The Golden Compass and the Golden Rule, by John Ostrander
Well, the film adaptation of the novel The Golden Compass hasn’t even opened yet and the Christian right-wing is already foaming at the mouth about it. The book is the first in a children’s fantasy trilogy called His Dark Materials by British author Phillip Pullman. Pullman is an agnostic/atheist (depending on the article that you read) and has said he is promoting his views through books to children, much as C.S. Lewis did promoting Christianity with The Chronicles of Narnia.
You’ve probably already seen the previews and commercials for The Golden Compass at the movies or on the TV. It’s got Nicole Kidman and a pretty cool looking armored polar bear (which may disturb Stephen Colbert even more than the atheist slant – assuming the writer’s strike ends in a timely fashion for him to comment on it). It’s also got Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, upset. That’s another point in its favor, insofar as I’m concerned, since I really dislike Donohue.
A note or two about the League and Donohue. The League’s full name is The Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights. From their own website: “Founded in 1973 by the late Father Virgil C. Blum, S.J., the Catholic League defends the right of Catholics – lay and clergy alike – to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination.” The League’s office is located in the headquarters of the New York archdiocese. Donohue is its main and some say virtually only employee. The site claims "The league wishes to be neither left nor right, liberal or conservative, revolutionary or reactionary.” Donohue, however, is an adjunct scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation and his frequently bombastic statements link him with the blowhards on the Right.
A quick run of some of those statements. Thinks of them as Donohue’s Greatest Hits. On Jews: “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.” (Scarborough Country, MSNBC, 12/8/04) On gays: “The gay community has yet to apologize to straight people for all the damage that they have done – for contaminating the blood supply in New York City and around the country. It seems to me that gay people in this country should apologize to the rest of the people.” (Scarborough Country, MSNBC, 4/11/05) On The Today Show on 10/13/05 he insisted that the problem in the Church of priests abusing children was "a homosexual scandal, not a pedophilia scandal." On Iraq: “The Pope has never declared this war to be an unjust war.” (Hardball with Chris Matthews 10/21/04) Actually, John Paul II did say that “a U.S. led war against Iraq without United Nations’ approval would be unjust and illegal.” That’s what we got and the Pope said this on 3/14/03, more than a year earlier. So Mr. Donohue forgot it, never heard it, or was lying.
I don’t think Donohue is a stupid man; far from it. I think it’s possible he thinks the rest of us are stupid. Or that we have no memory. There’s frequent evidence for that.
Donohue’s stated concern is that the movie of The Golden Compass has watered down the book and innocent Christian families might see it and think the books are alright (since the mainstream media can’t be trusted to get the true story out) and buy them for the children who will then be exposed to anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-God screeds which will warp their tiny minds.
The children. Won’t somebody please think of the children.
It’s not the Catholic/Christian kids Donohue and his ilk are worried about – it’s any kid. It’s your kid, if you have kids. Adults, too. That’s the underlying and unspoken issue. No, I’m not exaggerating. I was raised Roman Catholic, back when the Legion of Decency posted ratings of movies and RCs were supposed to base what they saw or permitted their children to see on that list. So was Donohue.
This is part of the Legion’s pledge as it first appeared in 1933. See if it sounds like anyone today.
I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. … Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.
Sounds like Bill Donohue to me. There’s talk of forming a boycott, as there was when The Last Temptation of Christ first rolled out. Anyone remember that? Movie theaters showing the film were targeted and protestors against the film picketed, none of whom had actually seen the film but, by gum, someone told them it was blasphemy and that was good enough for them. Good little soldiers for the Church Militant. Donohue’s Catholic League was one of the principle instigators of the protests.
My late wife Kim Yale went to see the film at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, partially drawn by the spectacle of the protestors and to make her own statement by going to see it. (I, as usual, had deadlines and wasn’t into the film.) She experienced first hand the jeers and insults and fanatical implorings of some of those picketing the film. She told me all about it later. She had fun, waving and blowing kisses at the protestors and, when she could, debating them while she waited in line.
If you turned around and went the other way – denounced and picketed a film for being too PRO-Church and PRO-faith, these same protestors would be outraged. You would be attacking the Church, you would be attacking their Faith, you would be attacking them and your act of protest would be denounced, probably by Bill Donohue. And yet those films also will shape/mold/warp young minds.
I myself was so heavily influenced by Going My Way (the TV show with Gene Kelly and Leo G. Carroll, not the movie with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald) that I entered the Diocesan seminary for my freshman year in high school. I left after discovering I didn’t so much wanted to be a priest as I wanted to be Gene Kelly. Also, I discovered girls and dating was verboten at the seminary. End of vocation.
Donohue’s gripe about The Golden Compass can also be made about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The movie could cause children to read the books and they would then be exposed to the underlying messages. In C.S. Lewis’ case, he was writing a Christian – a Roman Catholic – allegory meant to influence children. Pullman has said His Dark Materials were written as a response to Narnia. He didn’t just picket the Narnia film or the Narnia publishers; he wrote a response. That seems to me to be an altogether sane, civilized and responsible act. He wants his side heard. He did the same thing that C.S. Lewis did. Why should that be okay for Lewis but not for Pullman?
The issue here is not that stories are being told with the intent to shape young minds. That’s one of the reasons we tell stories to children. I think that children, even more than adults, use stories to explain this very confusing world into which they have been thrust and how to deal with it. Stories enter into the very core of our being and the stories we most love help shape us into who we are. So, yes, the issue becomes what stories are being told and what values extolled – you should be careful with what stories you tell your children and I have no problems per se with that or Donohue’s stated concern.
My problem is I don’t buy all of his Kool-Aid. I know the Roman Catholic Church; it’s very good at getting out information it wants to disseminate (less so about the naughty bits they don’t want you to hear about). It will make sure the word gets out to its followers just as the other denominations like the Baptists and the Lutherans and so on will do if they feel a warning is warranted. So what’s really going on? I think Donohue is savvy enough to know that if he can affect opening weekend box office receipts for The Golden Compass, it’s less likely that the other two films will be made. If the first film is perceived as a failure, it will impact the sales of the books as well. The best way is to make it all seem like some sort of threat to the poor innocent children.
Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Here’s an idea for a counter-protest. Relatively easy to do and, maybe, enjoyable. The Kim Yale protest. Buy a ticket. Go see the film as soon as you can after it opens. If there are protestors, wave to them and blow kisses. Hollywood listens to the box office receipts; make the first week-end for The Golden Compass a success. Nothing can infuriate someone like Donohue more than to be made to feel impotent and that’s worth doing.
As Roger Ebert used to say, “Save me the aisle seat.”
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and much of Munden’s Bar, new installments of which will reappear anon here on ComicMix. Both for free. His new Suicide Squad mini-series is out there from DC Comics, and his Star Wars: Legacy is out there from Dark Horse, both at finer comics shops across the galaxy.