I gather the hoo-ha in America about The Golden Compass is continuing apace. I'm not sure it's worth the effort, though, not least because it rather sounds as though for all its superficial glamour, the film is both clunky and dull, a clear victim of studio tinkering rendered sterile by the decision to tone down the anti-religious themes that drive the books. Maria Farrell on Crooked Timber, coming at it from the stance of someone who was 'fully prepared to love it,' left the cinema bitterly disappointed at the downplaying of the story's materialist and existentialist themes:
They are the engine of the books, just as an unattractive, flawed and female lead character with an inborn knack for rallying society’s outcasts is the heart. Cutting out the central and challenging ideas of the books infantilises the viewers. Without them, HDM is just another in the current wave of fantasy films aimed an audience of children and adults, appealing to the lowest common denominator of both. The current crop of fantasy films is purely a function of the development of CGI and its associated technologies’ ability to render the worlds the stories live in. Now the fantasy classics, old and new, are being consumed in a single binge-sitting, along with junk food pastiches like Spiderwick, Harry Potter and Eregon. But the concentration of capital needed to make these films is still enormous, (The budget for The Golden Compass was double that of The Fellowship of the Ring.) which means they can’t be made without a firmly mainstream audience in mind.Peter Hitchens, approaching the film from a rather less sympathetic angle, agrees, noting that when the anti-religious agenda is toned down the story is reduced to 'a series of incidents and events which make very little sense'. Considering that it's not exactly meeting with critical acclaim -- Rotten Tomatoes has it at only 43% Fresh -- you might wonder whether the movie's more vocal opponents in America are really justified in objecting quite so vociferously.
After all, there's surely a possibility that by protesting as they are, they're simply giving it free publicity, drawing attention to a film that -- if it's as dull as the reviews suggest -- might well just fade into obscurity if left to its own devices.
You should all be familiar at this point with the classic Father Ted episode 'The Passion of Saint Tibulus', where Ted and Dougal's protests about a blasphemous film merely intrigue the faithful of Craggy Island, turning a film that would surely have sank without trace into a box-office hit. No? Well, you can watch a bit of it here if you're interested.
Yes, I know Ted isn't exactly reliable in its depiction of 1990s Ireland -- and you wouldn't believe the number of times I've had to explain that to a couple of my English friends, at least one of whom was convinced that Ted was intended as serious social commentary -- but the point still stands, I think.
I suppose it might be argued that there's a moral objection to protest against this sort of thing, even should such protests prove counterproductive, as the film's American opponents fear that the film might lead children to Pullman's books, in turn leading them away from the belief that there might be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in Mr Pullman's philosophy.
I'm not convinced though. My feeling is that the smartest way for parents to handle stuff like this, if they're bothered, is to join their children in watching the film or reading the books, and then to talk through the issues raised with their children. I have a feeling that simply talking to children about this stuff might be rather more sensible and decidedly more productive than just banning it.
If parents feel they might need guidance themselves in such matters, there's a short book available on the topic with the rather catchy title of Pied Piper of Atheism. I suspect it's pretty decent. Sandra Miesel, one of the authors, co-wrote a book on The Da Vinci Code a few years back which I found a measured, thorough, and thoughtful affair when I read it a few months ago. If Pied Piper is even close to being as good it's surely worth a look.
It is worth remembering too, amongst all the noise and hysteria, that Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, has opined that Pullman's books could be profitably studied in religious education classes in school. He has a point. After all, if there's one thing that Pullman and his loudest critics can surely agree on it is this: religion matters.
Whatever about their difficulties across the Atlantic, the biggest challenge facing the churches in England and indeed throughout Europe is simple apathy. People don't care about religion. They don't see that it is significant in any way, that the questions religion poses and the answers it proposes could have any relevance to their lives.
Pullman's books could well prove a trumpet blast to rouse them from that slumber, giving the churches an opportunity to say that yes, religion does matter, but for reasons far different than those put forward in His Dark Materials.
'Test everything; hold fast what is good,' as the man says.