SF/F Saturday: His Dark Materials

There’s a lot of fantasy fiction that I enjoy in spite of its religious themes – C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. But sometimes I’m in the mood for fiction that takes an explicitly atheist and humanist point of view, which is why I’ve lately been rereading one of my favorite series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

The first book in the series, The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights outside the USA), is set on an alternate Earth that seamlessly combines magic and steampunk technology. In this world, every human being is accompanied everywhere by their daemon – an intelligent, animal-shaped spirit that’s the outward manifestation of their soul. Children’s daemons can change shape, but during puberty, a person’s daemon settles on a fixed form that’s reflective of their personality.

Pullman’s heroine, Lyra Belacqua, is a street urchin growing up in the care of the Scholars who live and work at Jordan College, part of the University of Oxford in that universe. The book begins when she discovers that her uncle, the stern and dangerous Lord Asriel, is mounting an expedition to the Arctic that has something to do with the discovery of an elementary particle called Dust, which is strangely attracted to human beings. The discovery of Dust has touched off a frenzy in the Church, which in Lyra’s world is a powerful and ruthless theocratic organization. In her quest to follow in her uncle’s footsteps, she becomes entangled with a memorable villain, the sweetly sadistic Mrs. Coulter, who’s working with a church body called the General Oblation Board that’s performing sinister experiments on children.

Despite its fantastical contours, Pullman’s universe is richly and vividly textured, conjuring one fantastic sight after another. There are angels, witches, heroic gypsies, steampunk spy machines, balloon-riding Texan aeronauts, and the author’s most spectacular creation, the panserbjorne: intelligent, talking, armor-wearing polar bears that rule over the kingdom of Svalbard in the far north and live by their own peculiar, savage code of honor. Lyra’s friendship with one of them, a bear named Iorek Byrnison, forms a major arc throughout the second half of the book.

The sequel, The Subtle Knife, concerns a boy from our Earth named Will Parry who accidentally comes into possession of the most dangerous artifact in the multiverse, a knife that can cut doorways from one world into another. The trilogy wraps up with The Amber Spyglass, which tells of the truth about Dust, Lyra and Will’s shared fate, and a cosmic war against the trilogy’s main villain, “the Authority”, an angelic tyrant who stands behind the church and falsely claims to be the creator of all things. Yes, the overarching plot of these books is a revolt against God – and the protagonists’ stated quest is to create a democratic “Republic of Heaven” encompassing all the worlds of the multiverse.

Although HDM is nominally a young-adult trilogy, I found it very adult in its plot and outlook, especially its treatment of sexuality and its elegiac, bittersweet ending. There was a movie made of the first book in 2007, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. It did reasonably well at the box office, but the sequels were never made, which is just as well. As much as I love the books, they’re probably unfilmable without watering them down beyond recognition. Can you imagine Hollywood greenlighting a movie where the primary villain is God?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Richard Hollis

    I do sometimes wonder at the reason the last two books of the trilogy weren’t dramatised. Surely if it was ideological reason, they wouldn’t have made the first one… would they? Did the Golden Compass bomb in the box office?

    Also, I hope this isn’t too out of place as it’s quite an aside, but if anyone loves literary deconstruction and/or the Chronicles of Narnia, this is a rather lovely and interesting read: http://www.anamardoll.com/2011/02/narnia-narnia-deconstruction-index-post.html

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    My understanding is that New Line sold the overseas rights to finance the production of the movie, and it made most of its box office outside America, so even though the movie itself was a financial success, it didn’t make money for the studio. That could explain it.

  • antialiasis

    I may just need to read it again (I was a teen when I did), but while I liked The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, I couldn’t stand The Amber Spyglass. The sudden declaration that Lyra and Will, only barely teenagers, were in the truest love ever loved seemed extremely cheesy, unrealistic and generally unnecessary, and at least to me it seemed to come entirely out of nowhere. Meanwhile, the Authority didn’t seem to do much of anything and struck me more as some kind of bizarre spiteful “Oh, and by the way, Christians? In my fantasy book series, God is a fake who didn’t really create the universe! Suck on that!” by the author. (I was already an atheist at the time, mind; I was entirely on board with the message. I just thought it was poorly delivered.)

    But it’s entirely possible it was better than I remember. Mostly I really hated the romance and for the rest of the book after that point all I could feel was seething rage that every book with a male and female hero always had to hook them up by the end, so I was probably not very objective.

  • Indigo

    My father and I went to see the film together when I was 21 – he knew I loved the books from my adolescence, and I thought he might find the ideas interesting. Both of us were sorely disappointed. There were good elements, but on the whole the movie was poorly constructed and missing most of the weight of the books. My reaction was apparently fairly typical of many fans, so maybe New Line looked at the reaction and decided filming the rest of the trilogy wasn’t a good gamble.

  • John

    “the Church, which in Lyra’s world is a powerful and ruthless theocratic organization”

    And that’s…different from the way it is in our world?

  • Izkata

    In addition to what Indigo said, The Golden Compass entered theatres juuuust before I Am Legend did. I Am Legend was modified to contain a whole “religion is good” message, so contrasting that with The Golden Compass’s viewpoint…

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    It was? I must have missed it.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    I think he means it has more power than the real Church (at present) does.

  • John

    I figured that, I was just making a joke :P

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Ah, right.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    What is “it”? I Am Legend? If so, I’m assuming you saw it. I wrote a rather quick breakdown of it on my blog, so I’ll direct you to that link: http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/god-and-i-am-legend.html

    In re-reading my post, I noticed there was one part I missed covering — the helicopter crash that killed Robert’s (Will Smith’s character) wife. It was implied that she was infected, so the helicopter had to crash, otherwise she would have infected the colony.

    Otherwise, to summarize what is in my post, I had the implication gotten the impression* that everything in the movie was happening to “God’s plan” and things would have worked out better for Roberts had he been a believer. There was also an implied conversion just before his death, too, which was quite irksome.

    * Edited for clarity.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    I love the His Dark Materials trilogy. I actually read it before I started considering myself an atheist, though I was already secular and didn’t believe in any specific religion. I really enjoyed it, and I think it helped to make me more secular and critical of religion.

    Other than the message, I really loved the writing. It was wonderful, and I read his sentences and paragraphs wishing I could write like that.

    The romance angle of the last book bothered me, though I understand it was supposed to be an Adam and Eve reference. I think that part could have been done a little differently. Overall, though, it’s fantastic.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Yes, I Am Legend. I had forgotten about those parts of the film. You do make a good case for that view. It’s just the common Hollywood line. The best depiction of an atheist that I’ve ever seen was in Contact, and that was written by one (Carl Sagan). Even then they had to give her a tragic background that explained her loss of faith, as usual, and it obviously compared her claims to those of religion’s at the end (only the minister believes her). Which is to say, we’ve got a long way to go until Hollywood actually depicts atheists in better ways.

  • David Simon

    Also don’t forget the part where a crucifix necklace saves the atheist protagonist’s life.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    That part I don’t remember, but it wouldn’t be surprising.

  • mnpollio

    You are correct. These were really wonderful novels and fairly audacious considering their themes. It was also refreshing to have a young girl as the main protagonist/hero rather than the standard brave young boy. The film version was actually surprisingly good, although I believe you are correct that it would have become more and more watered down if they proceeded. I remember that it concluded ambiguously before the actual conclusion present in the novel (which was more powerful and shocking) – which was strange considering that at least part of the novel’s conclusion appeared to have been filmed since it showed up in the trailer (did the studio perhaps get nervous?). I also remember that Catholic spokesperson/general douche William Donohue wasted no time prior to the film’s release in taking to the airwaves to bleat his standard persecution riff and warn all “good” Catholics of the evil of viewing the film or reading the novels, while trumpeting the perils of evil atheist messages in disguise and pushing for boycotts. Apparently the irony was overlooked that the film (and books) in question presented a powerful organization of religious zealots who controlled the populace through intimidation, repression and censorship, and that Donohue’s campaign against the film prominently featured intimidation, repression and attempted censorship…which ultimately proved the film’s theme as a valid criticism of Donohue’s church.

  • mnpollio

    I had also forgotten that part myself, but I vaguely remember it now. As much as I enjoyed Contact and Jodie Foster’s performance, it did pull its punches in the final moments to throw a bone to the faithful.

    It has never failed to amaze me that for all of the criticisms by the fervently religious about the secular influence in popular media, that it is nearly impossible to find a variety of atheists depicted favorably or with any depth. They are usually shown to be either close-minded idiots, objects of pity, or someone who is required to get their comeuppance and/or rediscover their faith. Even a skeptic like Dana Scully on The X-Files was depicted as being religious in her private life. The only unapologetic atheist character I can actually note is Dr. Temperance Brennan on Bones (I don’t count Gregory House from House because he never actually identified as an atheist and spent so much time pushing other people’s buttons for fun that I was never sure what he did or did not believe). I remember when it initially premiered I figured we could count the days until she had her religious epiphany. Well it looks to have a taken nearly a decade, but from some of the episodes I have seen lately, I have never noted a show before that has started working so hard to undermine its protagonist. For a show about science and rationality, we have had at least two episodes featuring ghosts, an episode where she fudges evidence because it might upset the beliefs of her weak-willed man-child partner/lover, and an episode where she meets with her dead mother, and in each case the show ends up placing itself firmly on the side of the believers rather than its central heroine. It has become really annoying the way the show has been treating her. She used to be able to more than hold her own against her partner/lover and devout Catholic Booth, but now it seems that she is forced to compromise on his behalf in every single episode. It will probably only be a matter of time before she is forced to pronounce herself as born again. So much for that secular media influence!

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    What’s funny to me was Mulder and Scully always reversed positions initially when it came to religion: she the believer, and he the skeptic. This was, of course, due to Mulder’s tragic backstory making him, in true Hollywood fashion, an angry atheist. Scully became a believer too of course, and Mulder by the end apparently extends his “want to believe” into religious matters. I too found the show having to constantly “show up” Bones annoying and insulting. However, I think it’s mostly catering by the people who produce these shows, most of whom likely are liberal to atheist in belief. If most people were atheists, they would have different portrayals.

  • arensb

    IMDb has budget and box office information. If I’m reading this correctly, it had a budget of $180 million, and made $70 in the US (plus some amount outside the US that I’m not going to try to convert at this late hour).

    By contrast, Transformers, also from 2007, had a budget of $150 million and made $700 million worldwide (including $300 million in the US).

    So it looks as though the first movie didn’t make enough money for the studio to want to risk making a second one.

  • arensb

    The film version was actually surprisingly good

    All but the writing, I thought: things like sets, costumes, CGI, acting (not that I’m a good judge of acting) were all quite good.
    Where it fell down, I thought, was in pacing: it’s as if the screenwriters tried to fit everything from the book into the movie, which doesn’t leave time to linger on any one scene. The movie feels rushed: “Okay, here’s Mrs. Coulter’s apartment. Like it? Gotta move on to meet Lee Scoresby. There. Okay, now on to Svalbard…”
    One repercussion of this is that events just seem to align to make the story move forward. No sooner has Lee Scoresby met Lyra, it seems, than he’s agreed to take her north and practically adopted her as his daughter. (Of course, when I was watching that, I still remembered that in LotR, the Ents took something like a whole chapter just to decide whether Merry and Pippin were orc-level enemies or not, so maybe I’m biased.)
    Perhaps it could have been saved by filming a better-paced, three-hour “director’s cut” which could have been pared down to a two-and-some hour “theatrical release” by cutting a subplot or two (and then selling twice as many DVDs to fanboys like me).