Compass and its trilogy mates) have angered a lot of religious folk — particularly Catholics — and
have been pulled off bookshelves in some Catholic schools. Why? Because
atheist author Philip Pullman
has apparently created a world in which the authoritarian church is
the enemy and the protagonists set out to destroy it and God. (Again, I’m
paraphrasing without having read the books.) The Catholic League calls
the stories “Atheism for Kids.”

And then there’s the movie,
starring Nicole Kidman and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards.
(What’s with “Dakota” being the new official name of precocious
young actresses?)

The movie is angering the same folks who are angry about
the book. But it’s also angering people who love the books, because
it seems that most of the overtly anti-religion elements (and the heart
of the story) are missing from the movie. According to the article, many of those elements
were filmed but then excised in the name of marketability. Which, of
course, makes a lot of commercial sense. It’s probably not a great idea
to plan for a blockbuster children’s movie to enrage religious conservatives.
(You can read more about the controversy in the Beliefnet forum.)

But, as someone who likes kid
lit and is not a religious conservative, I am intrigued. I’m mostly
interested in the books, but I could be convinced to see the movie as
well. I have to admit that some of the stills make it look pretty cool.

But back to the controversy.
This one has drawn me in for a few reasons. First, the EW article
sucked me in by using a subtitle (“Are You There, God? It’s Me, Lyra …”)
that made me laugh out loud as it evoked one of my favorite
oft-banned books.

That got me to read further.

Second, I have a history of
completely missing the religious subtext (and in-your-face-text) in children’s
literature. I read Madeline L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time approximately
800 times as a kid but did not catch the religion until I read it in
college. I’m curious as to whether I would also miss it here.

Finally, I’m intrigued by the
turnaround in how religion and freedom seem to be portrayed. In A Wrinkle in
and The Chronicles
of Narnia
the oppressive totalitarian forces are overcome via either overt religion
or Christianity-influenced/inspired icons and themes. In Pullman’s novels,
religious authority is the oppressive force and science appears to be
the salvation.

The EW
article includes a quote from the third book that dramatically illustrates
the tension in the books between religion and science.

“I used to be a nun, you
see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw
there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway.
The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s
all.” — Dr. Mary Malone

It’s not so subtle. But apparently
it’s also not that simple. According to the EW
article, Pullman’s world is not entirely atheistic; some of the supernatural
elements he incorporates have a more agnostic quality that leave some
room for the existence of God.

And then there’s the question
of whether the source material is sufficient grounds to make the movie
legitimately offensive to those offended by the books. And then
there’s the offense of stripping the substance from the books to make
the movies marketable.

Again, coming from a position
of ignorance, I’m intrigued but not yet invested. But I’d love to hear
what others think of this controversy. So post away.

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