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The Golden Compass — to boycott or not to boycott?

5 December 2007

It seems that nearly everyone in the blogosphere has had something to say about the newly released film The Golden Compass, based on Philip Pullman’s book Northern Lights, which is part one of the His dark materials trilogy. So perhaps I need to justify my attempt to say something that has probably already been said, and said better by others.

But it seems that a lot of the people who have written about it have neither seen the film nor read the book on which it is based, so perhaps there is something to say about it after all, though since the film hasn’t been released yet, I will have to save comments on it until I’ve had a chance to see it.

A recent article in the Natal Mercury, for example, says:

The film is about a 12-year-old girl, Lyra, who hides in a wardrobe. She is then transported into a fictional universe similar to that of Narnia and given a truth-telling device called an alethiometer.

The description is clearly hearsay, by someone who has not read the book at all. In the book Lyra is 11 years old, and lives in a parallel universe to ours, with an alternative history, so that electric light is called anbaric light, and what we call natural science is called philosophy. Lyra is part of that world, where she has grown up in a college at Oxford University, and hides in a wardrobe, where she is not transported to another world but overhears things being discussed at a meeting.

Pullman’s book is not unique in this. Others have written stories about parallel universes, based on the might-have-beens of history, but Pullman does it particularly well, and makes a good story of it.

When the book was first published in 1995 Pullman made it clear that he had written it as a kind of irreligious and anti-Christian counter to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which Pullman disliked because of the underlying Christian worldview. He criticised them as “preachy” and as dishonest propaganda.

Having read all the things that people were saying about the books, I thought I’d better read them for myself, and did so as soon as I found them in bookshops. I found them as preachy, if not more so, than C.S. Lewis’s books, and just as much propaganda, and much more dishonest.

I enjoyed them better on a second reading a few years later, but the basic criticism remains. The good things got better, but the bad things did not.

Among the good things were the imaginative descriptions of the parallel worlds, and the ways in which their history differed from ours. But the preachiness remained, as did the dishonesty of the propaganda. In Lyra’s world, several things had developed differently from ours, though some things were similar. Oxford University was similar, but science and technology had taken different paths, as had religion. The Christianity that Pullman presents (and attacks) in his book is more akin to Gnosticism, and in the third book, when “God” dies, it is not the God that Christians know, but the Gnostic demiurge. The problem, as others have pointed out, is that young children, the intended audience of the story, are not aware of such theological and historical distinctions, and could easily be misled.

The book is also disappointing at the end. Pullman snipes at Christian asceticism most of the way through the book, but in the end his protagonists opt for something that is almost indistinguishable from it. The first two books are reasonably good stories, even if one disagrees with the author’s worldview. But the third falls quite flat.

Most of the other readers with whom I have discussed the story have agreed on this, and several reviewers did as well. The dishonesty of Pullman’s propaganda is that he sets up a caricature of the Christian faith, which he then attacks. If Lewis’s books are propaganda, then they are more honest propaganda than Pullman’s. Lewis presents positively a worldview that he believes in; Pullman’s books are dominated by a distorted presentation of a worldview he despises and rejects.

In the light of all this, as I have noted elsewhere, I find it very strange that British librarians have included His dark materials in a list of 30 books that you must read before you die.

It’s not that His dark materials is not worth reading. What is strange is that it should have been included while much better children’s books have been left off the list.

As stories, for example, Alan Garner’s The weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor are far, far better than His dark materials.

The fact that His dark materials was included, while Alice’s adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking glass were not, shows that while librarians may know something about books, they clearly know very little about literature.

And, still in the genre of children’s fantasy stories, the Narnia stories are also better than His dark materials, as are the Harry Potter stories, which at their best are better, and at their worst are no worse. The end of the Harry Potter stories may depend too much on a deus ex machina, but all Pullman has to offer is dust ex machina.

Also among fantasy books, those of Madeleine l’Engle are as good, and James Thurber’s The thirteen clocks as well.

And if one goes beyond the fantasy genre, there are books like The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that surely have a better claim to be on a “must read before you die” list.

But if the books were controversial, the film is even more so. Some people are urging others to boycott the film. One (a personal friend of mine) urges Be warned about this film from the pit (citing the Natal Mercury article quoted above). A Google search will reveal many more.

Others see no harm in it at all, and on the contrary say that it is beneficial. Donna Freitas, in the Boston Globe, says:

These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of “His Dark Materials” is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings – the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. This is a rejection of the more classical notion of a detached, transcendent God, but I am a Catholic theologian, and reading this fantasy trilogy enhanced my sense of the divine, of virtue, of the soul, of my faith in God.

Now with all due respect, that is utter nonsense. If I were Philip Pullman I would find it deeply offensive and condescending, saying, in effect, “you didn’t really mean all those nasty things about us, and actually you really think we’re rather nice”. At least have the courtesy to take the man’s views seriously.

Father Jonathan Tobias, on the other hand says “Against the idea of making my denunciation public, there is also, of course, the embarrassing fact that I would be reviewing a movie without actually seeing it. I do not know if this is ever done by critics, so I might be the first. So let me be plain here: I have not seen the movie, nor will I ever see it.”

He does, however, go on to say:

However, I have read the book version of the story to my daughters, per our longstanding practice, and my girls can attest to the fact that we were fans of the story and we were all pulling for it to succeed. We were unaware of the author’s theological agenda. That came out quite clearly toward the end, and the anti-Christian aims of the story became pronounced in the second and third volumes. My older daughter read all three and said that by the end, it was like reading an Alice-in-Wonderland inversion of the Left Behind tree-slaughter.

And in another post Father Jonathan counters Donna Freitas’s point thus

There are some who hope that that Philip Pullman is doing everyone a favor by setting up a “straw man” argument with his deicide narrative. The idea is that the author is not really harming “true” Christianity, but only the parts of it that went haywire. This great white hope even has a name: the “straw God” theory — that is, kill off the little, instititutional Catholic/traditional/non-egalitarian god so that the real mysterious and cool post-modern god can take its place. Get rid of the OT god in other words, or that messy creator/demiurge character that destroyed all those nice canaanite cities just minding their own business and that wrote all those medieval rules against sin and persecuted La Boheme. Separate that god from the nice NT god. Make your own canon. Get rid of the Epistle of James. Kill off the “Yahweh” character, but say nothing about Jesus (the Archbishop of Canterbury, by the way, seems to be okay with this rather extra-Nicene position). I think this “straw god” argument has been waged before: it sounds a tad familiar. In any case, Pullman is affirmed for attacking not the “values” of Christianity, but its “institutions,” and he does this by turning the narrative of salvation history “upside down” (as was done so auspiciously in the second century) where the villains become the heroes and vice versa. Are you Protestants really sure you want to sidle up to this Gnostic, simply because he is taking on the historic “institutional” church?

and in a related point:

Some evangelicals — who really want to be accepted by the literati — do intellectual contortioning worthy of La Cirque du Soleil by claiming to find the good amongst the bad, the happy in the sad: Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware, while finding his anti-Christian position troubling, “also uncover spiritual themes within the books, which, like shafts of light, break through an otherwise gloomy universe—despite Pullman’s best efforts to keep them out. In the end, the authors argue that Pullman offers an unwitting tribute to the God he intended to discredit.” Hey guys, I can find shafts of light in Nietzsche and even in Mao: but it would take more than what I see to suggest an “unwitting tribute” by them to the God they, too, intended to discredit. That’s wishful thinking. Sometimes we need to be courageous enough to stand up and say, “Maybe Pullman wrote well and spelled his words correctly and printed decent grammar. Maybe he told an exciting story. But what he sells really stinks inside, so we’ll give the whole package, as pretty as it is, a wide berth.”

Actually I would say that one could more easily find shafts of light in Mao (and Marx and Lenin and Trotsky) than in Pullman. Undoubtedly they were atheists, and the atheistic system they set up was responsible for the biggest and worst religious persecution that the world has ever known. But when they weren’t actually being atheist they did sometimes have some good and positive things to say, and most of them were a hangover from what can be described as Judaeo-Christian values. Pullman’s work, as I noted earlier, is dominated by his negative ideology. The shafts of light are much harder to find.

So what should one do? Should one go and see the film or not? Should I (as a Christian) boycott it and urge others to do so? Or should I go and see it and urge others to do so?

For myself, I’ll go and see it when I get the opportunity.

I’m not too keen on boycotts and placard demonstrations outside the cinemas and things like that. I remember some years ago a group of Christians in Durban doing that outsuide the theatre where Godspell was being performed. One of them attended the same church as me, and had a face like thunder when we sang “Long live God” at the end of the Easter service. But the message of Godspell, “Long live God!” is exactly the opposite of Philip Pullman’s message: “Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy: God is dead.”

And then, too, I don’t think that we should be like Uzzah, and behave as if our poor little god needed us to prop him up (II Sam 6:6-7). And Pullman’s god was precisely the kind of god who needed propping up, as he did during the last battle, in a scene that is as excruciatingly bad as anything written by Frank Peretti.

As Jeffrey Overstreet says

Remember all of that hysteria about the movie version of The Da Vinci Code? Christians got all worked up about it… and it turned out to be the most boring movie of the year. In retrospect, our “concern” probably helped the movie become a financial success in spite of how lame it was.But no, don’t be afraid. God is not threatened by Phillip Pullman. And people who stop to think through Pullman’s story, and how it is that he “refutes” Christianity, will see what a feeble “attack” against Christian belief it really is.

What I would suggest, though, to any Christian planning to go and see the film, is to read the books first, and also read a good theological review and analysis of it. One of the best I’ve seen is “The devil’s party”, by Alan Jacobs.

Another good summary here.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 December 2007 6:08 pm

    What an interesting post. Thank you.

    My sons have read the books, I never got around to it. I’ve heard that they’re anti-Christian, so they don’t really appeal… but then again, I also heard many people state that Harry Potter was anti-Christian, which clearly is not so. I gather Pulman was pretty clear about his agenda, however, whereas Rowling was guarded about hers and did at least admit to being a Christian.

    I’m not a huge fan of films in general – I see maybe one per year at the cinema, four or five at home on DVD – so I very much doubt if I’ll bother with this one. However that’s my personal choice, and I shall neither encourage others to see it, nor suggest they boycott it. The latter seems a very legalistic approach. Much better, surely, to allow that God speaks to different people in different ways. One may find it helpful to see this movie, another may not.

  2. 5 December 2007 7:48 pm


    I’m glad you found it interesting — small repayment for your very interesting post on Harry Potter 6 months ago!

    But while one can find Christian values and symbolism in the Harry Potter books, it’s much more difficult to find anything like that in His dark materials, As a story its quite enjoyable, but you are left in do doubt about the philosophy, and, as I said, the third book flops.

  3. 6 December 2007 11:41 am

    Thanks Steve, a great post. I’d heard the “don’t see the movie” hype but haven’t had a chance to read the books yet – you’ve summarised the situation (and the truth 🙂 nicely.

  4. 6 December 2007 4:08 pm

    Boycott is a strong word. I prefer to ask myself: do I want to watch this? Is it going to add something to my life?

    I suppose that the movie will give anybody an additional education: an insight into the question of authority. However, I’m happier reading the concrete words of the Bible rather than the opinions of one children’s book author, a scriptwriter and a movie producer. Their opinions shift like sand, and I’d rather go with something that has stood the test of time.

    I won’t be boycotting The Golden Compass. But I won’t be watching it either.

  5. arthur permalink
    7 December 2007 8:37 am

    thanks steve. appreciate your words and stance. I have linked your post to mine on the same subject

  6. 7 December 2007 12:11 pm

    I agree with you as an adult and (maybe) also someone who has been on varsity a bit-that I would not mind reading the books and watching the movie-maybe I’m in a better position to weigh the worldviews. But, I am also a parent, of a 10 and a 12 year old. Do I allow them to watch all programs on TV or all movies, read all books available ? No. I am conscious of the messages (subliminal or covert) they are exposed to. We as parents still need to be able to discern and make (these) difficult calls. On a different level though… the SMS- calls for a boycott of Sterkinekor. Boycott, as a political and protest strategy, is in itself not evil-it’s the cause that people are fighting for that need to be critically evaluated. Is this movie, should it be our main concern…these days

  7. 7 December 2007 1:21 pm


    Concerning boycotts — no, I don’t think boycotts are necessarily evil. A few years ago there was a boycott of Nike shoes because they used sweated labour. I can’t say I joined it, because I was never tempted to buy Nike shoes, but i think it was a good cause.

  8. Teresa permalink
    29 December 2007 10:13 am

    I sure won’t be seeing the movie or allowing my children to view it. I don’t understand how some who don’t believe in God can insist on not saying CHRISTMAS and taken the pledge out of school and so many other things and get away with it cause they say we are trying to push God on them but yet someone like this idot can make a movie targeting our children as he is and tells them to hate and kill God I don’t see how anyone can agree with that I feel you have your own right to believe what you want and live your life happy but isn’t he doing the same thing trying to push evil and the devil on us.

    • emma permalink
      27 April 2009 1:10 pm

      As a liberal atheist I take offence to the article’s contention that the atrocities committed by the USSR were committed by “the atheistic system”. I believe in everyone’s right to religious belief and I do not share that belief. These are not mutually incompatible, because I neither hate people who disagree with me nor would ever consider banning them from expressing that belief. I am disappointed with your lumping in the murderous political extremists of the USSR with people who adhere to a predominantly liberal philosophy based on rational truth and owing its existence to people’s ability to think independently. Furthermore, I am disappointed with Teresa’s comments about Pullman trying to “push evil and the devil on us”. If I might be allowed to refute that assertion: Pullman is not trying to push “evil” on people, but rather rational truth and fair thinking as opposed to allowing oneself to be influenced by the more negative aspects of organised religion. He is in no way attempting to spread discord, and to say that his views ignore the more liberal theistic people should not be taken to mean that he is. My advice to you, Teresa, would be to, in future, distinguish between literature that is perhaps ill-thought-out and that which is malicious. Pullman’s is at worst the former.
      Thanks for reading

      • 27 April 2009 2:32 pm


        There is no “lumping together”. There are some 20-30 thousand different varieties of Christians, and they have something in common — belief in the same God. Yet they are very dissimilar in other ways. so one cannot lump them all together. But the only thing atheists have in common is the absence of something, so lumping together is even more difficult.

  9. emma permalink
    27 April 2009 1:12 pm

    P.S. Teresa, don’t you think that your children should be allowed to make their own decisions as to right and wrong, rather than being told that the viewpoints of someone else are true, and never being allowed to question those viewpoints?


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