As the movie studios gear up for a big Christmas movie season, one trailer that looks like a blockbuster is "The Golden Compass," which must be trying to cash in on the "Narnia" movies. It has flashy special-effect polar bears in armor and a young heroic damsel in distress facing off against evil forces. The casting is top-notch, led by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, the current star spy in the James Bond movies.
But buyer beware: Narnia it's not. It's the anti-Narnia. Instead of a Christian allegory, it's an anti-Christian allegory. The author of "The Golden Compass," Philip Pullman, is an atheist who despises C. S. Lewis and his much-beloved Narnia series. "I thought they were loathsome," he said of those books, "full of bullying and sneering, propaganda, basically, on behalf of a religion whose main creed seemed to be to despise and hate people unlike yourself."
This book and movie is only the first in his trilogy, titled "His Dark Materials," that gets more and more anti-religious in each book. Pullman hates orthodox religion and "those who pervert and misuse religion, or any other kind of doctrine with a holy book and a priesthood and an apparatus of power that wields unchallengeable authority, in order to dominate and suppress human freedoms."
If you hear the ring of anti-Catholicism, you're right. The evil empire in this movie for children is called the "Magisterium," which is exactly the word Catholics use to describe the teaching authority of the Pope and his bishops. The books are more explicit, in which the evil institution is also called "The Church" and the higher-ups are the "Vatican Council."
British columnist Peter Hitchens has explained how our secular thought-shapers would love for Pullman to undercut Narnia's influence on children: "The cultural elite would like to wipe out this pocket of resistance. They have successfully expelled God from the schools, from the broadcast media and, for the most part, from the Church itself." He writes that while Lewis mocked atheists as joyless, Pullman depicts priests as evil and murderous, drunk and probably perverted, and the Church as "a conspiracy against happiness and kindness."
Isn't it a bit perverse to head into the Christmas holiday season hyping an atheist fantasy movie for kids? No doubt sensing this, Pullman and the movie makers have ventured on a dishonest but energetic public-relations campaign to convince the public that this film isn't really anti-Christian. It's a plea for open-mindedness and spiritual dialogue. The church is just a metaphor, see.
The movie's director, Chris Weitz, spins it this way: "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." Weitz says they merely "expanded the range of meanings" for the Magisterium, that it's merely a metaphor for tyranny of any stripe: "Philip Pullman is against any kind of organized dogma whether it is church hierarchy or, say, a Soviet hierarchy." That would be more believable if Hollywood had a track record of casting a Soviet hierarchy as evil - and if Hollywood didn't have its own organized dogma of secular fundamentalism.
Nicole Kidman spins it her way: "I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic."
The media have played happily along in disguising Pullman's religion-bashing. On NBC's "Today," weatherman Al Roker delighted in making "The Golden Compass" the fall book selection of "Al's Book Club for Kids." Pullman appeared on NBC to deny that he was really promoting atheism. He touted letting the reader decide what the author intended, in a "democracy of reading." The closest he came to atheism was saying the book championed "open-minded intellectual curiosity." If that sounds like a transparent dodge, it certainly was. He told the students asking questions to think of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the menace in Pullman's trilogy isn't called the Caliphate, and its hideous monsters aren't mullahs. They are cardinals and priests, and the heroes are an atheist former nun and two rebellious gay male angels.
The atheists may be angry that the movie waters down Pullman's anti-religious message, but they can take comfort in the fact that many parents (and grandparents and even godparents) will, sadly, buy the hype over this movie and buy this trilogy of vicious anti-religious books for the young readers in their lives. To the Christian book buyer, beware: instead of celebrating God's son born in the flesh, you'll be celebrating God being killed so that man can advance to true consciousness.
For those anticipating the wonder of Narnia, you'll have to wait until next May, when "Prince Caspian," the second installment, returns magic to the screen.