Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Compass Controversy

Maybe you too have gotten a forwarded e-mail something like the one below?

The Golden Compass, a new movie targeted at children, will be released December 7, 2007. This movie is based on a the first book of a trilogy by atheist Philip Pullman. In the final book a boy and girl kill God so they can do as they please. Pullman left little doubt about his intentions when he said in a 2003 interview that "My books are about killing God."

The movie is a watered down version of the first book and is designed to be very attractive in the hope unsuspecting parents will take their children to see the movie and that the children will want the books for Christmas.

The movie has a well known cast, including Nicole Kidman, Kevin Bacon, and Sam Elliott. It will probably be advertised extensively, so it is crucial that we get the word out to warn parents to avoid this movie.
I was sent this by a very well-intentioned, devout acquaintance who, naturally, hadn't read the book, or ever heard of Philip Pullman before this campaign.

When The Golden Compass first came out (in 1995), I read it and was blown away. I had previously read Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy (for YAs), and was impressed by the depth and quality of the writing, by the issues raised and the knowledge of history Pullman displayed. I devoured The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass minutes after publication. I distinctly remember having to put The Amber Spyglass down for a while towards the end -- I needed time to take in everything that was happening, and what it all might mean. It's that powerful.

Because of the upcoming film, and the religious campaign against it, several articles and interviews have been published recently. In Sunday's Boston Globe article, a Catholic theologian describes a deeply religious series that reflects unorthodox theologies within the Church itself.
The book's concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman's work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman's work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman's work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.
The Atlantic brings up a paradox my library colleagues and I have pondered for years:
Four years ago, before anyone worried about marketing a movie, Pullman wondered why his books hadn’t attracted as much controversy as the Harry Potter series.
We've come up with the answer too -- His Dark Materials is just too literary and too complex to come to the attention of your average book-banning activist.

Adult fans read the books because of the religious critique; good adolescent readers love them for the armored bears, the imperfect heroes & multi-layered villains, and brave, loyal Lyra doggedly pursuing her her Quest. She's out to save her best friend, after all, not the world.

I almost never recommend The Golden Compass to students younger than about 12. We have a high school teacher who is teaching it to a literature class of 10th grade boys. The movie may well be "watered down" for the younger set, but never fear! Even if parents are "tricked" into buying the books as Christmas gifts, only the strongest readers will actually get through them.

Whatever your take on Pullman's theology, you owe it to yourself to read all three books in
His Dark Materials, or better yet, read it with your teen. Talk, question, and decide for yourselves whether this is a threatening attack on all you believe, or an inspiring, thought-provoking masterpiece.

Watch a video of Philip Pullman giving a talk at a New York Barnes & Noble branch.

If you prefer to listen to The Golden Compass on CD, go ahead! This is hands-down absolutely the best audiobook I've ever heard.

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