One word summarizes The Golden Compass, a movie based upon the first book of anti-Christian and pro-atheist children’s author Philip Pullman. This word is boring.
I initially intended to avoid the movie. However, I had just co-authored Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy (AtheismForChildren.com), a new book by Ignatius Press that forewarns parents and pastors about the spiritual dangers of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. This is the trilogy upon which The Golden Compass is based. Thus, both my spiritual director and a trusted bishop thought it prudent that I see the movie so that I may better defend myself when challenged by the secular media and Pullman’s fans.
Despite the studio’s assurance the movie had been stripped of its anti-Christian content, I nevertheless witnessed the following incidents during the movie: a polar bear smashes an Iconostasis, which among Eastern Christians is a wall of icons that protects the altar and the tabernacle hosting the Eucharist; the forces of evil are known as the Magisterium, which is the word Catholics use for their church’s teaching authority; the Magisterium’s agents use the title Fra, which means “brother” among religious orders, and wear something similar to Roman collars; the Magisterium’s headquarters is very similar to the unmistakable and unique architectural design of St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square; the song about Lyra at the end of the movie refers to her being “full of grace” – a descriptive used by the Archangel Gabriel in Luke’s Gospel to describe Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
Yet, setting aside these moral objections, New Line Cinema reportedly spent over $200 million attempting to create the next children’s fantasy blockbuster a la the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Narnia series. The studio hired headline actors, most of whom put in a solid performance. Millions were spent on the special effects and CGI graphics. The screenplay had, despite the above-noted incidents, stripped most of Pullman’s atheism and anti-Christian sentiment from much of the movie.
What’s left is best described by Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput as “lifeless.” Chaput said, “Much of the movie takes place in the polar north and the iciness of the setting is a perfect metaphor for the chilly, sterile spirit at the heart of the story.”
His critique is shared by two pro-life activists who accompanied me to the movie. The first is Bill Murphy, a longtime CLC leader in northern Ontario. Murphy was already familiar with Pullman’s His Dark Materials; he had picked up the third book in Pullman’s trilogy after discovering two of his teenage daughters had read the work.
Murphy found the movie’s plot both aimless and incoherent. “Ever been to a party where you’re introduced to one person after another so fast that you never get the chance to meet anyone?” he says. “This was The Golden Compass. It’s a series of empty introductions to characters you never get the chance to meet. As soon as you’re introduced to one new character, another one pops up.”
Murphy’s bigger concern is the books. The father of four finds Pullman a gifted storyteller who uses Christian imagery to present an anti-Christian message. “It’s important to talk to our children about images created in literature and how they affect our thinking,” he said. “Pullman is taking images from the Bible, C.S. Lewis and other Christian writers – images with which children are already familiar – and using them to undermine children’s faith in God.”
Ken Walker, a lawyer and part-time Reformed Baptist preacher, shared Murphy’s critique and concerns. The father of two is a proud five-point Calvinist. He fell asleep about a half-hour into the movie. “The movie lacked structure and character development,” Walker said. “I literally fell asleep trying to watch it.”
While Walker had not read Pullman’s books prior to seeing the movie, he still picked up upon anti-Calvinist sentiment during the parts of the movie for which he was awake. “It was subtle,” he said, explaining that the operation in movie through which the Magisterium severs children from their soul mocked the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and loss of free will.
Walker also said it was no coincidence that the most successful fantasy films are adapted from books written by Christians like Lewis and Tolkien. “Christians create characters that you want to identify with,” Walker said, adding he was not drawn to any of Pullman’s characters. “You can’t sympathize or identify with them,” he said.
Archbishop Chaput mentions the same point in his review: “Strangest of all – and in striking contrast to the Harry Potter and Narnia stories – is the absence of joy or any real laughter in the movie,” the archbishop says. “The talented child actress who plays the film’s leading role is hobbled by a character that is uniformly unpleasant, rebellious, belligerent and humorless; the kind of young person described by one of my parent friends as needing a ‘long time-out.’”
The archbishop’s same critique could also be levelled at Pullman’s books upon which the movie is based. Yet, while the movie bombed at the box office and has been panned by most secular critics as bad art, the same is not true of the books. LifesiteNews reports that sales of Pullman’s books have risen 500 per cent in anticipation of the movie’s release, even though the movie flopped at the box office, taking in only half of what the first installment of the Narnia series took in during 2005. First Things said that parents need not worry that their children will become atheists if they watch the movie. There is no doubt that is true. The fact remains that it is the books that are the main problem, as it is through them that Pullman reveals himself as the Pied Piper of Atheism.