November 19, 2007
On The Golden Compass
— Martin E. Marty
Editor's Note: Sightings will return on Monday, November 26, after the Thanksgiving holiday.
How can Sightings fail to sight a feature in the December Atlantic, by Hanna Rosin, which bears headlines and subheads like these: "How Hollywood Saved God," "It took five years, two screenwriters, and $180 million to turn a best-selling anti-religious children's book into a star-studded epic—just in time for Christmas." More: "With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book's body and leave behind its soul." Rosin tells how author Philip Pullman, sometimes described as Great Britain's "Christopher Hitchens for kids," which means would-be God-killer and religion-destroyer, succumbed to fiscal lures and the wiles of Hollywood script-writers and producers to turn an anti-God children's book, one of several that wildly popular Pullman has written, into a theologically nondescript but otherwise highly "descript" film.
Get ready for controversy over it. Predictably, Bill Donohue's Catholic League rose to the bait and is publicizing exposes and responses, directed more to the book and the author than to the sanitized but not dull film version. "Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked" is the League's blast: "It's a backdoor way of selling atheism. Unsuspecting parents will take little Johnny to see the movie. Johnny likes the movie. Johnny gets the trilogy [which is anti-God] for Christmas." An Old West-sounding message to Donohue or Pullman: "Let you and him fight." As for the quality of the film, we'll leave that to the critics a couple of weeks from now. To the point of our mission in Sightings are Rosin's final paragraphs, revelatory of the American religious situation, well-stated.
Actors and agents for the film were instructed to "play stupid" when religion comes up in interviews. Rosin: "This could be Paris Hilton reading her Bible in prison. Or Madonna preaching about Kabbalah. You can almost see [author] Pullman cringing at the standard Tinseltown crypto-Buddhist babble. Be Spiritual. Praise the Divine. Offend No One. Then say Ommmm.." In that command she captures the pop-culture "spiritual creed" of more than only Hollywoodites. She also knows how market strategy works out in a society that from some angles is hyper-secular and from others hyper-religious.
The executives at New Line Films, says Rosin, evidently thought they were doing Pullman no great disservice by "stripping out his theology and replacing it with some vague derivative of the Force." Preaching slightly, she continues by recalling what used to be associated with religion: "Values such as obedience, religious devotion, and chastity are so rare in Hollywood's culture that they probably seem archaic and quaint—courtly rules that no one lives by anyway. Certainly not something to get exercised over."
This film is not an offender of some Christian sensibilities in the way that The Last Temptation of Christ , Dogma, or The Da Vinci Code were. New Line could afford to be edgy with The Lord of the Rings, and may have planned to take some risks again. "If so, a more nervous mood has since prevailed." In efforts to be neither offensive nor inoffensive, neither pro-God nor anti-God, but simply non-God, it may have matched the sensibility of many Americans today.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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