Religion in His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman, along with a couple of other people from New Line, gave an interesting talk at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday about the process of adaption The Golden Compass for the cinema. There was a bit of a thrill of seeing some effects shots for the first time, although it turned out to be extremely short-lived – I’ve just this moment seen the promotional footage at Bridge to the Stars and am feeling a little irritated that they didn’t think to show this at the talk.

As with any Pullman presence, the awkward question of religion reared its head once again. I feel that Pullman has softened, or at least modulated, his stance on religion gradually over the years. I suspect that this is partly because he doesn’t want to get into too many fights, and partly because he doesn’t want to damage the film’s chances of success in the US. I can’t say I blame him for it, but it’s clearly causing him problems. Here’s an exchange that occurred towards the end of the talk:

Warning: I paraphrase here. This is not verbatim, but I have attempted to convey the exchange as accurately as possible

Question from the audience: “I read on an internet forum that the religious aspects of His Dark Materials have been removed from the film. Is this true?”

Pullman: “That rumour came from a daily newspaper. They took one of my answers to another question and put a whole new question in front of it. As I’ve said before, His Dark Materials is not anti-religion – it’s anti-organized, politically-based theocracies that tell you what to think and oppress you. I have no problems with anyone’s private religion.”

Panel moderator: “But in the books you have an organisation called the Magisterium, which is an obvious reference to the Catholic Church.”

Pullman: “Well, there are a lot of things in His Dark Materials that also exist in the real world, but it’s a parallel world, so I’m not implying they do the same thing. Yeah, that’s right.”

Pullman and New Line are in dangerous waters here. There were plenty of religious organisations that disliked his book when it was released, and if the movie is faithful to the book, then I don’t see their opinions changing; if anything, they’ll get even madder. At the same time, if the movie isn’t faithful to the book, or there is a perceived change of focus on the religious aspect, then the fans will be mad. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The moderator, Mark Lawson, asked quite a few cheeky questions – you can see one of them in the exchange above, and he asked asked the producer, Deborah Forte, whether she thought that the scene where they ‘kill God’ in the Amber Spyglass would cause problems. Forte was very quick to respond that they weren’t killing God, they were killing the Authority, an entity which ought to be anathema to any right-thinking democracy. A well-practiced answer.

The fact is, though, a lot of organised religions do exert political authority around the world, whether it’s overt or not. So Pullman might like to say that his views on religion aren’t as controversial as they might seem, but they are. This is probably causing him some cognitive dissonance, and I thought his final ‘Yeah, that’s right’ was the result of a quick mental review of his preceding answer: “Hmm, did that make sense? Can I get away with saying that it’s just a parallel universe? Yeah, seems like it!”

This is not to say that I think Pullman is lying, or anything near it. I think he’s just caught in a bind, not wanting to go anti-religious, full-on Dawkins-style, and not wanting to renounce his views on religion. We’ll just have to see how he copes with the increased media scrutiny as the movie approaches release in December. But he’s still an excellent writer and speaker. Earlier in the talk, the producer mentioned how she used to press Pullman for information about the as-yet unpublished Amber Spyglass, and would only receive vague answers.

Pullman interjected – to much laughter – that he didn’t know how it was going to end at that point either. Then he grinned and said, “No, actually, I did know how it was going to end,” to even more laughter. If he can keep that up, he’ll should be fine.

7 Replies to “Religion in His Dark Materials”

  1. It’s a great shame that Pullman, who could be on of the great anti-superstition thinkers of our age, feels the need to give himself an easy life like this, frankly who can really blame him. However it’s sad that a brilliant mind like Pullman’s can be silenced on a topic he obviously has lot to contribute to.

    Pleasingly, the consistently excellent, Christopher Hitchens has a book on the subject out in June.

  2. Anti-superstition isn’t really what His Dark Materials is about though, just as he said it wasn’t anti-religious but “anti-organized, politically-based theocracy”. Which seems to me to get rid of all the bad bits of religion and leave all the good stuff behind. It doesn’t exclude the superstitious and there are important differences between religious belief and superstition.

  3. What, pray tell, are those differences?

    I don’t mean to be nasty, but I find very little in religious beliefs that aren’t also present in non-religious ethical thinking. The good bits are also bits that exist outside of religion anyway.

    Whereas the main thing that differentiates superstition from religious belief in the supernatural is how popular a given belief is.

  4. Which, mind, isn’t to say religion is evil evil evil, but just to say I’m dubious about the difference between “religious belief” and “superstition”, especially since, from any one religious perspective, most other religions actually can easily be (and often are) interpreted as something like superstitious nonsense.

  5. I don’t believe that popularity is the main difference at all. Religion is by its nature organised, it is a formalised set of beliefs adhered to at varying levels by its proponents. Superstition is a more specious concept and actually employed in His Dark Materials in order to enrich the text.

    Community is one aspect of society that religion handles better than “non-religious ethical thinking”.

  6. I read the book, I’m a Catholic. Actually, I found he was attacking more the kind of religion that used to exist then the kind I find exists now. The Catholic Church is very misunderstood, however Pullman does nail a version of it. His books to me were very theological, using dust as a metaphor for “holy spirit” at work. There’s no reason to be afraid of the books. How the author feels about the Catholic Church is offensive as you hating my mother, but hey, that doesn’t mean I can’t read the books. People have their limited understandings of things.

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