Pullman and the Church of Stupidity


I was recently having a discussion with a classmate in my Modern German Fiction class–a relatively interesting class actually–on the subject of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. First, I haven’t read all the books so anything I am going to discuss here is from what I have read about the book online and elsewhere and what I have been told by people who have read the book. Second, some of what I’m going to bring up from the discussion from the other day may not be true. I haven’t researched it because it really doesn’t matter considering that the argument I’ll be making it still valid whether what I learned is true or not. Given the history of the relationship between literature and religion I am highly inclined to believe it.
    Now, as many of you know, Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series is highly critical of organized religion–Christianity to be specific. Pullman himself is an outspoken atheist as has been said countless times in the news and on his home page. I am not arguing that atheism is the right course for any individual, though I am what one would call a near-atheist, but I am simply making a point that is quite valid historically and presently.
    My classmate brought up to me that the film adaptation, of which I have mixed feelings about to begin with, was altered in one way that seems rather disturbing and disgusting to me. Nicole Kidman, an actress I at one point had deep respect for, is catholic and refused to be a part of the film if she felt that the religious criticism within the story felt too much like a criticism of her religion. This is remarkably like the sort of hypocrisy of the fellow who played Chef in South Park (the short version being he had no problems playing his role in episodes that bashed Mormonism, Christianity, etc., but left the show as soon as Scientology, his ‘religion’, was addressed in none-too-light a fashion). So they, the film makers, have, according to my classmate, altered the story so that the religious undertones point in a different direction, and are not really catholic in feeling. Now, whether this is true is somewhat irrelevant in my opinion, but I find it morally reprehensible that anyone of any faith would find it necessary to use their influence to manipulate literature. Literature has had a long history of dealing with religious oppression. England saw many a book burnings and books have gone on and off the banned book list in the U.S.–when such a list existed here–and various other countries, many for religious reasons. It is especially irritating when religious reasons are used to remove books that criticize religion.
    Religion, having brought itself up from the woodworks and solidified its value in modern society, must be open not only for interpretation, but criticism too. The day that we don’t allow literature to express itself as it always should have is the day that literature loses value. Kidman, if she has actually done as I’m told, has done something I feel is a direct insult to the very craft she has made herself a part of. Actors are there to entertain all of us as they play a role. Sometimes a message is sent, sometimes not, but in either case they have influence on society. The fact is that “His Dark Materials” criticizes the catholic church and should be left unchanged. It is irrelevant if a few people get upset, or if the church itself wages a pointless campaign to stamp out religious criticism, which some groups have tried to do with Pullman’s works and have failed miserably at. The fact is that we need criticism in this world of all ideals. People who are secure in their beliefs are not affected by criticism in the first place. For Pullman, his criticism came in the form of a trilogy of fantasy books for kids. Some might find this disturbing, that an author would target children to plant ‘evil ideas’ in their heads. Pullman, however, isn’t targeting kids to plant ‘evil ideas’. He’s doing what an author is supposed to do: tell a good story for kids. Do most kids realize that Pullman is talking about the catholic church? Probably not. Adults likely see it, but the books aren’t meant for adults, even if an adult can just as easily enjoy it.
    The idea that the ideals present in “His Dark Materials” may, ultimately, be left out disturbs me. What are we teaching children these days? Not to think for themselves? Is this the future of the education system? Brainless automatons who simply repeat the same ideals over and over that they learned from their parents or elsewhere? Kids, especially, should ask questions and should ask them with the intention of figuring things out. How often do we see criticism of religion in the classroom? What I mean is that things like the crusades, the use of religion to enslave blacks, etc. are often either ignored or glossed over. This isn’t to say that I would like to see children culled from being religious. Quite the opposite. I think children need to be aware of the dark side of religion so they can make a decision as to whether they really believe or not. Perhaps parents would hate this sort of doctrine, but the idea of living in a society of people that cannot think for themselves scares me to death. The church has tremendous influence on society, and exerts that influence to push for the inclusion of its ideology in classrooms and in quelling the voices of literature–such as Pullman. There are certainly a number of religious folks who are great people, and I know many of them. But what sets them apart from people such as Kidman in this instance is that they are aware of their history and past and of the present. They know that their religion has been used to justify horrible things in the world and are willing to accept that behind that there is still some good. One would have to wonder what the value of religion would be if everyone were incapable of looking beyond the bad. The roots of religion are, by default, a part of this country. The ten commandments, in a lot of respects, are weaved into the fabric of our American society, though some of the rules are probably taken with less seriousness now than forty years ago. The good religious folks are also open to the criticism. These are the people that realize that the history of their beliefs must be recognized. The crusades did happen, Jews were oppressed by more than just the Nazi party, and blacks were enslaved for religious reasons and the idea of white superiority is directly related to religious identity. Such factors must find themselves under intense scrutiny, for if we were to ignore them they would be repeated, as they have in many ways today.
    The end result of the alteration of this film is that we will be presented with a very different approach. The irony, it seems, is that the goal of changing the film, on Kidman’s part, is to present the criticism of a religious belief as something that is less like the catholic church, but what ends up happening, a factor that the catholic church attempted to stall, is that kids who find the movie entertaining may be inclined to read the book. The result of that is these new readers will be presented with the original form of criticism. Perhaps none of them will really understand, but some of them will and the point of culling religious criticism will never have been made. The news, too, has made this factor pointless. Anyone wanting to learn about Pullman can search through Google and find out everything there is to know. Interviews with Pullman on his religious feelings are everywhere. So, I must ask, beyond blind oppression of ideas based on religious beliefs, what exactly is the point?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “Pullman and the Church of Stupidity

  1. That’s a very good question. I have no idea. It’s a movie, for God’s sake, can’t she just act the part and do her job as an entertainer. She’s playing the villain for crying out loud, villains aren’t supposed to be fun loving, church-going, happy people (well…some are but that’s another story) they’re supposed to be bad. That’s as bad as banning Harry Potter because it “taught magic.” When will we learn to just leave books alone?

  2. I wholeheartedly agree :). The movie is apparently getting bad reviews. I’m still going to see it, but I’m a little worried now.
    This is along the same lines as Tom Cruise using his influence to push the agenda of Scientology.

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