Is it true?
Can it be?
Would they really do that?
It is, it can, and they would make a children’s movie based on a children’s book written by an avowed atheist, a book written as the atheist’s answer to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
I first heard of Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass some years ago when I was listening to the radio in my basement, something I used to do when I worked out down there. We’ve since moved the exercise equipment–and the radio–out of the basement. So that’s as good an excuse as any for not working out at all. Which is why my girth grows greater every day.
But back to the radio. I can’t recall whether it was NPR to which I was listening or Christian radio. Check that, by process of elimination, it was most certainly NPR. But there was a report on an award-winning children’s series that was gathering a lot of comment for its controversial treatment of Christian traditions. I only half heard the report, and about the time my subconscious told me that I should have listened more closely, the report was ending. I could only remember tidbits–an Oxford professor, a fantasy series for young adults, religious controversy.
Fast forward several months. I was in Paris (yes, Paris, France), on a university-sponsored trip. I was shaving or trying to shave in the postage stamp sized bathroom in a three-star hotel room. And I had the television on the BBC channel (because I had some difficulty with French). And this Oxford professor named Philip Pullman was being interviewed. And he was talking about his books. I made a note of the name, and also about a comment he made then, unless I misunderstood. He said something like, “I really am not attacking Christianity per se, but religious nonsense in general.” That, I thought, is something I might like to see.
So, sometime after returning home, I checked out the trilogy (His Dark Materials) from the library and read all three books in about five days.
I was pretty seriously upset after I read them. Two things bothered me. One was that Pullman had not been entirely forthright in the interview, for it was Christianity very specifically that he targeted in his books. Secondly, the fact that the story was quite good–at least until the second half of the last book, bothered me immensely. A story so full of disbelief isn’t supposed to be so good. It’s supposed to be crap.
But the story is good. It has all the elements of great myth, even though it’s ultimate goal is to destroy myth. Pullman even borrows heavily from the same saintly sources of the past, from Milton and Dante and Spencer and Homer. The gradual revelation of what the story is building to is masterfully done.
Then, in the second half of the last book, Pullman pulls away the cloth and behold–there’s nothing there.
That’s the hardest thing, and I won’t deliver any spoilers just to vent my spleen, but I can’t recall a more disappointing payoff, unless, of course, you include the third movie of the Matrix trilogy. I actually laughed out loud. Take down all the piles and plies of myth and, well, what’s left? That would be a creative crisis for any novelist, so it’s hard to fault Pullman if he failed to deliver. At least he tried.
Regardless, some important people who give important awards thought so highly of Pullman’s grand effort that they showered him with accolades and rewards. And 15 million or more copies have sold.
And now the movie is upon us and it promises to be a fantastic offering. The casting is dreamy, even inspired, if I may be so bold. The trailer is hypnotic. CGI abounds, and it looks to be magical.
The irony is that a myth cannot be displaced without another myth. Perhaps Pullman didn’t count on that.
At any rate, I wouldn’t have any qualms about going to see the movie. Christians will succeed in getting a great many more people to see the film than might otherwise have gone, though the billing will be very hard to ignore in any case.
Why see this film? Religious people, Christians especially, need to see how they are seen. I’ll wager most people won’t get the symbolism, just as they didn’t with Chronicles. They’ll enjoy the story as terrific narrative, and guess what? Atheism isn’t catching, like the common cold. You won’t have to take your spiritual vitamins to keep from contracting apostasy. You won’t have to sprinkle holy water on yourself to keep from falling into the abyss of unbelief.
How much garbage, on TV and elsewhere, have people consumed without the slightest thought for who made it or what messages they might have been assimilating?
But if, like me, you believe in the sacredness of the earth, then the joke is on Pullman. He might succeed where others have failed and reveal that when you pull the curtain of myth back far enough, the truest of the true is still there.