The Grail Code 
An atheist fantasy? Hard to tell

I’ve just seen The Golden Compass, the movie version of Philip Pullman’s book of the same name. (For American readers, at least; in England it was The Northern Lights. American publishers always change the names of British books, I assume on the grounds that it makes the marketers look like they’re working for a living.) Now, I haven’t read the book, and I haven’t even followed the controversy except in its broad outlines.

Briefly, it is said that Philip Pullman is an atheist who deliberately wrote a fantasy designed to poison the minds of young people against Christianity and lead them toward atheist humanism, whatever that is. Pullman himself makes no secret of being anti-religious and anti-supernatural.

But as I say, I haven’t read the book. Certainly there are obvious anti-Christian elements in the movie. The organization at the heart of all the villainy is called the Magisterium—a word that, as far as I know, occurs in exactly two contexts: as a name for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and as the name of the sinister all-controlling power in Philip Pullman’s novels. In the movie’s world, if you run foul of the Magisterium, it prosecutes you for heresy—another loaded word. The officials of the Magisterium get their fashion sense from Catholic bishops and cardinals. The usual sources on line say that the anti-Christian message of the book has been toned down a good bit for the movie, but it’s hard to miss anyway.

So if you think anti-Christian movies shouldn’t be made, you won’t like this one. If you like to judge movies by their own merits, however—well, you still might not like this one. It just feels shallow. The most interesting conceit in the fantasy world is the idea that people’s souls live outside them in the form of animal-shaped daemons (pronounced “demons”), but the movie seems to miss all the best opportunities for spinning metaphors and allegories out of that conceit. As for the rest, it’s difficult to decide what the moral is supposed to be. Freedom = Good, Dogma = Bad: I got that much. To judge by the actions of the admirable characters in the story, we are also to understand that war is good for its own sake, and revenge is an important humanistic value. I’m pretty sure I don’t like those ideas.

One more complaint: the narrative is full of cliches cribbed from every action and fantasy movie. At the climax, for example, our heroine destroys the evil soul-splitting doomsday machine in the villains’ secret hideout, and—just as in every parody of every James Bond movie—the destruction of that one machine somehow sets off a chain reaction that blows the whole complex to smithereens, taking just long enough for all the major characters to run around in a panic for a while before escaping just as the flames engulf the building. As my wife pointed out, the story has to have some reason why the villains can’t just fix the evil doomsday machine and go on with their villainy right away. What would you have come up with? she asked. I frankly admitted that I didn’t know; but if I were writing the script, I would have spent half an hour thinking about it, and at the end I would have come up with something.

(On-line sources say that Tom Stoppard wrote the first screenplay for the movie, but the producers rejected it and had someone else rewrite it from scratch. I really, really want to get my hands on that Tom Stoppard script.)

So is there nothing to recommend the movie? I certainly wouldn’t say that. The story may be trite sometimes, and the moral may be muddied, but the pictures are beautiful. The landscape is dotted with gorgeous cities filled with a kind of Renaissance Deco architecture; I kept thinking that, if this Magisterium can provide a living environment like that, you might want to think twice about poking it in the eye. I also fell in love with Mrs. Coulter’s airship, which is positively the most beautiful dirigible ever seen on film. I want one for myself.

No less an authority than the Right Revd. Rowan Williams has suggested that The Golden Compass be taught and discussed in religion classes. He sees it as a plea against dogmatism rather than against religion, and I agree that dogmatism is bad (as opposed to dogma, which can be very good if it’s the right dogma). And I think that his approach is the best one. The movie isn’t suitable for very young children. But if your older children want to watch it, let them, and watch it with them. Then talk about it. You could start with something like “So, what did you think of Mrs. Coulter’s airship?”

And now an aside: Why would an anti-Christian fantasy retreat to more primitive forms of religion and superstition? The whole plot revolves around the separation of the soul from the body; the Magisterium’s evil plot is to get rid of the soul altogether, which is a very odd idea for someone to come up with if he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a soul. This, I think, is what has me more mixed up than anything else. To counter Christianity with magic and animism is all very well, if you want to lead the kiddies toward magic and animism. It seems like an odd strategy if you want to lead them toward scientism. But then, as I mentioned before, I haven’t read the book.

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey