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His not-so-Dark Materials
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[warning: spoilers ahead]

I've never read Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. I started the first one, and just couldn't get into it, despite rave reviews from lots of different corners.

I was particularly interested in the books because I'd heard they were anti-religious, and I wanted to see how the author handled this in a kid's book.

Now, apparently, they're making a movie, or maybe movies, and they're downplaying the whole premise of the books. Gregg Easterbrook talks about the adaptation, why he didn't like the books, but why the movie should at least be true to them.

A few weeks ago director Chris Weitz (About A Boy) quit the His Dark Materials project, after saying all references to religion and God would be excised from the movie. The film is being made under the auspices of New Line Cinema, the company that struck gold with the Lord of the Rings trilogy; speculation is that New Line feared religious groups would boycott His Dark Materials if it were anti-God. But His Dark Materials must be anti-God--abhorrence of religion is the whole point of Pullman's books! I disliked the anti-religion element of His Dark Materials because the thinking struck me as shallow, university-sophomore arguments: everything negative about faith trumped up, no positives mentioned. But Pullman deserves to have his books filmed the way he wrote them.

Well, sure. He won't be the first author to have his work put through the shredder, but undermining the entire theme of the trilogy is taking past the point of artistic license. I keep hearing that Orson Scott Card has repeatedly held out on an adapation of Ender's Game because he wanted to retain tight creative control on any film project. In light of what generally happens to SFF material made into movies, that's probably a very good idea.

Anyway, here's the synopsis of the trilogy (again, if you haven't read them and don't want to know what happens in them, go away now). Honestly, it sounds pretty dumb, at least the way Easterbrook describes it.

Here are the basics of what happens in the three books--The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. We meet an astonishingly mature and capable English schoolgirl who lives in a parallel-universe London where magic is real and people travel by elegant Zeppelins. Someone's trying to kill a noble professor who has learned of the existence of other universes, one of which turns out to be ours, where we meet an astonishingly mature and capable schoolboy. The boy and girl end up with a device that allows them to materialize in any universe. It turns out there are many, all fraught with peril. The professor also ends up in another universe. Soon there are pretty much revolving doors moving lots of characters among universes.

Okay, first of all it seems incredibly strange to me to write a book critical of religion which is basically a fantasy. Unless, of course, you simply have a beef with organized religion (and not the disorganized kind).

So far standard fantasy fare--Pullman borrows openly from The Chronicles of Narnia. But what do the kids and the professor find out as they travel to multiple realities? That God is a fraud. There exists a powerful ethereal creature, The Authority, who claims to be divine, but is a phony. The Authority was the first intelligent being to evolve to an advanced form. This being, now extremely ancient, realized he could masquerade as God, demanding worship by telling those who evolved after him that he created the firmament.

Next we learn that God is immensely evil--in fact, the very source of evil. The Authority wants people to suffer. All church structures, especially something extremely similar to the Roman Catholic Church, have been designed by The Authority to cause misery in life. The Vatican-like hierarchy casually engages in murder and torture, employing fanatic priests who kill with impunity. This includes murder and torture of children--scenes describe adults killing children or inflicting pain on them--and remember, the trilogy is marketed as children's literature.

Evolved from biological to ethereal, The Authority intensely envies the flesh-and-blood, because they have the one thing he cannot have: pleasure of the flesh. Especially, The Authority envies people their ability to enjoy sex. So the impostor God has elaborately manipulated religion to make people sexually repressed, denying mortals the innocent, Edenic sexuality they would otherwise experience. (One dumb subplot of the books is that The Authority's chief henchman, an evil entity of immense power, aches to have sex; you'd think that if you were omnipotent, you'd be able to get girls.) Ultimately there is no heaven, only a hell manufactured by The Authority. After death, all souls descend to The Authority's hell for eternal torment. The books' most chilling scene depicts the souls of dead children pleading with the souls of their parents for release from torment--the parents eternally unable to act while listening to their children cry.

Whew. At this point one might guess that Pullman has some serious issues to work out. And hey, that's part of writing, working out your personal issues. But the beef he has with monotheistic religions is their sexual repressiveness? On my list of stuff that's wrong with religion, that's pretty far down the list. In fact, it seems pretty bizarre to criticize an institution like the Catholic Church for repressing sex when they pretty much encourage wholesale breeding (best way to get new believers, don't ya know). Now, they frown upon modes of sexual behavior they don't advocate, such as homosexuality, and they frown upon birth control (again, to encourage production of more Catholics). But I don't think they have a problem with sex, per se. Quite the contrary. It just has to be their right kind of sex.

Anyway, I think the backward-looking, superstitious, authoritarian, anti-intellectual aspects of an institution like the Catholic Church are much more harmful than their stance on sex (though to be sure, their stance on sex and sexuality is still incredibly harmful).

I also think it's strange to basically write an anti-religious tract in which god exists. And if he really is written as the source of evil, that seems doubly dumb. Does Pullman, I wonder, abrogate humans of responsibility in the books? If The Authority is basically the root of all evil (and not human intention), then does he propose that humans are essentially pure and good? And does everybody revert to Edenic goodness and purity once the big bad god is taken out?

I didn't get into the books because from the outset Pullman's writing didn't engage me. But I have to say now that I'm glad I didn't make it much further...I doubt I would have liked the plot or theme, despite the writing.

Still, I agree with Easterbrook that it's a shame to see Pullman's work sugar-coated for commercial reasons. However, the article he links to says this:

The fans may not be happy, but Weitz, who made American Pie and About a Boy, reportedly has the full support of Pullman.

Pullman's agent, Caradoc King, told today's Times: "Of course New Line want to make money, but Mr Weitz is a wonderful director and Philip is very supportive. You have to recognise that it is a challenge in the climate of Bush's America."

Ah yes, it's all Bush's fault that you don't have the balls to present your artistic vision. It's oft the shitty artist that cries censorship when people won't buy their swill. It seems pretty obvious in this instance that New Line cares more about the bottom line than about artistic integrity, and sadly Pullman doesn't have a problem with it, at least publicly.

I'm sure he's crying all the way to the bank.

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