You've found Father McKenzie. But are you really looking for Eleanor Rigby?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"... When I Fight Authority, Authority Always Wins..."

I predicted something like this (while lurking at Mark Shea's weblog) months ago -- that the film version of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy would radically tone down the anti-religious preaching of the books. There are, it seems, no atheists in box offices:

`The Hollywood adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, in which two children do battle with an evil, all-powerful church, is being rewritten to remove anti-religious overtones. Chris Weitz, the director, has horrified fans by announcing that references to the church are likely to be banished in his film. Meanwhile the “Authority”, the weak God figure, will become “any arbitrary establishment that curtails the freedom of the individual”. The studio wants alterations because of fears of a backlash from the Christian Right in the United States. The changes are being made with the support of Pullman, who told The Times last year that he received “a large amount” for the rights...'

-- Sam Coates, "God is cut from film of Dark Materials", The Times (8 December 2004)

Think of it as payback for the de-deification of CS Lewis in Shadowlands. (Rumours that God was removed from the script as the result of a threatened ACLU lawsuit cannot be confirmed.)

You can hardly blame Mr Pullman for choosing the better part of valour. It's not as if attracting the anger of fundamentalist and traditionalist Christians (although ISTM that the God depicted in Dark Materials owes more inter-testamental Judaism than to Christianity) would result in a mere boycott of cinemas and loss of dollars. Instead, it could put PP's very life in danger. Who can forget the horror when Martin Scorsese was stabbed to death in 1989 for his perceived "blasphemy" in directing The Last Temptation of Christ? Or the time Andres Serrano was burned at the stake in 1997 for submerging a crucifix in urine? I won't even begin to discuss the atrocities that were inflicted on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice by crazed vicars -- atrocities described by the then Archbishop of Canterbury as "grievous, but regrettably necessary for the cleansing of all who shall profane the holy name of Jehovah".

I'm uncertain how far film-makers can simply switch villains without thereby "compromising the integrity of" (wonderful phrase, that) their material. Consider The Sum of All Fears, book versus film. Or compare the 2004 Manchurian Candidate with the 1962 original. Change the villains from Chinese Communists to global capitalists and you immediately reverse the film's message -- from "Let's have a chuckle at these paranoid 1960s Cold Warriors spotting fantastical Red plots in every corner" to "Don't you realise that the big corporations can control our minds through implanted chips?"

Now that it's become theologically kosher for good Christians to go see the Dark Materials movies, I want to open debate over the casting thereof. Foremost: who shall play Mrs Coulter? (Not to be confused with Miss Coulter -- one is beautiful yet utterly compassionless, the other...). Pullman himself has nominated Nicole Kidman, but I cast my vote for Marina Sirtis. Like Mrs C, Marina combines Mediterranean background with a refined British accent; she fits the books' physical description; and, as Star Trek: Nemesis has shown, she can alternate her normal sweetness and innocence with bloodcurdling sadism when the script requires.

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