I am receiving many email requests for information on the upcoming release of the book-into-film The Golden Compass. The novel on which the film is based is part of a trilogy by Phillip Pullman called “His Dark Materials”, said to come from a line in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The first volume was originally titled Northern Lights in the UK when it was published in 1995.
According to some sources, about two months ago the Catholic League began a campaign to boycott the film. Although I have not seen the organization's materials, I understand a kit was sent to all the Catholic schools in the U.S. The CL does not seem to be taking issue with the film itself, but that the film will make young people want to read the books, which the CL finds anti-Catholic. But again, I have not seen the materials.
To prepare for the film’s release, I am currently reading The Golden Compass, and the rest of the trilogy (The Subtle Knife, 1997 and The Amber Spyglass, 2000). New Line Cinema has said that if the first film does well, then they will make the others.
As a proponent of media mindfulness (media literacy within the faith community), I suggest that it is more useful to enter into communication and conversation about the books and the issues the books and movie may raise rather than to “just say no.” If parents do not wish their children to see the film, they would do well to explain "why" based on their own reading and research. Otherwise, when the parents or caregivers are not looking, kids will find a way to see the film, if not in December when it is released, then when it comes out on DVD - and kids may be unprepared to question the film in ways that can help them view more deeply.
One Catholic mother I know listened to The Golden Compass on CD with her family and then theytalked about it. My guess is that she and her family will go and see the film because their practice as parents has always been to talk with their children about the movies they see – even difficult films when some of their older children were teenagers. Education and faith formation is more important to them than control. By just saying "no" the feeling that they are in control may make some parents feel better but doesn’t really inform a child (except that it teaches something about power and how it is administered especially to kids who are old enough to care or want to see the film.)
Children don’t see what adults see, and vice versa; children don’t have the faith formation or level of religious education yet to be able to judge subtle (or not so subtle) attacks on the power of an institution like the Catholic Church, which is what has been said about the novel. Children won’t “get” what parents or adults are upset about. This means that some serious faith formation/catechesis (including Church history) needs to take place for adults so they can explain the “why” of their decision about the film; that their reasons be set within a frame of reference that young people may understand, whether or not parents decide to let their children see the film.
It is a very good habit to question films with children and young people (and even our own more mature viewing selections and practices.) One of my favorite sayings is: "Control is for the moment; communication lasts a lifetime."
Also, audiences young and old may or may not interpret the film in ways that some people fear. This is why talking about the book, film, and issues, with respect for the opinions of children and young people, is required.
This is my advice at this point: parents, read the book. Then when the film is reviewed, seek information for guidance and make an informed decision. Remember, your kids are going to see this film anyway, especially if they are forbidden to, if not today, then tomorrow. Their peers will see it; the film will influence young people regardless of what anyone says - and it may or may not be a negative influence. You, as parents and caregivers, are their best hope for understanding the film and for negotiating and making meaning from it.
I also wonder about all the thousands of young people who have already read the trilogy; wouldn't this be a good occasion to talk to them about what the books meant to them and what they mean to adults? These readers are probably going to be the first ones in line at theaters to see the film (and if it does not live up to their expectations, word of mouth will take care of the film without much ado on anyone's part.)
One commentator said that the film has been stripped of its religious references and now attacks the power of all big organizations and institutions. I don’t think it is ever a mistake to question those who hold power that touches peoples' lives. St. Thomas Aquinas, a good patron of critical thinking (an attitude of inquiry), was never afraid of any question. And neither should we be afraid.
The media mindful persons asks: What’s going on? What’s the story? What’s really going on? Why was the film made? Who profits? Who loses, and why? What difference does the film (TVprogram, book, video game) make to me, to others? What difference can I make? In other words, does the story inspire me to do something? Does it compel me to think about others and want to live my Christian life in more concrete ways? How? Why? Why not? What is the movie about? There may be valid disagreement about what the film means, but the only way we will know for sure is by seeing the film. Yes, we can trust others’ opinions, and that is fine, as long as we know why we choose to go with someone else’s view rather than trusting our own critical (not negative but questioning) abilities. But let us recall that the more long-lasting, positive approach and attitude is to respond rather than to react to films and other media.
Your children will thank you for your thoughtful response because you will be communicating relevant life skills and enduring communication values that they will one day use with their own children.
A colleague mentioned to me that The Golden Compass film will probably end up being a high concept fantasy film. We shall see.
P.S. I never pronounce myself on a film until I have seen it. And yes, a good movie (good = well made, interesting, a well-told story) can send anyone to seek out the book. Parents who are active in the lives of their children will have the wisdom to know how to work with their young people regarding this film/book and others that will inevitably come our way.