Last night I saw The Golden Compass, the movie adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. The movie, like the book, is set in a fantastic and richly imagined parallel universe, similar to our own world but different in many important ways. In Pullman’s steampunk world, human beings’ souls live outside their bodies, in the form of talking animal familiars called daemons; the icy north is ruled by fearsome armored bears and clans of flying witches; and an evil church that extends its grip over the world battles the defenders of freethought to suppress the truth about a mysterious particle called Dust. The church views Dust as the physical evidence of original sin and wants to stamp out all knowledge of it, but a few brave scholars believe it is the gateway to a limitless infinity of possibilities.
The heroine of the movie, Lyra Belacqua, is an orphan girl raised by the masters of Jordan College in a parallel London. A shadowy organization known as the Gobblers has been kidnapping children for unknown purposes, and when one of Lyra’s friends is snatched, she vows to set out and rescue him. In her quest she finds allies, including a band of traveling Gyptians seeking to recover their own lost sons and daughters; the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and a loyal armored bear, Iorek Byrnison. But her greatest help may be the instrument of the movie’s title: an “alethiometer”, a clockwork device given to her by the master of Jordan College which, if read and interpreted correctly, can give the true answer to any question. Ultimately, Lyra’s quest takes her to the frozen wastelands of the North Pole, where she faces the sinister Magisterium and its chief agent, the poison-sweet Mrs. Coulter, and learns the truth about the evil experiments it’s been conducting on the stolen children.
At least in America, there’s been a minor uproar over this movie, because the book’s author, Philip Pullman, is an avowed atheist who’s salted the novels with anti-religious and freethought themes. (The second two books of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, pick up the plot of a literal war against God – although in the books he’s called “the Authority”, and depicted as an aged pretender rather than the true creator of everything.) Fulminating bigots like William Donohue of the Catholic League have demanded a boycott, and newspaper columnists have fretted that this movie’s intent is to “teach atheism to children”. (I don’t remember hearing any complaints about how the movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was intended to “teach Christianity to children”.)
Predictably, the movie’s producers tried to head off this criticism by watering down the anti-religious themes from the book. The evil organization, which as I recall is explicitly depicted as the Church in the original novels, is here only called the “Magisterium”. Rather than an explicit struggle against religion, the heroes’ opposition is depicted more as a struggle against authoritarianism. Also predictably, these changes had no effect on the self-appointed guardians of dogma, who only need to catch the merest whiff of dissent to thunder about “disrespect” and demand that the offender be censored and punished to make them feel better. Nevertheless, more of Pullman’s theme was left in than I had expected, including the equation of Dust with original sin. Mrs. Coulter gives a speech in which she claims Dust came about because the first people disobeyed the Authority, although the movie does not go into any detail on who or what the Authority is. I also thought it was more than a little heavy-handed to depict all the top officials of the Magisterium as having daemons that were serpents or preying mantises (although Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is a wonderfully evil creation).
That said, anyone who’s expecting the books or especially the movie to serve as the standard-bearer for atheism is likely to be let down. For all the great freethought ideas contained in them, they’re not tightly reasoned anti-religious polemics. The books are a story, an imaginative fiction. In our world, there is no literal Authority to kill, no Dust to tell us the truth the church has tried to cover up. The story should be judged on its own merits, not pressed into service to support a real-life cause. The most we can expect from this or any other story is to encourage children to ask questions and consider new possibilities, which is all to the good. It’s to be expected that even this little hint of freethinking will provoke roars of outrage from the pompous pretenders who fear alternative stories, and who can all too easily recognize themselves in the corrupt and tyrannical authority figures skewered therein.