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.
Witch Queen
THE WITCH QUEEN Serafina Pekkala, played by Eva Green, flies above a land denuded of religious imagery.

Pullman has expressed admiration for Richard Dawkins, a fellow British atheist. Like him, Pullman views the prevailing forms of religion as destructive and oppressive forces in history. “Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him,” he once said. But his views are not as coldly antiseptic as Dawkins’s. He grew up going to Sunday school and has only fond memories of serving as a choirboy in his grandfather’s rural Anglican parish. One of Pullman’s favorite subjects is the moral power of stories, and he can sound preacher-like when he addresses it. “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he once wrote. Pullman’s own books are full of the mysticism and grandeur often associated with religion, which is no doubt part of their appeal. “We need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things the Kingdom of Heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver,” he said in a 2000 speech.

When pressed, Pullman grants that he’s not really trying to kill God, but rather the outdated idea of God as an old guy with a beard in the sky. In his novels, he replaces the idea of God with “Dust,” made up of invisible particles that begin to cluster around people when they hit puberty. The Church believes Dust to be the physical evidence of original sin and hopes to eradicate it. But over the course of the series, Pullman reveals it to be the opposite: evidence of human consciousness, a kind of godlike energy that surrounds everyone. People accumulate Dust by “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on.” It starts to build up around puberty because, for Pullman, sexual awakening triggers the beginning of self-knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To him, the loss of sexual innocence is not a tragedy; it’s the springboard to a productive and virtuous adulthood.

The most curious aspect of Pullman’s theology is the primacy he places on teen sexuality; like the best heavy-metal songs, the whole series builds up to a celebration of losing your virginity, or at least getting to first base. In The Amber Spyglass, a former nun turned physicist guides Lyra to her destiny using clues from the I Ching. The physicist divines that she should tell Lyra the story of when she was 12 years old at a birthday party and a boy “took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth,” and she fell in love.

This simple story sets off salvation. When she hears it, Lyra “felt something strange happen to her body. She felt a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster.” (At least that’s what she felt in the British edition; the American version leaves these lines out.) A few scenes later, Lyra, alone in the woods with her friend Will, lifts a little red fruit “gently to his mouth.” They bump together clumsily, and Will is soon described, in terms familiar to Playboy readers, “kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body,” his nerves “ablaze.” What happens next is not entirely clear. The scene is intended as a rewriting of Genesis, with Lyra replaying the role of Eve, so presumably some nakedness is required. But she and Will are still several years shy of 18, which might make the scene’s fullest implication illegal in some states. When critics accused Pullman of sanctioning underage sex, he said: “Nowhere in the book do I talk about anything more than a kiss. And as a child, a kiss is enough. A kiss can change the world.” What the novel says is, “Around them there was nothing but silence, as if all the world were holding its breath.” When they return from the woods, after an ambiguous gap in the narrative, holding hands and “oblivious to everything else,” all is suddenly well with the world: “The Dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home again, and these children-no-longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all.”

“This is exactly what happens in the Garden of Eden,” Pullman told me. “They become aware of sexuality, of the power the body has to attract attention from someone else. This is not only natural, but a wonderful thing! To be celebrated! Why the Christian Church has spent 2,000 years condemning this glorious moment, well, that’s a mystery. I want to confront that, I suppose, by telling a story that this so-called original sin is anything but. It’s the thing that makes us fully human.”

Pullman gets annoyed whenever he recalls a passage in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: In the final book of the series, Lewis excludes Susan Pevensie, the oldest sister, from what is essentially Paradise because she is “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Pullman, in an essay called “The Dark Side of Narnia,” cites this as evidence that Lewis disliked women and sexuality and was “frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.”

The Narnia series, in his view, embraces a worldview that comes close to “life-hating ideology”—punishing, misogynistic, racist, and death-obsessed. By contrast, his own books are filled with a kind of warmth, an exuberance for finding utopia in this life. When he loses patience with his Christian critics, he lists the values he promotes in his own stories: tolerance, love, kindness, courage, duty, individual freedom over blind obedience. The series ends with Lyra realizing she has to return to her world and separate from Will. She is heartbroken, but accepts that this is the only way she can fulfill her ultimate destiny, which is to help build the “Republic of Heaven.” She understands this to be a paradise on Earth where she can learn to be “kind and curious and patient,” and where she can rely on her own knowledge and wisdom, not the mandates of God or the Magisterium. This reads as a moment of heroic idealism, one that not so subtly mocks the whole notion of a Kingdom of Heaven that rules and oppresses us while we live, and from which we are excluded until after we die.

In 2002, New Line commissioned the English playwright Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay for The Golden Compass. As a playwright, Stoppard is drawn to the dark and philosophical. His biggest success in Hollywood came from co-writing a comedy (Shakespeare in Love), which The Golden Compass is decidedly not. So New Line should not have been surprised by the outcome. In its choice of villains, Stoppard’s script stays relatively faithful to Pullman. The script introduces Father MacPhail, an odious clergyman with a lizard daemon, who in a later book tries to kill Lyra. In intermittent scenes, MacPhail and other clerics gather to discuss Dust and heresy. Stoppard told The New York Times that he turned in the script in 2003 and didn’t hear back from the studio for quite some time. Ultimately, New Line decided the script was “too intellectual,” and “not Lyra-centric enough.” Stoppard “was interested in the discussions between old men with beards,” Pullman told me, “and those discussions are only important in how they affect Lyra.”

In 2004, while it was sitting on Stoppard’s script, the studio received an unsolicited 40-page adaptation plan from the screenwriter and director Chris Weitz. Given his résumé, Weitz was an unlikely candidate. He was best known for directing, with his brother, Paul, the raunchy teenage comedy American Pie. He also co-directed and co-wrote About a Boy (based on the Nick Hornby novel), which was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Although The Golden Compass was on an entirely different scale, Weitz made a convincing case for himself. He wrote that he, too, had attended an “Oxbridge College,” in his case, Trinity College, Cambridge, where he’d studied 17th-century literature and Milton’s Paradise Lost. A friend had given Pullman’s books to Weitz while he was filming About a Boy, and when he imagined them onscreen, they seemed to him “everything I loved about moviemaking.” He loved the combination of epic adventure and coming-of-age story; in the books, the drama comes as much from Lyra’s learning her true identity as it does from the battle scenes. He loved that the hero was a girl who was stubborn and defiant. And he loved that even the battles seemed beautiful and elegant, not “bunches of armies hacking at each other.” The studio reportedly called Stoppard and told him not to do any more work on the script.

Weitz got the job as writer and director, and immediately set out to prove to Pullman’s devoted fan base that he deserved it. In December 2004, before he’d started filming, Weitz did a Q&A with bridgetothestars.net, the main Pullman fan site. Weitz was intelligent, expansive, self-deprecating, and honest. The interview turned out to be a fiasco:

BRIDGETOTHESTARS.NET: Do you think any of the more controversial aspects of HDM (like the portrayal of religion) will be toned down or removed altogether?

CHRIS WEITZ: Here we are at the heart of the matter. This will certainly be the issue that will ignite the most controversy amongst fans and amongst the general public …

New Line is a company that makes films for economic returns. You would hardly expect them to be anything else. They have expressed worry about the possibility of HDM’s perceived antireligiosity making it an unviable project financially … Needless to say, all my best efforts will be directed towards keeping HDM as liberating and iconoclastic an experience as I can. But there may be some modification of terms. You will probably not hear of the “Church” but you will hear of the Magisterium. Those who will understand will understand. I have no desire to change the nature or intentions of the villains of the piece, but they may appear in more subtle guises.

“Economic returns.” “Unviable project financially.” This is not the kind of boardroom blather a fan committed to the darkest side of His Dark Materials wants to hear. The message boards quickly soured on Weitz. “Like it or lump it, Pullman’s atheism is an integral part of his novels,” one fan wrote. “I’m led to assume that Weitz isn’t currently pursuing a career in spin only because he’s crap at it,” sneered another. The Times of London ran a story headlined “God Is Cut From Film of Dark Materials.”

Weitz had believed that his (safe) take on Pullman’s theology—the Magisterium represents an oppressive theocracy or a totalitarian state, not religion in general—was widely shared. He hadn’t quite realized that the loudest part of Pullman’s fan base regarded that interpretation as a cop-out. These fans were committed to the broader interpretation of the villain’s identity as God himself. In their defense, Pullman does spell this out rather unambiguously, for those who missed the earlier hints, in the final book: “The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself.”

Weitz told me that after reading the Times story, he went into a cold sweat. “Why am I doing this?” he remembered thinking. “I’ll end up being hated by the fans and ripped into by the press. And this is a huge, huge endeavor. Maybe this isn’t for me.” All of a sudden, he felt overwhelmed by all of it: the visual effects, the cost and scope of the project. Only a short time after Weitz got his dream directing job, he backed out of it.

In 2005, the studio hired the British director Anand Tucker, best known for directing Shopgirl. In under a year, Tucker too was gone (“Creative differences,” the studio said). New Line persuaded Weitz, who’d stayed on as screenwriter, to become the director again. By then, he told me, “I’d started to care less about what people might think of me.” Besides, he added, “This thing about the books being antireligion is a bit of a canard. They are, in fact, very spiritual.”

Studios usually try to maintain good relations with authors, especially when an author has a large fan base. When Weitz came back to the project, he took comfort in an e-mail exchange he had with Pullman. He had asked him whether a “version that wasn’t superficially so much a critique of organized dogmatic religions would fly with him,” and Pullman, Weitz reported, “didn’t seem particularly bothered by that.”

Pullman has at times offered up a similar interpretation of his work, calling Soviet Russia, for example, a form of theocracy: “They start with a Holy Book that’s inerrant, in that case the writings of Marx,” he told me. “They have doctors of the ‘Church,’ and a priesthood that has privileges not afforded to common people. They have a teleological view of history moving inexorably to a certain point. They have demons, who are called traitors. So are there examples of the Magisterium in the secular world? Of course.” But when I asked whether he considered this a limited interpretation of his views and not the “heart of the matter,” he smiled mischievously and suggested I put down, “Pullman nodded enthusiastically.”

The heart of the matter is introduced at the end of the first book and is critical to the progression of the rest of the series. It was in the earliest versions of the movie script, but over time it has been slowly erased. In the book, Lord Asriel, an enigmatic explorer, lectures Lyra on the story of Adam and Eve. In Lyra and Asriel’s world, the story goes: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one’s daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat.”

According to Western religions, human history began with the Creation. But the cruel world as we know it began with the moment when Eve ate the fruit and then gave it to Adam. This is the Fall, which brought on sin and suffering. Adam and Eve were cursed by God and expelled from Eden. (The full consequences of their act are laid out in a photo display at the new creationist museum in Kentucky: viruses, death, war, concentration camps, and starvation in Sudan.) Asriel is unsettled by this interpretation of history. Over time, witches reveal that Lyra’s destiny is to replay the Eve story and undo original sin. Lyra fulfills this destiny in the third novel when she does whatever she does with Will. For the purpose of streamlining the plot, the reversed Eve story is perfect: simple, elegant, and accessible. And, as Pullman points out, it “comes at the point in the story when we most need that explanation.” But no $180 million movie is going to trash the first book of the Bible, so the movie will have to do without it.

The earlier scripts made passing reference to the Fall. In the Stoppard script, Asriel, in a rage about the Authority, mocks the “apple of desire” and the “fig-leaf of shame”; a few scenes later Coulter, the evil Nicole Kidman character, yells at Asriel, “You can’t conquer God!” Weitz told me he’d originally written an opening scene showing Lyra in a college chapel listening to a sermon about the alternative Genesis, “but that movie was not going to get made.” A Weitz script dated December 2004 makes no explicit reference to Genesis. Instead, the theology is mediated entirely through a discussion of Dust, which, according to your taste, is either more highbrow or just more muddled. Asriel tells Lyra that people believe Dust is sin and that it brings on misery. He says he will set out to destroy Dust and essentially reverse the consequences of original sin: “When I do—pain, sin, suffering—death itself will die.”

The final, shooting script includes no mention of sin or the end of death. As Emmerich told me, Dust is “akin to the Force” in Star Wars. Coulter tells Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi: “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it,” he says. “They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

It may make sense if you’re in a dark room dazzled by special effects and not thinking too hard. Then again, maybe it won’t. What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all: “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions.

This is Hollywood at its most hazily indignant and self-congratulatory, recycling the generic theme of Victory, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poets Society, and countless other films—a band of grubby, half-crazed heroes takes on the System and wins. When I talked to Weitz in August, he expected that he would still be tinkering with the opening voice-over until just before the release, but the general direction was already set. New Line’s publicity materials describe it this way: “One child stands between the end of free will and the beginning of a new age. Lyra Belacqua … is only 12, but even she knows that doing what you’re told versus doing what you feel is right can yield very different outcomes.” The message is nominally loyal to Pullman, but it also fetishizes the power of childlike innocence—which is one of his greatest complaints about religion.

Weitz told me he tried to keep in a line where Asriel says, “Dust is sin,” but “that didn’t make it. What can I say?” Hollywood “is just terrified that anything that brings up religion or anything controversial will be disastrous.” But after three years of working on the movie, he’d come up with a solid explanation for why he’s not selling out: In the ’80s and ’90s, Hollywood was “scornful in a very intellectually unsound way about religion. Any priest or nun was a dogmatic idiot. So I think there’s something valid in the way the Christian community has responded.”

There will be some religious imagery in the movie, Weitz said, but it will be blended so unobtrusively into the production design that it will take a “DVD player and working knowledge of Latin to decipher the symbols.” Outside the Magisterium buildings will be icons of Orthodox saints. Sprinkled around the movie will be Latin inscriptions from the Vulgate translation of the Bible, including one in Mrs. Coulter’s bedroom that refers to eating from the tree of good and evil. “Kind of a little joke between me and me,” Weitz told me.

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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