He certainly doesn’t look like a god-killer.
But that’s how critics cast him: a deity-smashing heretic, bent on spreading godlessness with children’s tales.
The Golden Compass
Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Daniel Craig, Ian McKewan
(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 7 Dec 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 5 Dec 2007 (General release); 2007)
No, in person, author Philip Pullman, 61, is decidedly professorial, a little rumpled and polite, which is to say, British.
Yet there’s an edge, some minor irritation—possibly because he has weathered a recent wave of attacks from the Christian right over his fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials.” The first installment, “The Golden Compass,” got its big-screen debut Friday, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman.
Opponents have stepped up their campaign against the longtime atheist, whose modern reworking of the Adam and Eve story—and his undoing of original sin—has the Catholic League calling the movie “sugarcoated atheism—just in time for Christmas.”
“The Golden Compass” embraces a tradition of sweeping, good-versus-evil adventure epics—a form shared by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.” But that’s largely where the similarities end. Pullman has expressed a distaste for both worlds, particularly Narnia. He has called Lewis’ fiction “morally loathsome” for its sexism and offhand killing of main characters, among other things.
By contrast, the morally complex “His Dark Materials” follows strong-willed orphan Lyra Belacqua in her search for the source of Dust, mysterious particles feared by the ruling Magisterium, a corrupt theocracy in a world similar to our own. In her quest, Lyra forges an alliance with an armored polar bear, a cadre of witches and a Texan aviator to save fellow orphans from an awful fate.
Early reports suggest that the religious commentary has been muted in the adaptation, though future films might have a tougher time dealing with rogue angels, church assassins and, well, the death of a god.
In the edited conversation below, however, Pullman doesn’t mince words when talking about his critics, his books and his “Republic of Heaven.”
You’ve said, “I don’t invent things, I discover them ... I’m blessed with them.” Seems like strange vocabulary from an atheist.
I use it because it’s the best terminology there is. But, of course, it is metaphor. The fundamentalists don’t realize this. So when I say, “I feel blessed,” I do not mean there is a supernatural figure who says, “Thou are blessed, my son”—but that’s what I feel like. Where the blessing comes from, I don’t know.
Figures from the religious right, particularly the authors of the “Left Behind” series, are out campaigning against your film. What’s your reaction to that?
I’m not concerned with shutting anybody up, stopping anybody from reading any books, even the “Left Behind” ones. I don’t believe in doing that, because I’m a democrat. People who want to tell other people not to read such a book or see such a film are dictators. There is no place for dictators in the world I want.
Controversy aside, it seems to me that “His Dark Materials” backs a fundamentally moralist, even Christian, value system, without original sin and without the abuse of power.
You could say that, but I would wonder why you’d feel the need to say, “Christian.” Because, after all, the good qualities that the story praises are surely good qualities in the value systems of other religions. You might equally say, “Jewish,” “Muslim,” “Hindu.” But, yes, I think that’s a good way of putting it.
The book also forwards the idea of a “Republic of Heaven,” religion run by humans. Is that republic any better? Because it’s still run by humans, who are fallible and seduced by power.
Yes, but who have the democratic means of changing those in power. One of the founding principles of a Republic of Heaven is it’s got to be a democracy. The trouble with the old (system) was that the authority came from above and was not to be questioned. (It) puts humans in temporal power, secular power, running the lives of others. And that’s the bad thing.
But even republics fall.
Oh, yeah. This is a matter of constant vigilance. Freedom depends on constant vigilance.
Has someone from the movie studio taken you aside and asked you to quiet your rhetoric?
Nobody has taken me aside. The studio knows my position on this, which I’ve always maintained. I’m not going to dissemble it, or pretend otherwise. But then again, the book has never pretended otherwise. The book has always been manifest, plainly what it is ... they knew that when they bought the thing.
Like any author, I think the closer they stick to my book, the better the film will be ... but I accept also that film is also a different medium.
So, how is it (the movie)?
Well, I haven’t seen the finished version, but I expect to very soon. It looks wonderful, it looks beautiful—the designer, Dennis Gassner, and the costumer designer, Ruth Myers, have done extraordinary things. It really does give the feeling of a world that is like ours, but slightly different—a world of infinite visual richness. The arctic scenes as well are spectacular, stunning, just as they should have been. And the performances ... this is a cast to dream about. I couldn’t have wished for anything better.
Will they make the other two parts of the trilogy?
We’ll see. Unlike like “The Lord of the Rings,” which everybody knew and has been out as a classic for 50 years, this has only been out 10 years—about five, six years when the movie deal was made. So, I fully understand the studio not being able to commit to all three films at once. If the first film is a success, there will be two more. Like everybody else, I hope there will be.
On your tours for the books, you’ve had some interesting conversations, most notably with the Bishop of Oxford and the Archbishop of Canterbury. What have those experiences been like?
I shared a conversation at the University Church of Oxford, with the priest in charge. An interesting place for it, that was, because that was the very place where the three Protestant martyrs—Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer—were put on trial in 1555 under the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, and subsequently burned. So it was a place of dismal and unhappy echoes of church history.
Nevertheless, I was able to go to that church and have a very civilized, enlightening and enjoyable conversation with the priest in charge, as I did with Archbishop of Canterbury and as I did with the Bishop of Oxford. Now, each of those clerics knew full well what my position was before we started; they had read the books. I knew full well that I was not going to strike such enlightenment into their souls that they would throw off their clerical collars and say, “Hurrah! I’m an atheist from now on.” That wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, we did what civilized people do. We had a conversation, in front of an audience who could join in and share the to-and-fro debate. This is the proper way of things—not hiding in the background and saying, “Don’t read that, it’s evil!” So, I came away happy and informed, perhaps a little enlightened. So, everybody was better for it.
One critic called “His Dark Materials,” the “first post-Enlightenment fantasy.” Is that a description you embrace?
Indeed I do. Enlightenment was a great step forward in our development as human beings. We are still warmed by the background radiation from the Enlightenment, but it’s cooling. You can feel that it’s cooling, by pronouncements that have been made recently about my book.
We need to be aware how far we’ve come since the age of barbarity, superstition and ignorance, and we need to be very careful not to slip back.
You’ve said in the past, “I can’t get rid of God. I don’t believe in him, but he won’t leave me alone.” And I’m wondering, with the spotlight a little brighter this year, if you’re feeling the same way or if you’ve thought differently about this?
I don’t know, I hadn’t considered that. If I came out suddenly, if I gave you an exclusive and I said, “I believe. I change my mind. I believe”—do you think these excitable people would change their minds?
... The questions that arise when we talk about God are so big, so profound and so interesting, we can talk about them for a long time without exhausting them. Even an atheist can talk about them for a long time without exhausting them.
From the perspective I’ve described, I’m still an atheist who has a great deal of the Christian in him. I have the heritage of my grandfather’s church, with the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and all that stuff.
There’s also the continuing interest—the sense of wonder in the face of the physical universe. The great mystery. Questions such as: Is there a purpose to the universe, or is there none? Why are we troubled by this question? We are troubled by it, even though we know, objectively, there isn’t a purpose.
Incidentally, my answer to the question “Is there a purpose to the universe?” would be: “There is now. Now that we are here.”
As far as we know, we embody the only spark of conscious awareness in the whole of the universe. And that’s a great responsibility, to be in charge of that. That is the most important thing we have to do beyond any other, is maintain that, make sure it doesn’t die out.
And that has implications of course for global warming and environmentalism and all these things. We have to look after this place. We have to look after ourselves. We have to look after human consciousness.
Maybe that’s a moral principle, maybe that’s a religious principle, but it is a principle in which I strongly believe.
Currently, Pullman is writing “The Book of Dust,” a new adventure and a “long book,” Pullman says, about Lyra at age 16 and the origins of Dust.