Update: Chris Weitz, the film’s director, has responded to the AM’s piece, calling it a “hatchet-job”. You can read his response here.
This month’s Atlantic Monthly has an excellent article on the controversy surrounding The Golden Compass movie, featuring new quotes from New Line and Philip Pullman. It sheds light on the decisions the movie studio have had to make about the book’s (anti-)religious content and the deliberations over how much of it should be removed. The article is only able to view through subscription, so we’ve summarised the contents here. It’s worth reading in full and addresses with clarity many of the issues fans of His Dark Materials have been concerned with for the past four years.
Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained how the religious Magisterium have been changed to “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian / KGB / SS.” AM write rather damningly that, “with $180 million at stake” [the figure has in fact risen to $205 million +], that “the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.”
Philip Pullman has remained resolute in his defence of the film-makers and became involved in the film much more than he expected or initially professed a desire for. The status of a living author is one New Line were understandably nervous about, however – if he spoke out against the film, Pullman could put a dent in its box office takings. AM asked Pullman if “New Line would prefer he were, well, the late author of The Golden Compass.” The author responded, “Dead? Yes! Absolutely!” If something happened to him, there “would be expressions of the most heartfelt regrets, yet privately they would be saying, ‘Thank God.’”
The article reports that Pullman has been to a screening of the film and that he “praised many specific scenes”; extolling the virtues of Dakota Blue Richards and saying that Nicole Kidman has the “exact quality of warm and cold, seductive and terrifying” to portray Mrs Coulter. When discussing the film, AM say “he chose[s] his words carefully, acknowledging that his role now is to be ‘sensible’ so that the next two films get made. Nonetheless, he was honest about what was missing:
“and that’s off the film.”
Pullman goes on, “I think if everything that is made explicit in the book or everything that is implied clearly in the book or everything that can be understood by a close reading of the book were present in the film, they’d have the biggest hit they’ve ever had in their lives. If they allowed the religious meaning of the book to be fully explicit, it would be a huge hit. Suddenly, they’d have letters of appreciation from people who felt this but never dared say it. They would be the heroes of liberal thought, of freedom of thought … And it would be the greatest pity if that didn’t happen.”
“I didn’t put that very well. What I mean is that I want this film to succeed in every possible way. And what I don’t want to do, you see, is talk the other two films out of existence. So I’ll stop there.”
Moving on to more familiar territory for long-time followers of the film, the article recounts the lengthy and troubled history of the production beginning with Tom Stoppard’s commissioned adaptation, through the unsolicited proposal of an enthusiastic Chris Weitz (and his hiring as director) through BridgeToTheStars.net’s interview with Chris Weitz that sparked such negative publicty for the film and led to The Times running an article, “God Is Cut From Film of Dark Materials”.
Weitz recalls his feelings upon reading the newspaper piece: “Why am I doing this?”, he thought. “I’ll end up being hated by the fans and ripped into by the press. And this is a huge, huge endeavor. Maybe this isn’t for me.” Weitz was of course then to leave the production, citing those “technical challenges”. With the film’s new director, Anand Tucker, leaving due to “creative differences”, Weitz came back on-board: “I’d started to care less about what people might think of me.” He also took heart from email correspondence with Philip Pullman in which the author revealed he wouldn’t mind a version of the story that didn’t include a critique of organised religion.
The clearest expression of religion in The Golden Compass is the scene where Lord Asriel reads Genesis to Lyra in the North and explains the concept of Original Sin, a crucial part of His Dark Materials. This scene, says AM, “was in the earliest versions of the movie script, but over time it has been slowly erased. As Pullman points out, it “comes at the point in the story when we most need that explanation.” But no $180 million movie is going to trash the first book of the Bible, so the movie will have to do without it.”
The earlier scripts are also reported as having made passing reference to the Fall: “In the Stoppard script, Asriel, in a rage about the Authority, mocks the “apple of desire” and the “fig-leaf of shame”; a few scenes later Coulter, the evil Nicole Kidman character, yells at Asriel, “You can’t conquer God!” ”
Weitz originally wrote along similar lines, with the opening scene featuring Lyra in a college chapel listening to a sermon about the alternative Genesis. The director relates, however, “that movie was not going to get made.” By December 2004, references to Genesis were gone. What remained was Dust and its theology: Lord Asriel’s powerful speech telling Lyra how Dust is sin and that he will destroy Dust, bringing an end to death, was still present. By the final script, this too was gone. No mention of sin or death remain.
Quotes on Dust instead include Mrs Coulter telling Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel says, “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it. They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”
AM make a damning assessment of how this all fits together:
” “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions. This is Hollywood at its most hazily indignant and self-congratulatory, recycling the generic themes of countless other films – a band of grubby, half-crazed heroes takes on the System and wins.”
Chris Weitz has done what he can to keep mentions of religion in the film. He tried to keep in Asriel’s line “Dust is sin,” a line which he says “didn’t make it. What can I say?” Hollywood, he says, “is just terrified that anything that brings up religion or anything controversial will be disastrous.” Weitz reiterates that some religious imagery will be in the movie, but it seems it will be much much less than obvious: it will be so far into the background as to require “a DVD player and working knowledge of Latin to decipher the symbols.” Visible in the trailers, icons of Orthodox saints will be on the outside of some Magisterium buildings, with Latin inscriptions from the Bible sprinkled around the film.
This certainly isn’t the message New Line have been putting out. AM allege that at Cannes, “the studio had delivered a sheet of talking points to the hotel room of at least one cast member, Sam Elliott, who plays a Texas aeronaut in the film. According to Elliott, the talking points instructed that if the question of Pullman’s religious views came up, the actors should just “avoid it and play stupid.” The message they all agreed on was something along the lines of, “How can I possibly tell what Pullman had in mind?”
The publication concludes:
“Marketing plans aside, New Line executives likely believe they were doing Pullman no great disservice by stripping out his theology and replacing it with some vague derivative of the Force. 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.”