Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

His (Substantially Less) Dark Materials

Earlier this afternoon (indeed, in the most recent post) I mentioned the concern that the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would ditch the book's Christian core (either to appeal to a wider commercial audience - an argument that the runaway success of The Passion deflated somewhat - or because the wouldn't feel comfortable making a work that aggressively propagandizes for Christianity).

It probably behooves me, therefore, to mention that virtually the identical situation exists with regard to the anti-Narnia, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It seems* producers of the film adaptations have decided to ditch the anti-religious message of the books. The villain, The Authority, will no longer be God; instead it will be "a representation of 'any arbitrary establishment that curtails the freedom of the individual'".

Now, I've never read the His Dark Materials series. As I've said, contemporary kid-lit leaves me cold. And young-adult fiction in general, truth to tell, and fantasy and science fiction. If you promise not to be scandalized, I'll confess that I quit on Narnia around the time the Dawn Treader approached the End of the World. (And remember, that used to be the third book in the series. Somehow they've been reordered, and it's become the fifth.) Other than Lord of the Rings, fantasy novels never interested me. Some of the stuff that Bradbury or Asimov writes is pretty good, but a lot of even the classic stuff is pretty lame. Let alone contemporary stuff, like TekWar. You'd have to threaten to kill my family to get me to read TekWar. I just think that when people get to be able to read at an adult level they should be reading adult fiction; I can't fathom why anyone who could be reading Frankenstein or Gulliver's Travels would opt instead to read Harry Potter.

Anyway, the point is: I don't have a lot personally invested in whether His Dark Materials is or is not faithfully adapted. On one hand, it seems like an extraordinarily silly idea. Why adapt the series if you're going to rip the heart out? This seems particularly true when the work (like Narnia and - I assume - His Dark Materials) is explicitly polemical. On the other hand, people don't make movies, particularly big-budget epics, for their health. They do it to make money. And it's not crazy to think that a country that made a huge success of "The Passion" might not flock to a movie with a "God is your enemy" subtext. On the other other hand (or am I back on the first hand?) it sounds like unless they change the plot pretty dramatically the subtext - that The Authority is a cipher for God - will be pretty clear. Does anyone really think they'll avoid boycotts and controversy simply by not making the connection explicit? All they've done is piss off Pullman fans and atheists, without likely pleasing any Bible Belt types.

So, final verdict: the producers of His Dark Materials learned too well the obvious lesson of The Passion (that there's a big market for orthodox Christian movies) and not well enough the more subtle one (that audiences are drawn to movies that don't pull punches and have an authentic vision). The pre-Passion conventional wisdom was that a movie entirely in Aramaic and Latin that depicted the suffering and death of Jesus in excruciating detail would surely flop, that Gibson was throwing away a huge chunk of his money. But Mel pressed on and made the movie he wanted to make, and people responded to that. If Mel had taken the safe route and made Just Another Jesus Movie, a standard Greatest Story Ever Told number about a gentle teacher with a message of peace and brotherhood, does anyone really think it would have been a runaway hit? Now, I don't know if there's a market out there for a movie about how God is a malicious tyrant. But I suspect you could drum up a pretty decent crowd off of the controversy. (Heck, I'd go.) At least, a bigger crowd than you could get with a generic movie about dimension-hopping British schoolchildren.

On an only vaguely related point: I'm actually a distant civil relation of Chris Weitz, the producer who just stepped down from the project (but will stay on as a writer). He is the son by a subsequent marriage of the husband by a previous marriage of my stepmother's mother. (You may want to get a pen and paper.) We met, briefly, years ago, at a wedding. I'm not a big fan of his movies, which include the recently released In Good Company, although Antz, which he co-wrote with his brother, is somewhat amusing. I mention this for no other reason than to name-drop and brag, which, this being my blog, I can do as often as I please.

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