What’s Wrong with “The Golden Compass”?

December 10th, 2007

I just went to see The Golden Compass, along with a couple other friends, who all decided to see it despite being advised by one friend that the movie made no sense and by another that he didn’t want to see it because he hadn’t liked the book.

I have the book, but on the “I’ll read it when I get around to it” shelf. But it was a nice outing with friends and I wanted to see airships and Nicole Kidman in a series of improbably lovely costumes. And going in with such low expectations, I was not disappointed, except by everything else.

First off, well, my biggest criticism is what I said after the movie was over: “I suppose it will all make more sense after we read the book and watch the expanded version on DVD.” This was after watching a nearly two and a half hour movie, mind you. I’m not certain whether to blame the screenwriter, the film editor or both, but there seemed to be a concentrated effort to shoehorn in every significant scene in the book, regardless of the exposition or transition or set-up for character motivation.

As it stands, the movie has the worst case of “beloved child” syndrome I’ve ever seen. The protagonist, Lyra (and I’m probably wrong on the spelling), wanders around and simply bumps into people who decide to fight and die for her “Just because.” I can understand it with the head witch, since she’s at least got a prophecy to go on, but she’s still canny enough to check out whether the kid can read the Golden Compass. But Sky Captain Wild Bill? I’m blanking on the name of character, but if you took an old American character actor, had him play Wild Bill as conceived of by someone who’d only seen British Wild West shows, gave him a jackrabbit familiar (voiced by Cathy Bates) and then made him an airship captain…well, that’s who we’ve got, who not only immediately takes a liking to this random kid, but offers to take her along in his airship, and also tips her off to the location of an alcoholic talking bear, who is less entertaining than he sounds. The bear decides to follow the kid because she finds his armor, but the only reason they aren’t immediately blown away by the Cossack police is because the sea gypsies keep randomly appearing whenever the cavalry is needed. Even in the middle of the frozen glacial wastes.

Then there’s the Magisterium. I understand it’s supposed to be the unholy spawn of the Catholic church and Big Brother, but if you’re going to spirit away kids to do insane arcane medical experiments on them, there must be a more convenient place than an ice sheet in the middle of the Norway analogue. But more than that, why steal children when you can just buy them? Or get parents to give them to you for free? There must be a few parents who’ve already drunk enough of the Kool-aid that they’d hand over their children no questions asked, rather than steal the child of the well connected sea gypsy matron? Or the kitchen boy from the university where there are loads of nosy people just looking for a mystery to crack?

Of course, the number of brain dead people is pretty amazing. There’s horror movie stupid. Then there’s opera stupid. Then there’s this. One really wonders what the scholars are thinking to let their child of prophecy go running around rooftops with the cast of Oliver at the beginning of the movie. One also sort of wonders whether a world with all sorts of arcane science wouldn’t be able to figure out who poisoned a wine decanter if just by taking fingerprints. And the uspurping Bear King? Does he know that “gullible” is not in the dictionary?

Then there’s the trouble of giving your protagonist an amazingly useful power and forgetting to use it. Lyra gets a Golden Compass, which once she figures it out is basically a deluxe Magic 8 Ball that can answer any question, no problem. So when later in the movie, the wicked Mrs. Coulter says “Lyra, I’m your mother!” wouldn’t it be prudent or least sensible to twiddle with your Golden Compass and ask “Is that psycho really my mommy?” Of course this scene may have been left on the cutting room floor, so it’s not possibly quite at the level of the recent Heroes finale where Peter forgets he can walk through walls if he wants to and instead dramatically uses his telekinesis to rip the door off a bank vault, getting a nosebleed in the process. But still….

I should probably not get into the other troubles but the line “Tell the children to get their warmest coats!” is going to stick with me for a while. You get a bunch of kids who were spirited away to an icy wasteland via airship and you expect them to walk to safety? Of course an electrocuted traumatized child was able to walk all the way to the next valley and hole up in an unheated trapper’s cabin without freezing to death, so I suppose anything is possible, but….


43 Responses to “What’s Wrong with “The Golden Compass”?”

  1. Laurieon 10 Dec 2007 at 2:05 am

    Well, it sounds like the movie was remarkably faithful to the book.

    When I read through The Golden Compass, it was mostly so disjointed that I had no idea what was going on. I kept having to go back and reread passages because I was certain I had missed a ‘why’ or a ‘because’ here or there. Random stuff just kept happening at bizarre times for unclear reasons.

    I also got the feeling that I was supposed to understand why this parade of odd coincidences made sense. Nope! I finally just sort of glossed my way through the first book without a shred of understanding what the hell was going on in hopes that the second book would tie it all together. It kind of does, too, so persistence paid off – sort of. In a way. (Did I mention this series was a gift and the person who bought it wouldn’t shut up about how it would change my life?)

    There are a lot of people who absolutely love this series of books and I have no idea why. It’s OK, I guess, taken in its entirety, but that’s about it.

  2. Sengeion 10 Dec 2007 at 7:28 am

    Sorry, haven’t read book or seen movie (not sure I ever will now!); so how does a book manuscript such as this one ever get published? How’d THAT happen? Oh, and this book sounds like its not really for kids, but if it was written for kids, how are THEY supposed to keep track of the story if adults cannot?

  3. Madeleine Robinson 10 Dec 2007 at 11:54 am

    I’ve read the book (or rather, the younger child and I listened to it on CD while driving to and from Girl Scout camps). The movie is more disjointed than the book–as I said elsewhere, the beats from the book are there, but each one feels like a bead on a necklace, as if you could unstring them and reorder them without much damage. It’s one of those cases where I felt that the movie could have been longer, to give a chance for us to understand why Lee Scoresby or the Gyptians take Lyra’s cause so strongly. They also add in the prophecy early in the film, where in the bookI believe that neither the scholars at Jordan, nor Mrs. Coulter, had any idea of the witches’ prophecy about Lyra.

    I will note that neither the kid (who was then nine or ten) nor I had any problem understanding the flow in the book (which was rather leisurely) but would have felt pretty lost seeing the film without that prep.

    The film is very pretty. Some of the performances are grand. And Nicole Kidman is eeevil.

  4. Seaboeon 10 Dec 2007 at 12:50 pm

    The Golden Compass and its sequel (I never bothered with the third book) are full of unmotivated, dislikeable cardboard characters. Many of them two dimensional.

    I have no intention of going to see a bad movie made from a book I not only disliked but thought was poorly written.


  5. L.N. Hammeron 10 Dec 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Sengrei: I’m reminded of Diana Wynne Jones’s comment that when she writes for adults, she has to explain so much more, because adults are no longer as used to having to figure things out, but children have to do it All The Time, because they’re still learning it all.


  6. Daniel Woodson 10 Dec 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Crikey, never mind the ghastly film, did anyone even like the BOOK? I feel like the only one, lol.

    As for the film itself, I agree completely with Kevin, and really I have little to add.

    To be blunt, the book makes sense. The film doesn’t. in the book, people don’t fall over themselves to follow Lyra for no reason – Iofur Raknison is suitably skeptical about Lyra in the book; Bolvangar is in the middle of nowhere for an actual reason; Lee Scorseby isn’t ridiculous; Lyra doesn’t fail to use the Alethiometer at opportune moments; the Gyptians aren’t magic omniscient superheroes…

    The list goes on.

    I agree with Madeleine that the film generally LOOKS nice, and I thought Nicole Kidman did reasonably well with the script she was given, but other than that… it’s pretty dismal. And they lopped off the ending of the book, which annoys me hugely.

    The worst thing is, this could’ve been a really good film. It’s like seeing somebody buy beautiful Steinway piano, and then watching them smash it to pieces with a sledgehammer.

  7. Lois Tiltonon 10 Dec 2007 at 6:22 pm

    The book was morally manipulative to the 9th degree.

    I strongly disliked it, and its no surprise to me that the movie only make it worse.

  8. Madeleine Robinson 10 Dec 2007 at 8:06 pm

    I think a lot of the problem is that it’s a damned big book, and leisurely in its pacing, where the movie charges through, plunking down setpieces with little connecting tissue. A number of Kevin’s issues are answered in the book, but (unlike the first couple of Harry Potter films, where Every Beloved Nanosecond Was On The Screen–to the film’s detriment) this movie just seems to want to charge on through to get to the end.

    By the way, Kevin: the actual running time of the film is one hour and 54 minutes. It just felt longer.

  9. Theremon 10 Dec 2007 at 9:56 pm

    I very much liked the book, and thought it made perfect sense. I have a feeling I’m not going to like the movie, though. Kevin’s description makes it obvious that the plot has gotten terribly muddled (btw, your summary is hilarious, Kevin), and I tend not to like CGI renderings of characters in movies — there’s always something _wrong_ about them. What discourages me the most, though, is the knowledge that the movie ends in a very different way than the book, which I found spine-tingling in its denial of the familiar happy ending.

    There’s some interesting backstory on the differences between the book and the movie in this week’s Entertainment Weekly. The director is very clear that he made some of the changes he did to avoid controversy around the first movie, with the hopes that it would do well enough to make sequels that are more faithful to the source material. Sadly, that might not have been the right strategy.

  10. Brendan Podgeron 11 Dec 2007 at 12:57 am

    Daniel, I really enjoyed “The Northern Lights” as the book was titled down in the antipodes. When thinking about films for kids I always remember what my mum(a Kindergarten teacher) said about Disney films and his ability to pace them. Every time the kids were just beginning to squirm something exciting would happen and they would be hooked again. This lends to the DWJ comment above. Kids down pay any attention to the exposition or make up the links between the action themselves.

    We don’t get the film in Australia until Boxing day, so I will have to wait until then before drawing my own conclusions.

  11. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 11 Dec 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Well, speaking as a former child, and as one who saw a whole bunch of Disney films, the Disney studios did have an appropriate clash of cymbals any time the action might start to lull, but there was always a pretty reasonable explanation of why it was happening. But I think Disney was wise enough to realize that while most children may be little Ritalin-deprived monsters, there are some kids who do pay attention to the exposition, and since your action needs lulls anyway, it doesn’t hurt to fill those with exposition that makes sense.

    It’s also sloppy editing at the very least to spend screen time with Lee Scorseby telling Lyra significantly that his airship is currently in hock and then the next thing we see, they’re flying away in it. I can fill in the blanks and assume that while Lyra was busy guilt-tripping an alcoholic bear, Sky Captain Wild Bill was somehow reobtaining his airship, but really, why bother?

    If you’re going to set up a line, you need a pay-off later. When Mrs. Coulter confides in Lyra “You mustn’t tell anyone, but the Bear King is desperate to have a demon of his own,” this is later paid off very well when Lyra meet the Bear King and this information proved rather useful. Of course, I was expecting Mrs. Coulter to have been setting Lyra up with that information, because no one that conniving lets state secrets slip “just because,” but I justified it to myself as either a fake-out, an actual tidbit of truth to gain Lyra’s confidence, or simply the most convenient place to put a crucial bit of exposition needed for later on in the movie.

    Of course the Bear King is so gormless Lyra could have taken the poisoned decanter from scene one and said, “And if you drink this magical elixir, you too will have your own demon!” and that would have solved the problem as well.

    Thinking of “clash of cymbals” type movies, I remember going to see Van Helsing with my sister and her kids. There was a whole lot of action there, but I remember the review given by my nepphew, who was seven at the time. After my sister asked apologetically, “Was that too scary?” my nepphew replied, “No, it wasn’t scary. It was just weird.”

    I think rather than expecting kids to fill in the gaps in a badly plotted movie, it’s more valid to say that children will pick up on clues and inferences that adults are too tired, lazy or distracted to pick up on.

    Also, and I should mention this as it’s germane to the subject, I went to see Beowulf last night with a friend of mine who used to work for Disney, and she was talking about the editing troubles with Hercules where the philosophy at the time was very sharp edits to appeal to a younger and younger demographic that wanted nonstop action, but she felt that the film had suffered for it with older audiences including older children and that was reflected in the box office.

  12. Brendan Podgeron 11 Dec 2007 at 5:12 pm

    As I said, I won’ be seeing the film until after Christmas, but from what you say, it does seem that some very odd decisions have been made for the film.

    In the book Lyra discovers that The Bear King wants a daemon from spying on the scholars near the beginning and Lee Scorseby is hired by the Gyptians who are heading off to rescue their children. Once that is done their involvement ends.

    I read somewhere that it also ends three chapters earlier than the book(a bit odd), but that worked in the LOTR films where they left the confrontation with Shelob until the third film.

  13. Charleson 11 Dec 2007 at 5:15 pm

    I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to add these books to my reading list. I hear mixed things about them. It’s disappointing to hear the movie probably won’t win me over.

    It’s sort of like Eragon. I can’t decide whether I want to bother to read them. The movie was okay, but the storyline was sort of like the first Star Wars movie retold in a Fantasy setting.

    On the other hand, I remind myself that it should pay to read what sells quite well in the Fantasy genre, even if it is just for curiosity’s sake.

    But, with so many excellent books already piled up to be read, I just can’t decide if either the Dark Materials or the Eragon books are worth it.

  14. Daniel Woodson 11 Dec 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Re. Brendan – they do indeed chop off the final scenes of the book, which annoys me hugely. Maybe it’s just because my copy was called ‘The Northern Lights’, too.

    I think Madeleine pretty much hit it on the head – the film is in such a hurry to get to the ending that it rushes through the rest of the story to get there. It does indeed feel longer than the 1hr 54, lol.

    Lastly, I’m not sure I agree with Lois about the book(s) being ‘morally manipulative’. Yes, the reader is under almost constant attack from moral dilemma after moral dilemma, but that doesn’t make the books manipulative. The ideas coming across were clear, but reading the books didn’t change my moral code in the slightest – sometimes I agreed with what Pullman was saying, and sometimes I didn’t, but I wasn’t somehow indoctrinated into his way of thinking.

    Just my thoughts :).

  15. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 11 Dec 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Well, speaking of “morally manipulative,” they also showed the trailer for Prince Caspian–if I can stomach Christian allegory, I can stomach a number of things, though I do hope they bob the lamb-into-lion “I have a name in your world too, but I may not say it” crap from the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader once they get around to it.

    But speaking of bobbing things, adapting things from the page to the stage or the screen, any number of things will get left behind, and often rightfully so. Ever notice how “The Dainty China Country” never makes it into almost any version of Oz? Tom Bombadil got cut from TLotR, Snape’s potion puzzle is left out of the first Harry Potter movie, etc. etc. If the end of The Golden Compass is bumped to later in the series, this isn’t a problem, so long as whatever plot it is you’re doing makes sense.

    For the record, I’ve always thought that Glinda the Pink-Dressed Baby-Voiced Airhead from the movie version of The Wizard of Oz is a big step down from Glinda the Red-Gowned Amazon Sorceress of the South or even the kindly grandmotherly Good Witch of the North as appearing in the book, though I can understand why for terms of space they bobbed the final quest and rolled the two characters into one.

  16. Daniel Woodson 11 Dec 2007 at 7:27 pm

    True, it’s often ok to leave things out, since plays / films have their own requirements to meet (i.e. time – there’s simply too much in LotR to include everything). The difference is, while Tom Bombadil is – though important in his own right – not critical to the LotR story, the ending they scrapped from The Northern Lights is the climax of the entire book. It’s the reason for the title.

    Assuming they make The Subtle Knife, they could theoretically start it with that missed Northern Lights scene (and, indeed, they’ll have to, if they plan on explaining how Will and Lyra meet), but it’d make for a really strange opening.

  17. Lois Tiltonon 11 Dec 2007 at 7:33 pm

    Daniel, just because you did not succumb to the moral manipulation doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, aimed at bit lower at the youthful audience.

  18. glenda larkeon 11 Dec 2007 at 10:44 pm

    Lois, children are very good at distinguishing fantasy from real life, much better in fact than adults, and in my experience are highly unlikely to be influenced by any “moral manipulation” in any work of fiction. I actually think there is much less moral manipulation in Pullman’s work than in Lewis’s, yet my reasonably intelligent kids read the Narnia books, enjoyed them, and didn’t have a clue that it was all Christian allegory and propaganda.

  19. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 12 Dec 2007 at 5:39 am

    Well I didn’t have a clue it was all Christian allegory and propaganda until the aforemention end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Aslan just about breaks the fourth wall:

    LUCY: Oh Aslan, shall we never see you again?

    ASLAN: No, you shall not. But I have a name in your world too.

    LUCY: Oh Aslan, what is it?

    ASLAN: I may not say.

    LUCY: Why not?

    ASLAN: Because…what, do I have to spell it out for you stupid little shits? It’s Jesus. J-E-S-U-S. There, happy now?

    Well, that’s not exactly how the scene ended, but I nearly threw the book across the room at that point, and only didn’t because C.S. Lewis’s head wasn’t on the other side. Everything in the previous two books clicked into place, especially the pointless waffling philosophical conversation with the dwarves in Prince Caspian and the business with Aslan dying in the first book only to be conveniently resurrected.

    And don’t get me started on The Last Battle. The Christian allegory completely tramples the plot in that book and makes it easily the worst of the series.

  20. glenda larkeon 12 Dec 2007 at 9:26 am

    I guess my kids were a bit more dense, Kevin. Which might stem from the fact that they weren’t brought up as Christians but as Muslims (none of us having any say in the matter – by law – in this country, as their religious affiliation and the compulsory religious classes in school are determined by law because of their race). My point being, that the books didn’t have any impact on them in a religious sense and certainly didn’t amount to the moral manipulation that Lewis might have intended.

    Conversely, I doubt very much if any kid is going to be manipulated away from a religious belief by reading Pullman. At least not until they hit 15 or so and are beginning to work things out for themselves anyway. Kids don’t read fantasy that way. They just enjoy a good story!

  21. Madeleine Robinson 12 Dec 2007 at 11:57 am

    I was raised with No Visible Means of Religious Support, and despite being pretty well read for a kid, I completely skimmed over the religious not-very-subtext in the Narnia books. I cried at the end of The Last Battle because it was the end of the series and I would never have any more new Narnia. (Okay, I was nine, and easily moved.) I suspect that, if I had been raised as a member of an overtly Christian faith, I might have picked up on the “I have another name” thing–I merely remember thinking “And that name is? Huh? Oh, well.”

    As for the Pullman books, my daughter and I have gotten into some interesting conversations about the theology therein, but mostly it’s very concrete. “I mean, how do you kill God? He’s God.”

  22. Laurieon 12 Dec 2007 at 3:04 pm

    I remember rolling my eyes at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as well, and I was pretty young. Nothing like sneakin’ a little Jesus up on an unsuspecting youngster.

    Maybe when I said above that The Golden Compass didn’t make sense, I should have said that the motivations of the characters rang hollow. Those characters taking the actions they took for the alleged reasons they took them did not add up in my brain.

    I think this is often the case in a poorly written allegory. The author treats the story as though you already know it – he just has to fill in some blanks, replace some names, and presto! Instant story. So, while it might be clear as day to him, to me it’s mostly mud.

    The ‘wink wink nudge nudge, say no more’ treatment in fiction drives me batty. Often after I have no idea what a book was trying to say to me when it was obviously trying to shove something down my throat, someone will clue me in that this is the author’s thinly veiled discussion of . And I think to myself, well, gee, too bad it sucked. If you’re doing it right, I think the average reader will not realize he’s being preached at, and maybe he’ll come to make those associations on his own. Of course, maybe he won’t but he’ll still think it’s a great story. Heck, if you’re really lucky, generations of hapless students will be subjected to your writing and forced to create essays about what it means. 😉

  23. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 12 Dec 2007 at 3:06 pm

    I was raised with the No Visible Means of Religious Support thing too, my parents the two opposite poles of agnostic, my dad an “I don’t know” agnostic and my mother an “I don’t care agnostic.” However, there were lots of kids I went to school with who were from the obnoxious “convert the heathen” varieties of Christianity and by the time I was in second grade I was known as “Kevin the Athiest” because I not only was happy to say I did not believe in God, but would happily debate anyone on the subject. And the kids very often came at with with prefab arguments which were too articulate to have originated in their brains or to have easily fit in their mouths.

    So by the time I read Narnia, I’d been subject to enough obnoxious Christian waffle that I was a bit better at spotting it. In retrospect, I think I can blame a lot more of it on Lewis, since when I was in high school a friend lent me his Mere Christianity, which wasn’t so much useful for explaining current Christian thinking as it was a field guide to popular Christian proselytizing strategies.

    I think also there’s a matter of “authorial bent” which is something I think you’re born with and I was already looking at stories to see what made them tick. So spotting the Christian underpinnings in Lewis was probably a bit easier for me.

  24. Constance Ashon 12 Dec 2007 at 4:14 pm

    I liked the books, though I liked the first 2 more than the 3rd, and I liked the first one best. The reason for that is in the 2nd book the boy hero shows up and it then becomes HIS story, not Lyra’s.

    I thought the actual end of the third book to be marvelously satisfying in terms of what the ‘rules’ of high fantasy, that the Heroes lose something large and personal in their course of saving the world.

    If it matters, I was brought up in a very religious Lutheran household in a very religious community and region. I knew a lot about other religions besides my own, as our church, at least at the time, still held strongly to the command that educated people were godly people and the more you understood others’ religions the more you understood and adhered to your own.

    Love, C.

  25. Brendan Podgeron 12 Dec 2007 at 4:29 pm

    I remember my grade 6 teacher completely ruining the Narnia books for me when she told me of th Christian aspects. I hadn’t twigged u to that point and the next time I read them, it was oh no, there and there and there too!

    Even with the last chapter Voyage of the Dawn Treader was still my favourite followed closely by The Silver Chair. Prince Caspian and The Last Battle rank at the bottom.

  26. Lois Tiltonon 12 Dec 2007 at 5:42 pm

    I was brought up in the same religion being promoted by the Narnia books, and while I recognized the heavy-handed allegory, I skipped over it to find more fantasy.

    But I think that religious allegory and moral manipulation are not the same thing, nor does moral manipulation necessarily involve fantasy and the difference between it and reality.

    In order to recognize the religious allegory, the reader has to have some familiarity with the religion being allegorized. But any reader is capable of seeing when the author has stacked the moral deck.

  27. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 12 Dec 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Well, sometimes you can have both.

    A friend explained why he detested The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: It’s a conversion story. Eustace starts the book as an athiest as well as an utter prat and by the end of the book, he’s become a Christian (or at least an Aslanist, but same thing) and a decent kid. Of course you wouldn’t have a story without that, but there’s the idea that you need to get religion in order to have a functioning moral compass, or even to get one installed.

    Of course the “islands of adventure” fun is pretty damn engaging, so I rather liked it from that point, at least for the portions when Aslan was off stage.

  28. Lois Tiltonon 12 Dec 2007 at 7:52 pm

    They are often bundled together, yes.

    A package deal.

  29. glenda larkeon 13 Dec 2007 at 5:08 am

    Hmm. I wonder what you mean by “moral manipulation”. Immoral manipulation?

    I read Radclyffe Hall’s “Well of Loneliness” at a very young age, back in the 50’s when it was perfectly possible to get to 10 or 11 and have no idea that lesbians existed. I came away with a feeling of deep sympathy for the characters, and therefore for anyone who’s sexuality was not the norm at a time when that was certainly not fashionable. I suppose there are certain groups of people who might consider I had been manipulated by an immoral author.

    My point: when an author has an agenda he feels passionate about, yet writes a good story, should we consider the work to be morally manipulative? Bad writing? How was Pullman’s work manipulative?

  30. Daniel Woodson 13 Dec 2007 at 10:49 am

    To Lois (sorry this is a bit late): fair point, though I was 14 when I first read them, so I was still quite young myself. Nevertheless, I’m with Glenda on this one. If the books are ‘morally manipulative’ because they clearly show who is meant to be good, bad, and why, then you could claim that most (if not all) stories are morally manipulative.

    I suppose the question is, do you think that Pullman deliberately set out to force his ideas on people, or is a possible change in thinking simply the result of reading a story like his? I’m inlined to think that it’s the latter, and since ‘having your mind changed’ is something we risk every day, I don’t see it as a problem.


    I can’t comment on the Naria books, beacause I’ve only read The Magician’s Nephew (the rest are still on my shelf, waiting to be gotten round to).

  31. Brendan Podgeron 13 Dec 2007 at 4:26 pm

    One of the problems with prostletising in books, is that every aspect starts being analyzed in that context. Kevin’s example of Eustace I think fits that criteria. In children’s fiction having a character disbelieve or oppose the others at least initially is a well worn plot device, Enid Blyton used it in “Folk of the Faraway Tree” and no one is accusing her of religious connotations.

    I was earlier about to point out the part in Prince Caspian where Lucy talks to Aslan about what she should have done when she first saw him even though others didn’t. Now there is a clear message there, but “Acting on your beliefs in spite of condemnation” while being able to viewed in a Christian context, I think is more of a universal truism.

    If you want to point the finger at something look at what happens to Susan in The Last Battle, where she doesn’t go to Heaven because she stopped believing.

  32. Constance Ashon 13 Dec 2007 at 8:48 pm

    To this day I’ve never read a Narnia, and I never will.

    Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra were way more than I could stand as it was.

    I even argue with his lit criticism, his big study, Allegory of Love, the big study of Courtly Love. These three books make clear that Lewis believed that women / Woman is the path via which evil entered the world.

    Love, C.

  33. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Dec 2007 at 11:09 pm

    Well, my personal problems with the morality of the whole business started with Edmund in book I: As fate set things up, he encountered the White Witch rather than Mr. Tumnus and bought everything she said, rather than buying everything Mr. Tumnus said, and then there’s the bit of him being condemned as a traitor for deciding to side with the nice lady with the Turkish delight rather than the French underground talking beavers. And Father Christmas doesn’t bring him any presents, even though the presents in this case happen to be magic weapons and you’d think that Father Christmas might be a little less didactic in his Naughty and Nice lists if he’s expanded “delivering toys” to “arms running.” Or give Edmund a lump-of-coal RPG.

    I’m of the opinion that being a traitor takes more than bad luck and poor judgement, and had the White Witch turned out to be not-as-evil-as-billed, well then, what?

    The business with Susan was also more than a bit creepy and another reason I disliked The Last Battle.

    And Aslan turning the boys into pigs in a throwaway scene in Prince Caspian was also a case of him being a jerk. The whole “I am not a tame lion” speech–No, Aslan, you’re not tame. You’re preachy and self righteous and occasionally psychotic. Definitely not tame.

  34. Brendan Podgeron 16 Dec 2007 at 1:58 am

    My take on Edmond missing out on a present was because he wasn’t there. I can’t imagine FC popping over to the witch’s castle to deliver him something, he would be just asking to be turned into a statue. I do agree about the way he was treated after falling for the Turkish delight especially since it was addictive and he was jonesing for another hit. But in Lewis’s defense, Lucy had told the whole story of Mr Tumnus, including his confession as failed agent to the witch, so Edmond wasn’t going into the situation blind.

    I think CS Lewis knew that a lot of people would turn away from the books once they figured our the underlying messages since he writes in the dedication to his Goddaughter

    “You are already to old for fairy tales… But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from the shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it”

    I can see the propaganda for what it is, ignore it, and devour the books for the things that caught my imagination before the initial disillusionment set in.

  35. Nikki Jewellon 16 Dec 2007 at 2:58 am

    From what I’ve read about Philip Pullman (quite a lot!) he knew exactly what he was doing and what he was trying to say in the Dark Materials books. It’s a retelling of Paradise Lost from a different perspective, with a sort of William Blakeian view of religion and freedom.

    Pullman doesn’t make any attempt to hide it or conceal it – and don’t all stories have a theme, something to say that is the whole purpose of a story? Surely all stories are morally manipulative? And it seems to me that if any attempt to discuss big ideas rationally in a story (rather than sneaking them in) is morally manipulative, than a lot of stories would be very dull indeed, sanitised and simplified and boring.

    I don’t understand how the Dark Materials are more morally manipulative than, say, Harry Potter. But maybe I’m misunderstanding what people are meaning by that.

    I haven’t seen the film, but the trailer has me screaming and hiding my head under the bedcovers. There was a review in the English Observer last Sunday which also made the Oliver cast point. The reviewer made it clear he hadn’t read the books and therefore judged the series on the film, misunderstanding quite a few essentials because of it.

    Regarding Narnia, I didn’t get the religious bits for ages. I could read them as a child, but as an adult I find them difficult now, particularly the Last Battle, which was always my favourite as a child. The train crash explanation had me throwing the book out of the window in a blind fit of rage.

  36. Brendan Podgeron 16 Dec 2007 at 6:30 am

    I don’t know why but people seem to get hot under the collar when it is religious manipulation that is in play. Do we like George Orwell any less because his stories are often anti-totalitarianism? I threw 1984 across the room when I finished it, but that was because it so powerfully affected me; not in disgust at the propaganda.

    If we look only at children’s literature, do we denigrate Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories for their messages? Wilde is reported to have written “The Happy Prince” and other tales as a reaction against the saccharine stories being told to Victorian children. They were to some extent supposed to be a parody of other offerings, yet they remain the most powerful, and memorable of any written at the time.

    Are Pullman’s or Lewis’s works badly written? While I found the second & third Pullman books to loose focus a bit and as I have stated above, I personally didn’t like a couple of the Narnia books(that others have said were their favourites), both have been inconstant publication for long enough to reach the conclusion that they are good books. Perhaps it is because they are so well written we feel betrayed when we realise the trick.

  37. […] wanted a good movie. Entertainment Weekly panned it, The New York Post savaged it, Bloggers were not much kinder, even Reuters jumped on. Granted, bad reviews can help a good film or leave a bad film with record […]

  38. Teresa Edgertonon 31 Dec 2007 at 7:22 pm

    I enjoyed your review of the movie, Kevin. It’s been so long since I read the book, there were a few places where I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but for the most part it jogged my memory just enough so that I never quite became lost. It did leave me wondering what kind of impression it would make on someone unfamiliar with the book, especially when two groups of people left the theater long before it was over. Were they bored or confused? Going by your reaction it looks like they might have been both.

    The book was a disappointment, but I decided to see the movie on the strength of the trailer because it looked like it would have all the visual elements I love, and in that respect I was entirely satisfied.

    And I read the book for similar reasons: because it looked like it had many, many story elements I would love. I didn’t know, then, that Pullman was pushing any philosophy or point of view, and it surprised me how little I liked the book, and how detached I felt from the characters and the action.
    It just seemed sort of … empty. Later, when I knew more about Pullman’s ideas, I understood better what was missing. Where I had been looking for the heart of the story there was only an agenda.

    I have to disagree with those who say children can’t be manipulated (morally or otherwise) by the things they read. The whole time they’re in school they have it dinned into their little heads that every time they read something they are supposed to learn something. If you look at their school assignments and their book reports this comes through very clearly.

  39. glenda larkeon 02 Jan 2008 at 3:50 am

    Teresa, I still very much doubt that a child who already has been actively taught one set of religious or moral beliefs is going to be “manipulated” away from it by a book, or even a film, at least not until they are in their teens which is when they ready start to questioning anything.

    I have been, with my husband, to see the film since I wrote my first comments above, and he was struck quite forcibly by the agenda/philosophy of the Magisterium as shown on the screen, and came out muttering that they were “just like people here” (and it wasn’t a compliment!). And remember he was talking about a country that is over 50% Islamic and very authoritarian in outlook – “sit down and shut up; we’ll teach you what to think and believe.” My husband has never had contact with Christianity or Christian doctrine – of any type – at any meaningful level.

    I thought his reaction, then, was exceedingly interesting.

  40. Teresa Edgertonon 03 Jan 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Well, and if the manipulation only works on children who are already unsure of what they believe, is the practice any more admirable?

    Sometimes it’s difficult to trace the things that influenced our thinking when we were young and open to suggestion. Things get internalized, pretty soon they’re part of our mental machinery. I certainly don’t think that one set of books is going to revolutionize the thinking of a child who does a lot of reading, but there are children who don’t read much and I have seen how much the things that they do read can impress them.

    I know that a lot of people have this idea that children are these wise little souls who are difficult to fool. If that were true, parents would have a lot less to worry about, and predators would have a very hard time finding victims. I’ve worked a little with children in the schools, besides being the mother of four, and in my opinion children are eager little sponges, very willing to soak up the influences around them, particularly when those influences are attractively packaged. And what could be more attractive to an imaginative child than a fantasy novel?

    I don’t remember enough from my reading of The Golden Compass to say whether Lois is right that Pullman’s books specifically are morally manipulative. (Although I have usually, in the past, found Lois’s opinions on things to be sound.) As I said before, my strongest impression of the book was that something was missing, something I thought would move me, that would draw me in. I’m simply arguing the principle that children can be and often are influenced by the books that they read.

    It’s always interested me that when the author’s influence is supposed to be a good one, so many people are eager to get on board. (A little boy with cancer says that reading about Harry Potter’s woes and his ability to survive them has given him hope. General kudos for J. K. Rowling.) But when the influence is supposed to be bad there is general scoffing and the idea that someone is underestimating the intelligence of young readers. (Forget the dangerous message that the same author is sending out to abused children.) I’m simply saying that it can go both ways.

  41. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 03 Jan 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Hmm, well, my personal opinion is that children are very much like the adults they’ll grow up to be, not all one thing or another but a very large mixed bag. The whole “Children will love this” “Children will hate this” “Children will be fooled by this” “Children will be wise to this” is assuming all children are alike, which they’re not.

    C.S. Lewis did a lot to sour me on the idea of organized religion in general and Christianity in particular at a very young age, so his religion-peddling backfired in my case. Of course, I’d been previously soured to it by picking up a children’s religious pamphlet on my neighbor’s kitchen table which had various things to say about children who didn’t believe in God, which certainly applied to me. The first was “Children who don’t believe in God are unhappy” and showed a little girl crying. Now, I was unhappy sometimes, so I thought this could apply to me, and what is perfect happiness anyway? I was perfectly willing to entertain the possiblity that kids who believed in God were happier than me. But the next page in the pamphlet stopped me cold: “Children who don’t believe in God don’t do well in school.”

    I smelled bullshit. Great heaping piles of it, and I had the perfect scores on my spelling and math tests to prove it. So knowing that the statement was false, the only question was whether the people who wrote the pamphlet were liars or idiots, and I strongly suspected the former. So I asked my neighbor which it was, and whether she thought it was a good thing to put lies in a pamphlet to fool stupid children into believing in God. Or whether, more charitably, the people who wrote it were just stupid, so why should anyone believe them either?

    I’m not certain what my neighbor’s response was but I think it was taking the pamphlet, actually reading what I was pointing out, and saying that she would discuss this with her pastor.

    But this was my first encounter with religious people who lie to children because they think the kids are too dumb to catch on and that kids are unable to compare notes.

    As for Pullman, peddling atheism strikes me as just as creepy as peddling Christianity, but mostly I think his Magisterium would make a more interesting villain if it had a bit more internal politics and infighting, rather than doing every creepy act with ruthless lockstep precision.

  42. Nikki Jewellon 04 Jan 2008 at 3:30 am

    Part of the structure of the second and third books show the infighting and politics of the Magisterium. The outcome of the whole trilogy relies on infighting within it.

    I know you’re only referring to the first book here, and I’m guessing that the film has simplified things, too. Makes me more determined not to spend money on going to see it!

  43. Edwardon 09 Jan 2008 at 3:08 pm

    I read red earth pouring rain and that could have had about 200 pages shaved off of it. Chandra needs to find a good editor.

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