...and I haven't even read or seen the thing yet.
Still, it's a movie, so I feel compelled to throw my two cents in. The film itself is only now getting some early screenings, and some accompanying reviews, so I'm sure the movie proper can be addressed soon. But the movie's director Chris Weitz recently granted a three part Q&A with the MTV Movie Blog and had a few things to say about about a lot of the negative publicity surrounding author Phillip Pullman and his views on religion. [Everything which follows in block quotes are Weitz's words as reported on the MTV site. Also, this is an excessively long post, but I don't want to misrepresent the director. Criticize him, maybe, but not misrepresent him.] I think there's some telling stuff in there.
"A lot of people — mostly those who haven’t read the books but are only repeating what they have read in some biased chain e-mails — are saying that Philip is “against religion” or “against Christianity.” These people don’t really want to engage with the very subtle philosophical and theological ideas in “His Dark Materials.”
This is a common objection to all of the pre-release hoopla, but I find it to be a little disingenuous. Although I can't speak for the entire blogosphere, most of the bloggers I read have dealt quite intelligently with the books and their theological ideas, subtle or otherwise. (An excellent example can be found at The Sci-Fi Catholic where D. G. D. Davidson actually did [gasp] read the entire trilogy.) Now it is true that I myself have not read the books and cannot speak firsthand about their contents. So what? That's one of the main reasons for reading reviews in the first place. Over time you come to understand where your own tastes and those of a particular reviewer are in agreement and where they clash. Subsequently this gives you an idea on whether or not you care to invest hours of your life in a massive series of books or blow a wad of cash on movie tickets, baby sitters, dinner, etc. just to get to see a given piece of entertainment. Mr. Weitz, who has been in the business for awhile, knows this. (You didn't here him complain about the process when American Pie was getting a lot of good pre-release buzz did you?)
Anyway, he was asked (in pre-submitted emails) a number of specific questions about the Catholic League's call for a boycott and the general concerns of Catholic commentators. Here's what he had to say when questioned about early reports that anti-religious material had been removed from the film.
"I realized that the overt stating of some of the themes in “The Northern Lights”/”The Golden Compass” would never — this is important to make clear — never EVER get across the goal line. There isn’t a wide enough audience for that — yet."
Yet? Garsh, that sounds intriguing, doesn't it?
"If I wanted to popularize this series of extraordinary books and open them to a wider reading public than ever before, I was going to have to make some compromises. But I also knew that as a filmmaker one has more means of expression than dialogue, and that dialogue is a more subtle business than characters saying exactly what the characters say in the book. Sometimes I transpose elements - for instance, the biblical ideas that Asriel addresses towards the end of the book are voiced in a different context (and at shorter length) by Mrs. Coulter at Bolvangar in the film. Sometimes I turn textual or narrative arguments into visual ideas."
Mr. Weitz understands, as does anyone who knows even a little about movies, that subtext doesn't have to be communicated verbally in a film. (Apparently, the reviewer for the USCCB hasn't figured this out yet.) So basically, some of the objectionable verbage from the novels has been shifted into the visuals and it's there for those who want to look for it. But apparently, that's only going to be necessary for the first movie.
"It’s true, though, that “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” tread in territory that is much more controversial than the first book. This is also addressed by a bunch of questions that I will lasso under the heading “what next?” Well, though I saw it as my duty to build the franchise of “His Dark Materials” on as solid a grounding as I could, it would all be in vain if the second and third films did not have the intellectual depth and the iconoclasm of the second and third books. The whole point, to me, of ensuring that “The Golden Compass” is a financial success is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful, more literal adaptation of the second and third books. This is important: whereas “The Golden Compass” had to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books. There is simply no way to adapt them without dealing with Lyra’s destined role, her secret name, and the war in the heavens. I will not be involved with any “watering down” of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third films. If I sense that this is not possible, there’s no point my continuing to work on them."
In other words, we can't offend too many people with the first film, otherwise we won't get funding for the second and third films. Once we get that money, the kid gloves come off. (Wonder what super-Catholic Nicole Kidman thinks of that?) Oh, and if you don't want to wait for the sequels to get to the more controversial stuff, you can always buy the books.
"Now, one thing that some of the extremists who have attacked the film are right about is that I would be happy if it made more people read the books - not because I am pursuing any sort of atheist agenda (this is a ridiculous idea), but because they are great works of literature, beautiful, permanent, and unassailable."
Mr. Weitz directed Antz, so I'm a little suspect of what he considers art. Still, he does try to back up this statement by addressing some of "the very subtle philosophical and theological ideas" he finds in Pullman's works.
"I would like to state what I think about Philip Pullman’s books and their view of religion. There are many grand ideas and themes in “His Dark Materials,” and Pullman asks us to question a lot of cherished and engrained beliefs; but if I had to boil it down, I would say that Pullman is against the abuse of religion for political power. He is against forcing people to believe what you believe, and against accepting something you are told without thinking about it."
Well, that's benign enough isn't it?
"I think that the charge that Pullman wants to “kill God,” in children’s minds or anybody else’s, is wrongheaded, and has been supported with some really selective cutting and pasting. I think Pullman probably has an issue with a certain view of God – which is to say, as a subject worth killing people over. In that regard, the institution that I think most closely resembles the Magisterium is the government of Iran."
Maybe everybody really is over-reacting.
"I think that an accurate adaptation of “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” would not be anti-Catholic. What would be anti-Catholic would be to go out of one’s way to attack people’s beliefs, which I sometimes think is what people have in mind when they want to apply their own ideas and glosses of “His Dark Materials,” which have been formed outside of the context of the books, to the films."
What the...? But Pullman does go out of his way to attack people's beliefs. (Which actually makes him anti-Catholic based on Weitz's bizarre definition.) While the "abuse of power" angle is a nice public relations argument, Mr. Weitz is clearly dancing around the fact that for Pullman, the fictional church created in his books IS a picture of monotheistic religion as he sees it in the real world. (Or maybe he just doesn't know that.) In a 2000 interview with Third Way, when asked if he could envisage a world in which the Church has done more good than harm, Pullman responds, "I certainly can. I might well write about such a place in the next book." But when asked if this world we live in isn’t one such place, Pullman says, "No, not yet." The interviewer follows up with a quote from The Amber Spyglass in which the main characters are told that the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, and asks Pullman if that is his opinion. He answers, "I think I’d agree with her, yes." Pullman adds, "Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him. Wherever you look in history, you find that. It’s still going on." That's not selective cutting and pasting, and that's not just an issue with a certain view of God. The guy hates any and all religion.
And while as a Christian I feel bad for him for holding those views, it's well within his rights to believe whatever he wants. And nobody in their right mind is saying the books or movie should be banned. (Has anybody suggested that outside of that one school library incident? I've seen that accusation pop up in comments on various movie blogs.) But on the flip side, Pullman, Weitz, and New Line have no inalienable right to anyone's money, and if we don't want to spend it on anti-religious propaganda, that's too bad for them. That's not censorship, that's choice, and all the anthropomorphic polar bears in the world aren't going to make me choose to financially support Pullman's dribble.
(Yeah, I know. Everything I review here is probably dribble of some sort. But at least it's not bitter caustic pretentious dribble.)
(Okay, maybe THX-1138 was, but you know what I'm saying...)
There's a lot more to Weitz's interview. He expresses relief that his lead actress will look much older by the third film so that maybe audiences won't be so upset that the story pivots on a twelve year old having sex. And There's even an interesting spot where he brings up the fact that the God in Pullman's books resembles Gnostic teachings and not Christian ones. (I wonder if he knew that or if he had a really good research assistant? What? C'mon, it's Hollywood. Weitz is probably too busy making sure Daniel Craig has the right bottled water in his trailer to look this stuff up on his own.) There's also a lot of non-religious talk in the interview as well, but you can probably wait for the DVD commentary for that stuff.
That's about it for my part in this whole mess. I'm gonna go take some aspirin now.