At the Telluride Film Festival in 2004, I found myself at a crowded cocktail party jammed up against Bob Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema. Bob's legendary career had gone all the way from distributing the midnight movie classic Reefer Madness in the '70s, to spearheading the massively successful Lord of The Rings movies. The Return Of The King had just won multiple Oscars, and Shaye was riding high. Now, pressure was on to find the next worldwide fantasy film franchise. Recently, New Line had announced that they had found what they were looking for in Philip Pullman's challenging fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, & The Amber Spyglass. My wife and I were both huge fans of the books, and we told Shaye how excited were were at the prospect of a series of films based on them.
I had first heard of these books at Burning Man exactly one year earlier. Wandering the Playa on an odd, moonless night lit by a freakishly bright planet Mars, I encountered two young men from Portland who had created beautiful, skeletal puppet-animals that swooped around them, attached to their hearts by luminous cords. "They are our Daemons" they explained, having been inspired by the Pullman books. I picked up the The Golden Compass soon thereafter and quickly became hooked.
(Warning, plot spoilers appear in the next three paragraphs).
The trilogy tells a powerful and inspiring tale that struck me as deeply spiritual. In the books, humans from an alternate dimension are linked, for life, with animal familiars called "daemons" who act as externalized soul-bodies. Unlike shamanistic animal spirit guides, these familiars are not gained through a vision quest but are part of one's self from birth. The protagonists of His Dark Materials are a pair of heroic pre-teens who fight a fundamentalist authority, The Magisterium, that seeks to control "original sin" by severing children from their daemons, an act which Pullman harrowingly depicts as profound spiritual murder.
As the trilogy moves into it's final volume, The Amber Spyglass, and becomes more ambitious in scope, our heroes take this fight beyond death, as they discover the true nature of "Hell"; believers in such an afterlife, defined by divine judgement, find themselves in a Hell created solely by their belief that such a place exists. Our hero's quest is to free these miserable souls, trapped in a limbo of self-imprisonment, so they might dissolve and become one with the ecstatic "dust" that makes up the energy of the universe.
Also in the final book (in which most of Pullman's most provocative ideas are presented), the death of "God" is featured, a pathetic aged cripple piloting a heliocopter. In Pullman's Gnostic inspired cosmology, this figure is directly tied to the concept of the Demiurge, a deity who is essentially imperfect, while a greater, transcendent intelligence beyond human comprehension is the true force behind the cosmos. Finally, the young heroine's sexual awakening as she leaves childhood behind is the catalyst that heals the war-ravaged universe, in a conscious reversal of the Eden narrative, where Eve's sinful embrace of pleasure leads to expulsion from paradise.
The Dark Materials books were, in the end, a profound attack on the values of organized religion, and a forceful articulation of an alternative theology, born of a marriage of Eastern philosophy, Gnostic hermetics and quantum physics. I was impressed that New Line had decided to put their considerable muscle behind such a sophisticated take on spirituality, especially at such a time of fundamentalist retrenchment across the world, and I told Shaye so. His response, in retrospect, should not have surprised me, though at at the time I was taken aback:
"If it's up to me, the word 'God' will never appear in conjunction with these films," he said. "I'm going to make sure the story is about the fight against authority in general, not against the church. If the public ever gets the feeling that we are talking about religion in any way, we'll be done for."
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Shaye was eventually proved right. In late February 2008, New Line Cinema ceased being an independent film company, as it was absorbed into it's parent company, Time Warner. Shaye, who had built the company into the biggest independent studio in the world, was out of a job. Industry pundits agreed that one of the factors to blame for his downfall was the "failure" of The Golden Compass, the first film in the projected trilogy, which earned barely more in it's entire North American run than the Disney adaptation of C.S. Lewis The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe did in it's opening weekend.
Despite Shaye's attempts to secularize the film's image, right-wing bloggers attacked the film as a "stealth atheist" campaign from Hollywood. Pullman was an "avowed atheist." The Catholic Church attacked the film (the evil Magisterium of the stories having much in common with the Vatican), and Protestants were appalled by an article Pullman had written for The Guardian in London, attacking the sainted C.S. Lewis' Narnia tales as "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read."
The Golden Compass ended up being a massive hit everywhere in the world except the United States. The worldwide market apparently couldn't care less that Pullman was an "atheist." Despite its rejection by U.S. audiences, going forward with the second and third films in the trilogy purely for the worldwide market would be a no brainer. But New Line had bet heavily in the wrong direction they had pre-sold the foreign run of the films at a fixed rate, relying on the easily influenced North American market to make the film profitable.
For now, the idea of completing the series seems dead in the water thanks to the cultural narcissism of Hollywood, where success isn't success unless it happens in the USA, and executives terrified of alienating the religiously conservative audiences of the heartland.
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In the end, it was Pullman's outspoken debate with the legacy of C.S. Lewis that "outed" the project as theologically challenging. In his Guardian article, timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Lewis's birth, Pullman attacked The Narnia books as being racist and sexist, exposing Christianity's obsession with rejecting life in favor of death:
"One of the most vile moments in the whole of children's literature, to my mind, occurs at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals to the children that 'the term is over: the holidays have begun,' because 'there was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.'
"To solve a narrative problem by killing one of your characters is something many authors have done at one time or another. To slaughter the lot of them, and then claim they're better off, is not honest storytelling: it's propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology. But that's par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it."
Pullman also takes on what writer Neil Gaiman would later dub "The Problem of Susan":
"And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there's the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because 'She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.' In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she'd been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win."
When Pullman started making his provocative if somewhat strident criticisms of the Narnia books in 1998, he was a newly celebrated writer of novels for young adults, trying to get some publicity by going after a sacred cow. The notion that a mere nine years later a pair of multi-million dollar movie franchises would be at stake would have seemed an idea more fantastical than anything in either series of books.
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As I write this article, the second film in the Narnia franchise, Prince Caspian, has entered it's second weekend of release, and although it's trailing behind Iron Man (and slightly behind the popularity of the first Narnia film), it has still earned more stateside revenue than The Golden Compass ever did. Even more than The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, in which a huge battle scene was invented by the filmmakers to flesh out Lewis's rather dainty paragraph-long description, Prince Caspian sells war and crusade to a public hungry to escape into a visceral states of victory and moral certitude.
Lewis's Christianity is not a simplistic, unreflective variety of dogma. He came to his faith midway through life, after embracing the story of Jesus Christ as "a myth that happened to be true." He freed himself to create new myths in service of that truth, and proved very adept at the task. There is something appealing in the notion of a Christ figure in lion form, and the special quality the books have of describing spiritual discovery in terms of imaginative child's play (worlds within wardrobes, indeed) make the Narnia books catnip to the young mind.
But the books also express the uncut prejudices of a colonial world view. Lewis grew up in the age of Rule Britannia and the "white man's burden." In writing for children, he drew wistfully on the values of his own childhood, where a wog is a wog and patriarchy is the natural order. It is interesting to notice how comfortably these notions fit into the Christian moral universe Lewis builds into the Narnia books.
But in the end, moral judgments aside, which books make better movies? The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe may have suffered from a certain blandness, but the story feels like it belongs on screen. The simplicity of Lewis's storytelling the fact that, for the most part, he doesn't explain but merely presents works as cinema in a way that The Golden Compass has difficulty doing, with its awkward set-up (anytime you need a voice over "explaining" how the world works, you are in trouble) and an "uplifting" ending that feels entirely false.
Despite these structural flaws, which point out the folly of dumbing down Pullman to begin with, The Golden Compass brings vivid life to an amazing world that owes nothing to the cliches of fantasy that Narnia helped build, right down to the refreshing performance of the lead child actress, a scowling young Jodie Foster type who is a million miles away from fawningly "cute." And despite the stated goal of dropping God from the discourse, how could one mistake the villainous Magisterium for anything other than a church, with their long robes and cathedral-like headquarters?
But the first book was never the "problem." It is in the later books that Pullman gets into proselytizing his alternative religious vision. How the filmmakers were going to tackle the notions of a Hell created by the Christian vision of judgement, a young heroine who embraces sexuality to save the Multi-verse, or a usurper demiurge squatting on God's throne, we may sadly never know.
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The question remains: how disingenuous was the stated goal of the filmmakers to skip over Pullman's more provocative themes? Did they really roll the dice thinking that there would be no backlash? Did they feel that they could somehow sneak a serious critique of the last two thousand years of western belief past the cultural watchdogs and into the multiplexes of In God We Trust, Inc.?
Books may not be cool anymore in our hyper-mediated world, but what better way to spread provocative thought?
Pullman's book are subversive in the best possible way. They pass from hand to hand, and in the solitary act of reading, one after another comes into direct contact with a provocative vision, a planting of questioning seeds.
This brings us back to a central question. Is Pullman an atheist? He has often self identified as one. There is something in his attacks on Lewis that smells a bit of the self-satisfied humanist intellectual, and his moral universe is so reasonably balanced with modern progressive values that they seem based in the head more than the heart.
There is a case, however, where he beautifully articulated his goals in taking on such charged and transcendent themes in his writing. In a public interview at The Guardian Hay Festival in 2002, he offered the following:
"When it was possible to have a belief about God and heaven, it represented something we all desired. It had a profound meaning in human life. But when it no longer became possible to believe, a lot of people felt despair. What was the meaning of life? It seems that our nature is so formed that we need a feeling of connectedness with the universe. If there is no longer a king, or a kingdom of heaven, it will have to be a republic in which we are free citizens. We ourselves as citizens have to build the republic of heaven."
(A detailed article by Pullman going deeper into this concept of "The Republic of Heaven" can be found here.)
For many of us, eager to validate a non-hirearchical vision of the divine and yearning to be reunited with our lost anima-animals, Pullman's work brings hope and joy. But until we find away to make the leap, as Lewis did with Christianity, into believing that these are "myths that happen to be real," we will continue to be outmaneuvered by the Magisteriums of the world. In their lack of faith in the power of Pullman's "myth," New Line missed a powerful opportunity to give strength to a truly progressive, post-monotheistic vision that could help us climb out of the self-fufilling "Hell" that we find ourselves in.