What Every Parent Should Know About "The Golden Compass"

Interview With Pete Vere and Sandra Miesel


INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, NOV. 14, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The film "The Golden Compass" isn't simply about using fairy-tale magic to tell a good story, it corrupts the imagery of Lewis and Tolkien to undermine children's faith in God and the Church, says Catholic author Pete Vere.  In this interview with ZENIT, Vere and Sandra Miesel discuss the movie adaptation of the fantasy novels written by Philip Pullman. The film, staring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, will be released in the United States in early December.  Vere and Miesel are co-authors of the booklet "Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy," to be published by Ignatius Press next month on the topic of "The Golden Compass."


Q: The first movie of "The Golden Compass" trilogy is being released at Christmas. For those unfamiliar with the series, what kind of books are these and to whom do they appeal?

Vere: To begin, the books are marketed for 9-12 year olds as children's fantasy literature in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. "If you're a fan of 'Lord of the Rings,' 'Narnia ' or 'Harry Potter,'" the critics tell us, "you'll love Pullman."   Personally, I just can't see a child picking up these books and reading them. I see them more as books that adults give kids to read.

Having said that, "The Golden Compass" (1995) is the first book in Pullman's trilogy. The second book is titled "The Subtle Knife" (1997) and it is followed by "The Amber Spyglass" (2000).   Collectively, the trilogy is known as "His Dark Materials," a phrase taken from John Milton's "Paradise Lost." This is appropriately titled in my opinion, since each book gets progressively darker -- both in the intensity with which Pullman attacks the Catholic Church and the Judeo-Christian concept of God, as well as the stridency with which he promotes atheism.

For example, one of the main supporting characters, Dr. Mary Malone, is a former Catholic nun who abandoned her vocation to pursue sex and science. The reader does not meet her until the second book, by which time the young reader is already engrossed in the story. By the third book, Dr. Malone is engaging in occult practices to lead the two main characters, a 12-year-old boy and girl, to sleep in the same bed and engage in -- at the very least -- heavy kissing. This is the act through which they renew the multiple universes created by Pullman.

Another example is Pullman's portrayal of the Judeo-Christian God. Pullman refers to him as "The Authority," although a number of passages make clear that this is the God of the Bible. The Authority is a liar and a mere angel, and as we discover in the third book, senile as well. He was locked in some sort of jewel and held prisoner by the patriarch Enoch, who is now called Metatron and who rules in the Authority's name. When the children find the jewel and accidentally release the Authority, he falls apart and dies.

Additionally, Pullman uses the imagery of C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" chronicles. "His Dark Materials" opens with the young heroine stuck in a wardrobe belonging to an old academic, conversing with a talking animal, when she discovers multiple worlds. So the young reader is lulled early on with the familiar feel of Lewis.
Nevertheless, Pullman's work isn't simply about using fairy-tale magic to tell a good story. He openly proselytizes for atheism, corrupting the imagery of Lewis and Tolkien to undermine children's faith in God and the Church.

Q: Many Catholics, including William Donohue of the Catholic League, are speaking out against the movie. What should parents know before they let their children watch this film?

Vere: I don't recommend any parent allow their children to view the film. While the movie has reportedly been sanitized of its more anti-Christian and anti-religious elements, it will do nothing but pique children's curiosity about the books. I'm a parent myself. My children would think it hypocritical if I told them it was OK to see the movie, but not to read the books. And they would be right.

It's not OK for children -- impressionable as they are -- to read stories in which the plot revolves around the supreme blasphemy, namely, that God is a liar and a mortal. It is not appropriate for children to read books in which the heroine is the product of adultery and murder; priests act as professional hit men, torturers and authorize occult experimentation on young children; an ex-nun engages in occult practices and promiscuous behavior, and speaks of it openly with a 12-year-old couple; and the angels who rebel against God are good, while those who fight on God's side are evil. This is wrong. And while it's been softened in the movie -- or at least that's what Hollywood is telling us -- it's still there in the books.


Miesel: Furthermore, there's a great deal of cruelty and gore in the books, not just battles but deliberate murder, sadism, mutilation, suicide, euthanasia and even cannibalism. There are also passages of disturbing sensuality and homosexual angels who are "platonic lovers."

I agree with Pete. Avoid both the movie and the books. It would be best if people didn't picket or make a public fuss because that's just free publicity. If the movie fails at the box office, the second and third books won't be filmed.

Q: The author, Philip Pullman, is an outspoken atheist. Does this come across in the books and the movie as a secularist position or more in the form of anti-Catholicism?

Vere: It's not an "either/or" situation. What begins as a rebellion against the Church turns into a rebellion against God. This then leads to the discovery that God -- and Christianity -- are a fraud.   The 12-year-old protagonists -- Lyra and Bill -- discover there is no immortal soul, no heaven or hell. All that awaits us in the afterlife is some gloomy Hades-type afterlife where the soul goes to wait until it completely dissolves. Thus Pullman uses anti-Catholicism as the gateway to promoting atheism.

Q: The trilogy is being compared to "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings." Is there a comparison to be made with either?

Vere: On the surface, yes. You've got wizards, heroines, strange creatures, alternate worlds, etc. Although for reasons already stated, the real comparison -- by way of inverted imagery -- is to C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" chronicles. Pullman, who has called "The Lord of the Rings" "infantile," has a particular dislike for Lewis and "Narnia." This is reflected in Pullman taking Lewis' literary devices and inverting them to attack Christianity and promote atheism.

As Pullman said in a 1998 article in The Guardian: "[Lewis] didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the 'Narnia' books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she'd been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the ugly sisters win."


Miesel: That nasty quote is factually wrong on both points. Lewis began corresponding with his future wife in 1950, the year the first "Narnia" book came out, and married her in 1956, the year the last one was published. Susan's problem isn't "growing up," but turning silly and conceited. She doesn't even appear -- much less get sent to hell -- in "The Last Battle."

Vere: Thus what we see here is more contrast and corruption than comparison. Also, the work of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling is primarily driven by the audience. It is the average reader who purchases these works, reads them, and makes them popular.

Pullman's work, on the other hand, appears to be driven by the critics. The only people I know recommending Pullman's work are English majors and university professors. I don't know a single electrician, hairdresser or accountant who recommends Pullman's work by word of mouth. Thus the books haven't resonated with the average person to the same degree as "Lord of the Rings," "Narnia" and "Harry Potter."

Q: Nicole Kidman, a Catholic who stars in the film, has said she wouldn't have taken the role if she thought the movie was anti-Catholic. What do you make of this response?

Vere: The film has not yet been released, so I cannot comment on it. However, Christ asks very pointedly in the Gospels: Can a good tree bear rotten fruit? The movie is the fruit of the books and Pullman's imagination. These are anti-Christian and atheistic at their core. How does one sanitize this from the movie without completely gutting Pullman from his story?

During an interview with Hollywood screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi a couple of months ago, I asked her whether it was possible to tone down the anti-Christian elements for the movie. Nicolosi is the chair of Act One, a training and mentoring organization for Christians starting out in Hollywood.

She had given the question thought. A few years ago one of her friends -- an evangelical Christian -- had been asked by her agent to pitch on the project, that is, propose to write the screenplay adapting "The Golden Compass" to film.

"We read [the book] and there was just no way we could come in on this," Nicolosi told me. "Pullman's fantasy universe is nihilistic and rooted in chaos. You cannot fix that in a rewrite without changing the story Pullman is trying to tell -- which is atheistic, angry and at times polemical."

But let's suppose it is possible. Let's suppose Kidman is right and that the movie has been sanitized of its anti-Catholicism. The books remain saturated with bitter anti-Christian polemic. So why promote a movie that will only generate interest in the books among impressionable young children?

For the Christian parent, the movie cannot be anything but spiritual poison to their children -- for the movie is the fruit of the book.




Six Myths of Atheism

In one respect, it’s good that Golden Compass, a book by a prominent atheist children’s author, is being made into a movie. It could lead to a wider discussion of atheism. It is easy to be a quiet atheist — but much harder to remain an atheist when you actually have to explain your position. Here are a few common myths about atheism that discussion can help dispel.

Myth: Atheists are more logical than believers.

A myth that is kin to this one is the myth that believers are more logical than atheists. In fact, the reasons people become believers or become atheists are rarely reducible to logic. Rather, a number of experiences, observations and emotional states together push someone toward belief or unbelief. The idea that there is an almighty God is terrifying to many people. Rather than be in the power of such a being, they flee him. Others, perhaps, have been so wounded by believers that they reject their beliefs and not just their behavior. Logic is brought in to comfort the atheist with rationalizations. On the other hand, the way we come to believe in God isn’t through a syllogism, either. It’s through a personal encounter with Christ, or with one of his proxies: beauty, truth and goodness.

Myth: The burden of proof is on the religious.

Atheists often say that the default position of mankind should be lack of belief, since there is “no proof” of God’s existence. Others say agnosticism should be the default position of mankind: We should start out by saying “We’re not sure,” and work from there. Anthony Flew, the prominent atheist who recently converted to a position of belief in “the God of Aristotle” said that the default position of mankind should be belief, since, after all, the universe and its complicated laws exists, and you have to deny the obvious to say that there is no creator. Flew saw three irrefutable proofs that there must be a god in the laws of nature, life with its singular organization and the existence of the universe.

Myth: Science makes God obsolete.

There is a widespread assumption that somehow the progress of science has challenged, or will challenge, the reasons that previous generations had for believing in God. But why should it? Imagine if human beings were the size of microbes and lived on a tuna noodle casserole instead of our current size on the earth. Imagine we became so scientifically advanced, we identified all the different constituent parts of the casserole we lived on, and even started to explore the vast kitchen outside the casserole. It would be ridiculous for us to claim that, since we know the ingredients so well, there must not have been a cook.

Myth: Science is a reliable guide for us.

In fact, if you look at the history of science, you don’t see the history of an infallible learning method slowly but surely widening our understanding of the universe. Science is an excellent instrument for fact-finding, but one that has been wrong about fundamental things at every point in its history. Theories of spontaneous generation seemed entirely reasonable at the dawn of science. Paul Ehrlich’s theories expecting mass famine due to overpopulation seemed plausible at the beginning of the 1970s. What theories of today will prove just as false? Scientific knowledge at any stage of its history is merely tentative, and new discoveries are continually refining or discarding previous theories.

Myth: Religion and science are incompatible.

Often, fans of this myth will cite Galileo as proof that religion and science are opponents in a contest that often appears to be a death match. The Galileo incident is actually a good example of the real relationship between science and religion. Search for Galileo at Catholic.com, to learn how the incident is widely misunderstood. Galileo’s theory that the earth travels around the sun and not vice versa was not unique to Galileo. Others held it, and the Church didn’t suppress the idea. Instead, Galileo’s personal animus toward the Pope forced the two into a showdown. The moral of the story? Real religion and honest science are certainly compatible: Religious people and scientists, however, sometimes fail to be.

Myth: Religion has led to violent intolerance.

Undoubtedly, far too many religious people have been violent and intolerant. But if you look at the facts about such notorious incidents as the Inquisition and the witch hunts (look them up at Catholic.com), you’ll find that the crimes of the Church have been greatly exaggerated. Meanwhile, atheist communists in the 20th century killed more people than the Church was ever even accused of killing. Killed were some 65 million (and counting) in China; 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2 million (and counting) in North Korea, 2 million in Cambodia, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, 1 million in communist Eastern Europe and 150,000 in Latin America.

Catholics should be aware of the threats to faith posed by movies like The Golden Compass, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them. The Church has faced far fiercer and cleverer opponents for more than 2,000 years, and we’re still here to tell the tale.

How are we able to come out ahead so consistently? That’s easy. It’s because there really is a God.