Sunday, December 02, 2007


...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.


Scott said...

Author and former atheist J.C. Wright has also read the books and has written a commentary here:

D. G. D. Davidson said...

I was just about to suggest what Wright has to say. Wright is displeased with the way Pullman and others are dancing around reality.

I have read the books, and they contain nothing subtle, not even a knife. If Weitz thinks these novels contain subtle, compelling, or intellectual philosophy, he's apparently never encountered the real thing.

And about the sex--it's probably time to clarify to everyone that it is ambiguous if Will and Lyra had sex. Pullman said in an interview that he didn't know that they did, and the reader can't say for certain either. All we really know is that they made out and petted each other's daemons, which--as I described it in the discussion you linked--reads like and appears analogous to a masturbation scene.

What's really ridiculous, and the reason I laughed hysterically, is that Pullman treats it like real, serious luv--but come on, they're freaking twelve. And I'm supposed to believe that this event somehow made them wise and grown-up? And I'm supposed to put up with Pullman's sloppy, ornamented prose? Give me a break!

A commenter on Wright's blog put it well: Pullman is apparently saying in these novels, "Sex is good, so God can't exist." That doesn't even begin to make sense, but that is seriously and genuinely the argument he makes at the end of The Amber Spyglass, and to make sure you get it, he has a character come right out and tell you about how she wanted to be a nun but then got a crush on a boy and not only decided not to be a nun but to give up religion. Huh??? These novels are sloppy, sloppy, sloppy, and they read more like a rant-cum-lecture than a fantasy epic.

EegahInc said...

That's interesting that the book is ambiguous on whether or not Lyra has sex. The quote from the director is "Well, as you know, things get very interesting for Lyra in books two and three, with regard to her relationship with Will. I think it’s all to the good that Dakota will look older than twelve by then." It seems to me he's under the impression the 12 year old has sex of some sort and intends to film it. Maybe Pullman needs to set him straight.

Bill Reichart said...

I think that as followers of Christ we should engage the culture and be thoughtful in our criticism and not just reactionary. I keep hearing all this talk about banning the movie...I think that is a big mistake.

I posted some thoughts about the Golden Compass on my blog here:

Also, ChristianityToday posted a helpful piece by Jeffery Overstreet that give a balanced view and addresses questions and concerns Christians have about the books and movie.

EegahInc said...

Hi, Bill, thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment. Always nice to hear from a local boy; maybe we'll run into each other at some ecumenical event sometime.

I agree, of course, that the movie should not be banned. I'm really not aware of anyone calling for that, beyond that one school library which removed the books, but I keep hearing those accusations too.

I think the thrust of my post was whether or not to offer financial support to something which is obviously, in the author's own words, an attack on my beliefs. Quite a lot of movies these days are saturated with non-Christian philosophies, but this one appears a bit more aggressive and purposeful. Until some reviewers I trust say this has all been overblown, I think I'll hold onto my ticket money. (Mr. Overstreet's article was good, but I did notice he cannily dodged offering an opinion on whether or not Christians should actually pay to see the movie.)

I also noticed on your blog that one of your youth leaders is taking a middle school group to the film in hopes of fostering a discussion. I'd be interested in hearing how that turns out. I sat in front of a similar group at the opening of Fellowship Of The Ring and it sounded like the poor guy was having a hard time during the pre-movie talk getting the kids focused on religion. Good luck.

Scott said...

No one I am aware of is calling for a ban, but the question is, as you say, whether we should patronize it. In the end the act is still deliberately going to something notoriously hostile to the faith. In the examination of conscience in my prayer book it asks, "Did I fail, before going to a show or reading a book, to find out its moral implications, so as not to put myself in immediate danger of sinning and in order to avoid distorting my conscience?"
The implication of course is that if the material in question is moral rot, you don't see it. You don't "engage the culture" in such a case anymore than you engage the culture by showing your religious ed students a pornographic film even though you intend to "discuss" it in the assumption they will come to the conclusion it is wrong.

At this point, I usually hear stuff about sheltering kids from the real world. Baloney. Yes, kids are gonna encounter bad stuff, but it is one thing to accept that they will sometimes step in dog poo, and another to put dog poo on a plate and serve to them for dinner.

D. G. D. Davidson said...

Scott, very good. This is something I have to think about a good deal when I review material on my blog. Sometimes, I say, "Man, I could make an interesting discussion out of that," but when I sit down to read or watch it, I sometimes say, "I'm not sure I should be seeing this."

Best example is recently when I allowed Snuffles to convince me to watch Ranma 1/2. After a while, I had to say, "I really should not be watching this cartoon about a frequently naked underage she-male." I wasn't sitting there and lusting over the character, but I began to suspect the repeated exposure was weakening me in other areas.

That being said, that cartoon still has an awesome premise, and the first volume of the manga is nearly perfect as a romantic action comedy, and I'm still going to get a discussion out of it somehow.

EegahInc said...

I definitely have the same problem here. These days it takes more than just a cool cover to get me to rent a movie, I try to at least get a brief synopsis. But some questionable stuff occasionally slips by and I find myself diving for the eject button.

Rocket Scientist said...

I'm a late commentator on this issue, but I have to say that I agree with EagahInc. The money I allocate for movies is mine to allocate, and I have never supported antiChristian movies with my money and presence. Censorship works both ways - I wouldn't censor Hollywood's movie productions as I wouldn't want them to censor my pro-life literature, but also I wouldn't support the making of movies that are offensive to me. It's amazing to me that Hollywood is so slow to realize the market they are missing while they are busy trashing Christianity. My impression is that they know so little about us (and aren't inclined to learn) that their efforts to woo us fall flat. I am reminded of a story my mother told about ten years ago. In Boston, the local Walmart was selling movies not only offensive to Catholics but also pornographic. A group of local churches got up a boycott petition and delivered it to the Walmart. The manager was livid, and expressed his feelings that the church groups were trying to censor the contents of his store. The church group calmly replied "No, we are not censoring you. We are simply choosing not to shop here." The store removed the material and regained its customers.