Just how dark is Pullman's His Dark Materials?

A pre-review of an upcoming, controversial movie.

New Line Cinema

Yes, this is off-topic, but I also think it's important.

The big furor of late is that Hollywood is soon to release The Golden Compass, the first movie made from Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Pullman, an avowed atheist, decided to write the anti-Narnia children's series, killing off god and the church along the way. Church-going parents have been flooding email in-boxes with warnings not to see the movie ever since word got out that a movie would be made.

Apparently, these people have not read the books or have a tenuous grasp on their faith. I think it's been roughly 34 years since I missed a day of church (I'm 34) and consider myself a devoutly religious (and spiritual, since some persist in making a distinction) person. I loved the books and expect the movie to be excellent.

Indeed, my one concern with the movie is how much the anti-religious aspect has been toned down to appeal to mainstream audiences. It is Pullman's questioning of faith in organized religion that I found so refreshing and uplifting of my own faith.

Don't get me wrong. When I read the three novels that comprise His Dark Materials to my nine-year old daughter, I had some moments of discomfort. It was very clear from early on that Pullman was going to have Lyra and Will re-enact the Adam and Eve story, but with the sexual connotations common to Catholic theology but not to mine. I didn't really want my underage daughter reading about two teens finding salvation in premarital, underage sex.

But Pullman doesn't go there (barely :-) and my daughter and I loved reading the books together. As to faith, we spent hundreds of pages discussing Pullman's view of religion and were able to shrug off his pulverization of a straw man (a broken man - a cracked polystyrene man) religion that we didn't share. Indeed, I doubt Pullman's atheism would reflect the true beliefs of many people on this planet. It turned out to be an intellectually and spiritually satisfying series to read, instead of the opposite.

For those worried about seeing the movie, I'd recommend that you engage the movie rather than passively consume the movie. Despite Chris Weitz's (the director) dumbing down of Pullman's meatier themes, the breathtaking originality and creativity of Pullman's thinking will hopefully shine through on the screen. If only a fraction of his intelligence is captured in the movies, they will be a rich feast indeed.

Is His Dark Materials light and airy? No. But it's also not dark and dreary. It is a series that each of my four children will read, and I with them. Several times.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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