• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Golden Compass: the ‘God Wars’ as child’s play

One of the paradoxes of our times is that the more that formal political life is emptied of meaning, the more that fairly trivial areas of life become politicised.

So people who recycle their rubbish consider those of us who do not recycle to be pathetic, morally inferior beings. Some people have passionately-held views on junk food, and embrace organic food as the ‘taste of salvation’. The bitter debate about banal lifestyle issues frequently touches upon the issue of parenting, and what parents let their children watch on TV and in the cinema. So it is not surprising that the latest Hollywood blockbuster for kids - The Golden Compass - has provided yet another opportunity for a row between clashing groups of worthy adults who have taken on the role of Arbiters Of Children’s Culture. Well, what else is worth having an argument about?

There was a time when films made for a juvenile audience were just that: light entertainment targeted at youngsters. Parents would occasionally ask their children formulaic questions, like ‘was it fun?’, ‘did you laugh?’ or ‘were you scared?’, and then leave it at that. Today, however, children’s films, and especially those that are released around Christmas time, are put under the values-radar. Commentators now ask questions such as ‘was it inclusive?’, ‘did it push a religious message?’ or ‘were you offended?’, rather than simply assessing the film on its entertainment and artistic merits.

So film critics and cultural commentators took delight in deconstructing the ‘real meaning’ of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even political commentators feel obliged to get in on the act, in order to explain to apparently confused parents what are the real messages behind these movies. Following this newly established twenty-first century tradition of infantalised public discourse, The Golden Compass has provided many an opinionated commentator with an opportunity to lecture parents about the state of the world.

The film was bound to provoke a row. It is loosely based on the first book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. This series of books touches on many of the themes that dominate ‘the God Wars’: the meaning of creation; the role of religious authority; belief in the supernatural; the exercise of free will and individual responsibility. As a result, the discussion of the film has been refracted through the prism of Pullman’s atheism. What’s more, Pullman is not simply a brilliant children’s writer – he is also adept at public moralising. He has denounced Narnia as ‘morally loathsome’, describing CS Lewis’s series of books as amongst the ‘most ugly and poisonous things’ he has read. Indeed, Pullman directly counterpoises his ‘non-Christian’ trilogy to the ‘Christian’ Narnia.

Right on cue, groups of religious moral entrepreneurs have attacked The Golden Compass as a piece of insidious atheistic propaganda. The American Catholic League says that Pullman’s objective is ‘to bash Christianity and promote atheism’. It warns parents to be on guard and not become complacent just because the commercial film version of Pullman’s story has toned down its anti-religious message. The Catholic League is concerned that children, after watching this relatively inoffensive film, might become interested in something stronger – like actually reading Pullman’s books. Thus, they risk being ‘exposed’ to hardcore atheism. ‘The Catholic League wants Christians to stay away from this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books’, says the League in one of its statements. From this perspective, The Golden Compass is seen as a gateway to the literary world of the antichrist. Apparently, behind this glitzy Hollywood production, there lurks a hidden agenda. The League says: ‘There is nothing innocent about Pullman’s agenda.’ Indeed, Pullman has been described as ‘the most dangerous author’ by one British Sunday newspaper.

The conspiracist sensibility of these religious zealots is more than matched by today’s secular crusaders, who increasingly believe that religion is the most pernicious evil afflicting humanity.

So, not surprisingly, a vociferous band of fully paid-up, born-again atheists anticipated that His Dark Materials would serve as a kind of manifesto for challenging the coercive authority of religion over children’s imaginations. Naively they hoped that the filming of the first volume of Pullman’s series would do for the crusade against God what Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did for popularising apocalyptic thinking about climate change. However, in the true spirit of a Hollywood blockbuster, the producers of The Golden Compass were interested in ‘the bottom line’ and not in deprogramming religiously educated children.

Consequently, many of the New Atheists feel let down by what they see as the dilution of the book’s anti-religious message. Some have expressed disappointment over the way in which the film’s producers have ‘taken the heart’ out of the text by deleting its ‘anti-religious elements’. Some even criticise Hollywood for being… well, Hollywood, and putting the imperative of entertaining an audience ahead of promoting anti-religious ideals.

In this sad, supposedly grown-up debate, we hear very little about the reaction of children to The Golden Compass. So I took five 12-year-old boys – all of them Pullman fans – to see the film. Their reaction? They thought it was brilliant. Seth confided that it was almost as good as The Simpsons Movie. For two of the boys, the point of comparison was the latest James Bond movie (apparently the same actor plays the lead role in both films). Jim took a fancy to Mrs Coulter and was puzzled as to why her daughter, Lyra, did not take to her. All the boys agreed that The Golden Compass is a good adventure flick, but that it had little to do with the book on which it was based. They also said that their imaginations had been far more fired up by the book than the film. As you would expect, they drew no Big Lessons from the film.

Like all literature, the His Dark Materials trilogy can be read in different ways. It may be read as questioning and criticising the authority of religion while paradoxically transmitting a sensibility that is not dissimilar to a religious one. Pullman’s writing exudes a powerful sense of the mystical and supernatural. I must confess that I did not find the ‘Dark Materials’ series of books to be atheistic texts. An atheist takes the view that there is simply no divine being or beings. In Pullman’s books, there is more than a hint of a divine presence. God exists, but He has an undistinguished and undignified role to play in the text. This is a God that is not worthy of praise. It is almost as if the author is pulled towards a mirror-image depiction of divine authority. Pullman’s critique of theological authority offers a hollowed-out version of the Word. His is a vision of a religion without any redeemable features.

Pullman has said that his ‘Dark Materials’ books are ‘about killing God’. It would be more accurate to say that the books seek to bring God down to earth and call into question all forms of divine pretensions. And in this sense, the books reflect the temper of our times. Contemporary Western culture feels more at ease with bringing Gods down to earth than it does with imagining what it is like for people to soar to the skies. Perhaps one day we will find our direction without the help of a mechanically constructed ‘golden compass’ – and perhaps one day we can discuss books and films on their own merits rather than as secret political manifestoes.

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