Sunday, January 6, 2008

Does Hollywood Ruin Pullman?

So I just finally saw The Golden Compass movie, after having been warned away from it by every fellow fan of Pullman's novels that I have spoken to about it. I consider Pullman to be the most important fantasy author since Tolkien and Lewis. Nevertheless, I think they were too rough on the movie, and expected too much from it.

What made the movie for me was Dakota Blue Richards, who was exactly how I had pictured Lyra to be. Playing Lyra is really a difficult task to take on. She is a ferociously strong-willed and terrifyingly brave girl, but Richards was nevertheless able to convey her humanity. Lyra is not fearless; rather, she is conscious of her fear and overcomes it. Watching this slip of a girl walk through a hall of armored polar bears, any one of which could rip her head off with a careless bat of a paw, was a terrific scene, as was the way Richards handled the devious trick that Lyra uses to persuade the false king of the bears, Iofur Raknison to fight Iorek Byrnison. The devious look that comes over her face when she is tricking someone is really priceless, because there is always a hint of uncertainty behind it.

The special effects were fantastic as well, but it's a Hollywood movie, and that's what they are good at. I particularly liked the spinning "anbaric" engines that powered the cars and balloons. I would be surprised if the movie didn't get whatever Oscar applies to that.

I assume what makes the fans of the movie angry is the way that it soft-pedaled the theological aspects of it. Specifically, they left off the crucial last scene of the novel, which conveyed the complexity of Lord Asriel's character and the tone and direction of the next two books. Honestly, I don't know what these people expected. In a country as religious as America is, to make a movie of this book is courageous enough. They knew they'd be getting a lot of flak, and since Asriel is treated as a good guy for most of the movie (as opposed to the book), if they put that last scene in it would be a million times worse.

I wanted to write about this trilogy when I first read it, but it was in September and I was too overwhelmed with school. Specifically, I wanted to write about the names that Pullman uses.

Lyra is easy. "Lie-ra." She is a con artist on the order of Frank Abagnale, but driven by a moral principle. Will, her boyfriend who is first introduced in the second book, is also easy. He's driven by will both in the Nietszchian sense and in the simpler sense of pure forcefulness. He takes a straight line between two points, incapable of the lies or deception that Lyra is so good at. Ms. Coulter = colder, as in colder than ice. She's a mother that makes Tony Soprano's mom look like a mother of the year candidate.

It's Lord Asriel's name that's the most provocative. It's just too close to Aslan from the Narnia chronicles, the lion that represents Jesus. The fact that his daemon is a big cat only hints at it all the more. It's practically a gauntlet thrown down in C.S. Lewis' face.

(Note, from here on there will be a few spoilers if you haven't read the books.)

Is Asriel an antichrist? And is Pullman anti-Catholic? This is an important issue, since Jennifer is Catholic and I have agreed to raise Jeff as one.

I am almost certain that Pullman says nothing at all about Jesus in any of the books one way or the other. He might well feel, as I do, that Jesus was one of the most important guides to humanity, regardless of whether or not he's God's son, (or second-to-last prophet, as the Muslims believe).

I am convinced that Pullman's issue is entirely with the corruption of organized religion in general, whether it's Catholic or Protestant, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. I don't think he is prejudiced against Catholics, as some people claim. If her were, there would be "good" Protestants (or Jews or something) in the book. But the Magisterium of the novel represents a unified Christian church that still dominates the whole world, rather than splitting up into different sects as it did in our universe. Other religions are not even mentioned. And if Pullman is specifically answering Lewis, whose apology regarding salvation and damnation is adopted by plenty of Protestants (even if they don't actually know where they got it from, as a lot of them don't), he is naturally going to take him on on Lewis' home turf.

Asriel, to be sure, is not a nice guy, or even a good one. What he does to Roger at the end of the first book is as evil as anything Coulter or the Magisterium does, completely beyond excuse. Asriel is an ends-justifies-the-means guy, the kind of attitude that has created some of the worst evils in history. His attempt in the later books to establish a "Kingdom of Heaven" reminds one of radicals like Mao Tse-Tung or the Jacobins, whose atheism was as intolerant and dangerous as anything that any faith has come up with.

In other words, Pullman does not necessarily sympathize with Asriel's quest to kill God. As writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. have released a flood of anti-religious books, there has been a lot of talk about the dangers of "evangelical atheism." I thought this was an exaggeration until Dawkins came up with that line about how raising a child Catholic is as bad a form of abuse as sexually molesting them. That kind of shit we just do not need. Whether or not you agree with the tenets of Catholicism and Christianity, the fact is that it's a valid moral system that's guided billions of people over the years. It has its strengths and weaknesses, like any way of thinking. If Christians truly follow the principles that Jesus put forward (and in my opinion not nearly enough do) it as good a "system of the world" as anything anyone else has come up with.

Asriel is an evangelical atheist, and it's clear if you read the whole series that's not the right path either. I think they key to Pullman's philosophy is the statement, repeated several places, that we need to "build the Kingdom of Heaven where we are." In other words, there's no apocalypse, no end times, no revolution of the masses, no final salvation that washes away evil and leaves perfection. We have to save ourselves, every moment of every day by doing the right thing.

It's a hard path to follow, and I don't know if I succeed. It's also a lot to ask people to be ready for just to enjoy the movie. So what do you want for ten bucks? I'll settle for some good acting and a great CGI bear fight.

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