BEFORE STARTING work on His Dark Materials, a trilogy of what he called “science- fantasy” novels, Philip Pullman wrote an alternative Book Of Genesis to rival God’s own creation story. In Pullman’s version, God was nothing more or less than an angel, the first sentient being. He did not make the universe, but told the younger angels that he had, pretending to an authority that he never possessed. When the more liberal of their number rebelled against his dictatorship, they were cast out of heaven. The wisest of them – Sophia, who was not mentioned in the Bible, but later found a place in the Gnostic gospels – tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit purely and simply because it represented knowledge, which could never be a sin.
Pullman did not intend these details for public consumption. They were only for his own reference, foundations for the plot of His Dark Materials that he constructed so that, in his words, “the scenery wouldn’t wobble”. Working in his garden shed between 1993 and 2000, Pullman proceeded to write three books – The Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – around his 12-year-old heroine Lyra Belacqua, and her adventures through a range of parallel universes, both odd and familiar. When he finished, at the age of almost 60, he had more young readers around the world than any modern author except JK Rowling. And in the end, Lyra killed God, “a bumbling old fool” who seemed to welcome the wind that finally blew him out of existence. The Mail On Sunday’s Peter Hitchens proclaimed Pullman “the most dangerous author in Britain”. The Catholic Herald declared his series “far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter, and a million times more sinister”.
But at time of publication, the loudest denunciations were still reserved for the supposed paganism and inferred satanism of Rowling’s stories, if only because book sales and film deals had given her a higher profile. As Sandra Miesel and Peter Vere (a Catholic journalist and a “canon lawyer”) explain in their new book, Pied Piper Of Atheism: Philip Pullman And Children’s Fantasy Literature, the Dark Materials novels were always “marketed for people with more elite tastes”. Then Rowling effectively got out of the way by completing her Harry Potter series last summer, and the global marketing campaign began for the screen version of The Northern Lights, adapted by the American studio New Line Cinema (who financed The Lord Of The Rings films) under its US title The Golden Compass. “Now here come the movies,” warn Miesel and Vere, “so people are really starting to pay attention ” The Golden Compass will be released in the UK next Wednesday, after several years of problematic stop-start production.
Not least of those problems has been the question of how to retell Pullman’s story without spreading quite the same message. In 2001, the author told The Washington Post that he was “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”. To minimise potential offence and thereby maximise potential profit, the film-makers have in turn found it necessary to undermine the basis of His Dark Materials. Director and scriptwriter Chris Weitz, who quit the job in 2004 only to be rehired last year, has admitted to erasing the novels’ aggressive scepticism – their antipathy to religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular – from between the lines of his screenplay. “If that’s what you want in the film,” said Weitz recently, “you’ll be disappointed.”
Nicole Kidman, who plays mysterious mother-figure Mrs Coulter, has stated she could not have taken the part if Pullman’s power-mongering “magisterium” had remained such a thinly- fictionalised assembly of wicked bishops and cardinals. And Daniel Craig, who plays Lyra’s father and antagonist Lord Asriel, has tried to argue that even the novels were not so much “anti-religion” as “anti-establishment anti-totalitarian anti-controlling”.
New Line Cinema bought the story, not the subtext, and they are not wrong to assume that is what Pullman’s young fans want to see on screen. Every core character and most key scenes have been visualised through judicious casting and expensive digital effects, with all due care and attention paid to Lyra’s well-loved polar bear friend and protector Iorek Brynison (whose voice is provided by Sir Ian McKellen), and the “daemon” companions who represent each human being’s soul in animal form. (While acknowledging that daemons may in themselves account for the popularity of these novels among children, Pullman has confessed that they did not even occur to him until the “16th draft” of the first chapter, as an elegant mechanism for delivering exposition and expressing thoughts aloud.) Financially speaking, the makers may now feel they can’t lose.
In another sense, it seems they can’t win. Catholic League president Bill Donohue has accused them of watering down Pullman’s original content as part of “a deceitful stealth campaign” against the church, while Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society accuses them of “taking the heart out of the story, losing the point of it, castrating it”. The author himself has noted the irony of a film being simultaneously criticised for affronting and appeasing Christians before it is even released. He does not deny that “the movie has been toned down”, but also approves of the finished product, and suggests that his fans “wait and see”. As befits a man of letters, though, Pullman appears less concerned with turning readers into viewers than with the opposite process.
“The film will lead more kids to read the books,” he says. Which is, of course, exactly what his enemies fear. Pullman was a regular visitor to the film set at Shepperton Studios, where he chatted with the actors and wandered among the few backdrops that were not computer-generated. “Oh, I love this scene,” he was heard to say, absently. French actress Eva Green, who plays the witch Serafina Pekkala – Pullman stole the name out of a Finnish phonebook – described him as resembling “a don or something”. She wasn’t the first to make that observation, which is not too far from the truth. Pullman only scraped a third-class degree in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford, and did not enjoy his time there, but has come to belong in the same curious club of Oxford scholars who have created their own cosmologies. Fellow alumni include Lewis Carroll, Diana Wynne Jones, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
Pullman has attributed this affinity for the fantastical to the psycho-geography of that town and university. Oxford mist, he claims, has a “solvent effect on reality”. He has also distanced himself from Tolkien and Lewis, dismissing the work of the former as “fancy spun candy”, while repudiating the latter’s fiction as “ugly and poisonous”. “I loathe the Narnia books,” wrote Pullman in a now-notorious opinion piece, shortly before the first of Lewis’s chronicles followed Tolkien’s into production as a modern motion-picture franchise. “I hate them with a deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are falling away.”
He went on to tell Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show, “I would rather say something positive about growing up. If we are to become wise, which seems to me a good thing to be, we need to lose this innocence”. Bragg, like everyone else who has interviewed the author since His Dark Materials made him famous, was naturally inclined to ask how his own youth related to his books’ worldly view of childhood. He was born in Norfolk just after the second world war. His father, an RAF pilot, was killed in a crash in Kenya, when Philip, the older of his two sons, was seven. The family were not told the circumstances, although a Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded posthumously. The man had been away so often, and for so long, that Pullman later recalled receiving the news as if “hearing of the death of a stranger”. He and his brother, to whom he told stories late at night, felt excited to be “sort-of orphaned”.
Their grandfather continued to raise them in Norfolk for a time – he was a clergyman, but apparently had nothing to do with Pullman’s early loss of faith, which happened, he has said, for “the usual reasons” – while their mother lived a glamorous and mysterious second life down in Chelsea. Eventually she remarried, and after relocating briefly to Australia, Pullman settled with a new family of half and step siblings in Harlech, Wales. The biographical origins of Lyra Belacqua, her unknowable parents, and all the sudden shifts of her reality, are there in his past for those who go looking. But Pullman has traced his own beginnings as an author back to Miss Enid Jones’s English class at Ysgol Arduchy secondary school in the 1960s, where he first learned “the pleasures and responsibilites of literature”.
His Dark Materials was later dedicated to Miss Jones, and the title taken from a verse of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which she had read aloud in that English class. Pullman grew up, got married, raised two sons of his own, and became an English teacher himself. Long before he gave up that day job, he began to write one book after another, from his 1972 debut novel The Haunted Storm (which he has disowned) to the popular Sally Lockhart trilogy of the late 1980s (two of which have been made into TV films starring Billie Piper – the second will be screened on BBC One over Christmas). Eventually he was reminded of Milton, when his editor David Fickling suggested, over lunch, that he rewrite Paradise Lost for a modern readership. Pullman accepted the challenge, and sat down to the task in his garden shed. (That shed later became a part of his success story, but success in fact allowed him to buy a bigger house with an indoor writing room.)
He had 20 years of practice and experience. He believed that “there are some subjects too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book”. And he obeyed, as always, the great film-maker Billy Wilder’s rules of storytelling, which were taped up above his desk. Rule number one: “Grab ’em by the throat and never let go.” By the time he was finished, Pullman had created a universe in which the science of quantum physics and superstring theory left no room for the God of the Old Testament. William Blake, another of his influences, once said that John Milton had been “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” when he wrote Paradise Lost.
Pullman later said of himself that he was also of the Devil’s party, but did know it, meaning that he wrote His Dark Materials in direct opposition to the Bible – and also to The Chronicles Of Narnia – with their Christian conception of innocence as preferable to experience, faith as superior to knowledge, heaven as greater than Earth, and death, by implication, as better than life. “It seems to me,” says Pullman, “that churches of every religion have a way of controlling human lives for cruel and selfish reasons. This story specifically condemns their authority, intolerance, zealotry and fanaticism. The qualities it celebrates are love, kindness, courage and open-heartedness.”
The author is obviously a humanist, and a moralist, but perhaps not quite an atheist. He refuses to believe in a God who watches over us, while reserving an Einsteinian doubt about who or what might be found at end of the universe. Neither does he know where stories come from, nor why they come to him in particular. “They just do,” he says.
Literature itself can be a religion, and Pullman’s faith in narrative is unlikely to be shaken by a movie adaptation or three. His moral remains intact: “The world is the most precious place, and we shouldn’t hurry to get out of it. We should cherish every moment we have here. We should write stories as if they make a difference. We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding. We should act as if life were going to win.” And if that sounds overly didactic for a writer so opposed to preaching, then consider another of Pullman’s pronouncements: “Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes Once Upon A Time’ to reach the heart.”