Philip Pullman is one of the nastier ideologues around. He is now getting a new boost for his anti-Christian venom – not anti-religious because he is profoundly pagan – with the televising of his Dark Materials trilogy. The problem is that his venom is too-venomous for the television producers who want to make a handsome profit from the 30 million pieces of silver they have invested in the project. They are huffing and puffing that Pullman is not at all anti-Christian. But, as Peter Hitchens points out in a detailed assessment of the Pullman phenomenon in First Things, it won’t wash. The man’s recorded mutterings give them an impossible job to do.
But maybe it doesn’t matter anyway – BBC/HBO investment seems destined to go the way of all expensive flops, down the drain. The critical view seems to be that the series, like the film made some years ago for something in the region of $130 million, is deadly dull.
His severe radicalism is not just an embarrassment. It is also a difficulty for filmmakers and TV moguls, who suspect that the mass market may not be quite ready for a man who openly seeks to undermine what is still in theory the majority faith in most Western countries. It is not that they necessarily disagree, just that they have to worry about revenue. This could be why the executive producer of the TV series, Jane Tranter, has gone on record in the USA to say that the new series is not in fact an attack on religion. “The religious controversy that was around the film was not relevant to the books themselves,” she argued. “Philip Pullman talks about depression, the control of information and the falsification of information . . . there is no direct contrast with any contemporary religious organisation.”
“Philip Pullman, in these books, is not attacking belief, not attacking faith, not attacking religion or the church per se,” Tranter insisted. “He’s attacking a particular form of control where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark, and not allow ideas and thinking to be free.” She went on: “At any time it can be personified by an authoritarian church or organisation, and in our series it’s personified by the Magisterium, but it’s not the equivalent of any church in our world.”
Isn’t it, though? In Pullman’s stories, priests are called “Father” and defer to Cardinals. The very word “Magisterium” (referred to with a sort of terrified awe, as if it were the NKVD) is closely associated with Roman Catholic teaching. And the emblem Pullman’s priests wear and display, though surrounded with twiddly extras, is unmistakably a cross. The TV series’ CGI Oxford, meanwhile, has acquired about a dozen extra unmistakably Christian spires. In the creepiest scene of all, we get a glimpse of an altered version of the Bible, in which a crucial passage set in the Garden of Eden is profoundly changed. The original from Genesis, in which the serpent tempts Eve, runs thus, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” But Pullman’s heroine, Lyra, is given this version by her kindly old tutor: “Your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons will assume their true form and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” I am not quite sure why this alteration of Holy Writ gives me such a jolt, but it does.