How Hollywood Saved God

It took five years, two screenwriters, and $180 million to turn a best-selling antireligious children’s book into a star-studded epic—just in time for Christmas.
Golden Compass
GET ME REWRITE! A bear king on his throne in a scene from The Golden Compass

This month, New Line Cinema will release The Golden Compass, based on the first book in a trilogy of edgy children’s novels written by the British author Philip Pullman. A trailer for the movie evokes The Lord of the Rings, and comparisons have been made to The Chronicles of Narnia. All three are epic adventures that unfold in a rich fantasy world, perfect for the big screen. But beyond that basic description, the comparisons fall apart. In the past, Pullman has expressed mainly contempt for the books on which the other movies were based. He once dismissed the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an “infantile work” primarily concerned with “maps and plans and languages and codes.” Narnia got it even worse: “Morally loathsome,” he called it. “One of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” He described his own series as Narnia’s moral opposite. “That’s the Christian one,” he told me. “And mine is the non-Christian.”

From the archives:

Dispatch: "Compass Without Direction" (December 5, 2007)
The movie version of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass creates a luminous fantasy world, but loses the book's magnetic force of meaning. By Hanna Rosin

Pullman’s books have sold 15 million copies worldwide, although it’s difficult to imagine adolescent novels any more openly subversive. The series, known collectively as His Dark Materials, centers on Lyra Belacqua, a preteen orphan who’s pursued by a murderous institution known as “the Magisterium.” Or to use the more familiar name, “the Holy Church.” In its quest to eradicate sin, the Church sanctions experiments involving the kidnap and torture of hundreds of children—experiments that separate body from soul and leave the children to stumble around zombie-like, and then die.

The series builds up to a cataclysmic war between Heaven and Earth, on the model of Paradise Lost (the source of the phrase his dark materials). But in Pullman’s version, God is revealed to be a charlatan more pitiable even than Oz. His death scene is memorable only for its lack of drama and dignity: The feeble, demented being, called “the ancient of days,” cowers and cries like a baby, dissolving in air. The final book climaxes, so to speak, in a love scene that could rattle the sensibilities of an American culture that tolerates even Girls Gone Wild, because in this case the girl is still a few years away from college. (More on this later.)

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—another Hollywood favorite. As he told The Sydney Morning Herald, he was “saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”

In 2001, Pullman became the first author to win the prestigious Whitbread Award for a children’s book—The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the series. A six-hour London theater production of the books sold out its entire four-month run even before the reviews were published. Many of Pullman’s avid adult fans seek out his books because of his critique of religion. But they, like his adolescent readers, get drawn into his world by his fantastic imagination.

The series begins in a parallel Oxford, England, at “Jordan College,” where the familiar and the fantastic coexist. Lyra is the anti-Disney heroine: an unruly, unteachable orphan cared for by the university’s dons who spits and lies her way out of trouble. She cobbles together a family from other brave, reckless cast-offs like herself: a kitchen boy; a young, runaway murderer; gypsies and witches. For a time she finds a surrogate father in Iorek Byrnison, a deposed bear king decked out in metal armor who speeds her through one of several parallel worlds. (As with most fantasies, any attempt to summarize plot and character edges too close to Dungeons & Dragons. Trust me, in the novels it all hangs together.) Her most intimate relationship is with her “daemon,” a soul that lives outside the body in animal form. In Lyra’s world, a child’s daemon can change form—hers can shift rapidly from moth to ermine to rat, depending on her mood—until its companion hits puberty, at which point it settles as a fitting animal. The daemons of the Holy Church functionaries? They tend to be dogs.

To an industry intoxicated with sophisticated visual effects, Pullman’s creations were irresistible. In 2003, when describing what sold him on the movie, Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained, “It was two words: Iorek Byrnison.” Iorek is an “insanely awesome character,” he added. “He can’t tell a lie,” Emmerich told me recently, “and [Lyra] is an expert liar.” And Hollywood had a precedent in the perfect chemistry between Narnia’s little Lucy and the special-effects lion Aslan. (Of course, Aslan is a stand-in for Jesus, while Iorek helps Lyra conquer the forces of God.)

New Line commissioned the first script in 2002. In the five years since—spanning two writers, two directors, and several scripts—the studio has spent enormous energy sorting out exactly how to characterize the villains in the movie.

You can probably guess how things turned out. Given enough time and effort, Hollywood can tweak and polish and recast even the darkest message until it would seem at home in a Fourth of July parade. In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable. The studio settled on villains that, as Emmerich put it, “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian/KGB/SS” stew. The movie’s main theme became, in one producer’s summary, “One small child can save the world.” With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.

When director Ridley Scott was shooting Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick had a feverish, paranoid vision of the filming. He imagined himself seizing leading man Harrison Ford by the throat and “battering him against the wall,” he told The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1982. He imagined security guards netting him with a blanket and forcing Thorazine on him as he screamed, “You’ve destroyed my book!”

By that standard, Pullman has remained serene about the translation of his own book to film. In August, I met him in Oxford, where he used to live before too many fans came knocking at his door (he now lives a few miles outside of town). Despite his frequent combative essays in British papers, Pullman in person is an exceedingly amiable man. At 61, he preserves the air of the middle-school teacher he once was. He is tall, with tufts of gray hair and sly, amused eyes. When we met, he wore a rumpled oxford shirt and carried a beat-up leather satchel. It’s easy to imagine him meeting dull student questions with the liveliest of answers.

In the past, Pullman has defended the “good faith of the film-makers” and denied any “betrayal.” On the surface, his relationship with the studio has remained “cordial,” as he put it. The director, Chris Weitz, has made several pilgrimages to Oxford, and the two men exchange e-mails. Pullman got to review a video of the final 50 candidates for the part of Lyra, and he has made script suggestions. Still, the studio publicist seemed nervous when she heard I was going to visit him. All things being equal, Pullman told me, New Line would prefer he were, well, the late author of The Golden Compass. Dead? “Yes! Absolutely!” If something happened to him, there “would be expressions of the most heartfelt regrets, yet privately they would be saying, ‘Thank God.’”

When we met, Pullman had just been to a screening of the film, and he praised many specific scenes. He was thrilled with Dakota Blue Richards, the previously unknown English schoolgirl who plays Lyra. And with Nicole Kidman, whom he described as having the “exact quality of warm and cold, seductive and terrifying” to portray the tender and evil Marisa Coulter. In discussing the film, he chose his words carefully, acknowledging that his role now is to be “sensible” so that the next two films get made. Nonetheless, he was honest about what was missing: “They do know where to put the theology,” he said, “and that’s off the film.”

Long silence. Then, “I think if everything that is made explicit in the book or everything that is implied clearly in the book or everything that can be understood by a close reading of the book were present in the film, they’d have the biggest hit they’ve ever had in their lives. If they allowed the religious meaning of the book to be fully explicit, it would be a huge hit. Suddenly, they’d have letters of appreciation from people who felt this but never dared say it. They would be the heroes of liberal thought, of freedom of thought … And it would be the greatest pity if that didn’t happen.

“I didn’t put that very well. What I mean is that I want this film to succeed in every possible way. And what I don’t want to do, you see, is talk the other two films out of existence. So I’ll stop there.”

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Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, published in September.

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