I don’t want a republic
Posted December 22, 2007on:
A while ago, Laura Sanderson asked if I would blog about the Philip Pullman books, His Dark Materials, in light of the recent cinema release of the first in the series, Northern Lights (film and US book title, The Golden Compass). Exams now being over, I went to see the film yesterday and now have some thoughts to share.
If you’ve not seen the film or read the books, be warned that there will be spoilers. If you’ve read the book but not seen the film, then it’s fine to read and there’s one spoiler that’s really worth knowing before seeing the film. Oh and, if you do go and see it, don’t stay for the credits. I’ve no idea who wrote/sang the final song but they should be ashamed of themselves. It’s truly awful.
My overwhelming impression was of its tremendous beauty. Lyra’s Oxford is perfectly realised, recognisable yet different from our Oxford. It was a great delight to watch Lyra and Asriel walking in the Fellows Garden and looking out over Radcliffe Square. The quasi-Victorian atmosphere that Pullman creates in the book is precisely captured in the costumes and the gadgets. London was London, and yet not quite. I daresay the same is true of Norway, though I can’t make the comparison myself. The casting was terrific, including a really brilliant performance by the girl who played Lyra. Daniel Craig makes a suitably attractive and mysterious Asriel; Nicole Kidman is chilling as Mrs Coulter; even Ian McShane seems to have left his Lovejoy days well and truly behind as the voice of the usurping ice bear. The daemons work incredibly well. Everyone seems to be at ease with their animals, and the shape shifting of Pantalaimon is seamlessly done.
The film, I think, suffers slightly from knowing how beautiful it is. Some important scenes are kept very brief, while there are lots and lots of long lingering shots of the stunning scenery that slow things down when really we’re anxious to get on. It also suffers from the same problem as the first book – Pullman holds onto too many secrets for too long. There are so many mysteries and most of them are completely unanswered in this part of the story: what is Dust; who is Lyra; why is she important; how does everyone know that she is important – the witches, the scholars, the Magisterium; how can she read the alethiometer and so on. The other big problem, which again I think the film shares with the book, is that Lyra is a hard character to identify with and care for. She’s a very interesting character but I, at least, don’t find her immediately likeable. So I do find myself struggling to get emotionally involved in her story.
That’s not to say that there are no emotional moments in the film. I was moved to tears when Billy Costa was found. The Intercision machine was truly terrifying. But at the end, I was more relieved that Iorek Byrnison survived than Lyra. Oh and, you should know, the film ends with Lee Scoresby flying Lyra and Roger to Lord Asriel. I believe the plan is to have the final scene with the path to Citigazze at the start of the second film. I think this works fine so long as you’re not expecting the other!
I think Pullman is a great storyteller who has written a series that will become a classic. It’s creative, fun and interesting. It’s also profoundly anti-Christian. The heart of the story is the redemption of the world through the death of God and the reversal of the Fall through pre-teen sex. The villain of the piece is the Church and the hope offered at the end is a manmade ‘republic of heaven’. No one is denying that there are huge theological and moral problems with the books. Pullman’s picture of God bears no resemblance to that of the Christian bible. Pullman’s view of sin is so warped that he reconstructs the fall as a good thing, a scientific experiment. Pullman’s hero and heroine succeed in their task by lying, cheating and killing.
What’s interesting, I think, is how angry and shocked so many Christians (especially in America) were by Pullman’s books. Perhaps more so because they are marketed as children’s books. But here’s the thing. Pullman is not alone in thinking this way. Most non-Christians think that the Church is the source of a lot of evil in the world (whether because of religious wars or sexual abuse of choirboys). Authority (Pullman’s word for God) is resented and rejected in modern society. Self-awareness, consciousness, conscience and sexuality, under the umbrella term of ‘maturity’, are valued. If there is to be anything approaching heaven on earth, it will be our own work. This isn’t the bizarre hate speech of an intolerant few. I’m pretty sure this is normal.
I’d say that’s a good reason to read the books – to understand just how far removed the world view of an average non-Christian is from that of the believer.
Some reviews have suggested that the film deliberately downplays the religious aspects of the book. I’m not sure that’s really true. In the first book, the religious themes are more subtle than in the second, and it’s not until the third that they really come out in full force. There are plenty of indications in the film: the repeated use of the term heresy; the priestly garb of Fra Pavel and the rest of the Magisterium; the painted saints on the church building in Trollesund that is the Magisterium; Mrs Coulter’s explanation that the Magisterium want to tell everyone everywhere what to do and think; the references to the General Oblation Board, and so on. It’s harder to pronounce Authority with a capital A than it is to write it, but they try. And the anagram of Asriel is probably less obvious in the film too.
I don’t know that it would be completely clear to everyone who’d seen the film that it is going to end in religious war by the third book, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. I do think the filmmakers have done enough to let them get there when they need to. If they ever get the chance. I don’t think it’s been a box office hit, so we may never get to see The Subtle Knife or The Amber Spyglass. Which, on balance, would be a shame I think.
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