Enjoy Golden Compass Rumpus!

Tune in for Philip Pullman Interview on Freethought Radio Next Week

by Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president

If the Catholic League were truly interested in child welfare, wouldn’t it be warning parents not to let their sons become altar boys?

No children’s movie could ask for better advance publicity than a boycott called by the Catholic League! What youthful movie-goer could resist that ringing endorsement?

The religious hype over “The Golden Compass,” which will be released on December 7 and is based on the first book in Philip Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy, is escalating daily. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Mormon groups are now also warning the faithful to “stay away,” and above all, not to buy their children the subversive books for Christmas!

The Catholic League’s beef is that the author of the fantasy books is “a noted English atheist.” The League warns that the movie is “bait” to lure unsuspecting children into . . . (gasp) reading the books for themselves!

Undoubtedly fearing exactly this kind of hysterical reaction by America’s disproportionately powerful, self-appointed religious guardians, director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) felt compelled to tell the Guardian earlier this fall:

“In the books the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic church gone wildly astray from its roots. If that’s what you want in the film, you’ll be disappointed. We have expanded the range of meanings of what the Magisterium represents. Philip Pullman is against any kind of organized dogma whether it is church hierarchy or, say, a Soviet hierarchy.”

Philip Pullman is indeed nonreligious, and the books do indeed involve a page-turning plot among strange parallel universes in which the Church (also known as the “Magisterium”) runs the world, and appears to be connected to the terrifying Gobblers, who are kidnapping children off the streets. Lyra, the intrepid young heroine who is destined to defeat the Authority (also known in the books as “God”), is hunted down by the Magisterium through three books, joined in her dangerous odyssey in books two and three by a resourceful young boy, Will. Pullman peoples the thrilling adventure with mythical creatures, many inspired by Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Fearing the Church’s mysterious and sinister actions are endangering all life, many of these creatures declare war against the Church and the Authority.

Imagine the Catholic League’s consternation that filmmakers have spared no expense ($180 million) in creating a tantalizing special-effects blockbuster. The actors are likewise impressive: Nicole Kidman, perfectly cast as the elegant villainess Mrs. Coulter, and Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) in the adult male lead.

Were the Catholic League truly interested in child welfare, wouldn’t it be warning parents not to let their sons become altar boys? No one called for the censorship of the Narnia movies, with their sickly Christian message–a message, in fact, which Pullman in part sought to balance with his own epic fantasy for children.

It is not new to see filmmakers sanitize classics to appease would-be religious censors. Evidently pandering to the religiously correct crowd, Disney turned the heavy in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame from a predatory priest into a secular judge in its cartoon version. In the movie “Chocolat,” the producers turned novelist Joanne Harris’ villainous priest into a mayor.

Until next week, the verdict is out on how faithless the film version is to the book. Certainly it is a promising sign that the author has given the film his thumb’s up. A movie that depicts an empowered 12-year-old girl doing battle with authoritarianism has to add something positive into the cultural mix.

If the Catholic League is going to warn parents to keep books by infidels out of the hands of children, what will become of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by that granddaddy of all heretic children’s authors: Mark Twain? And we’ll have to purge the lovely rhymes of Robert Louis Stevenson and his adventure books for children, as Stevenson was a doubter. And what to do about Winnie the Pooh, created by yet another critic of religion, A.A. Milne? My, the Catholic League has its work cut out.

The bullying Catholic League got one thing right. This children’s movie of the season will put Philip Pullman’s books right up there with Harry Potter on older children’s bookshelves. Ah, how the League must long for the good old days when the Inquisition used to be able to ban subversive books, not to mention burning their authors!

Help make this movie a success, so the trilogy will be completed on film. Above all, if you’re the parent or grandparent of a “young adult” reader, help create a run in America for Philip Pullman’s rich and imaginative tour de force. Pullman has offered the world a memorable storyline, which just happens to question religious authority and enjoin humanity to create a “republic of heaven” here on earth.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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