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Dangerous Stories December 8, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Isn’t this exciting! We have a new movie getting folks all upset, again. I’m referring to The Golden Compass, based on a series of books (His Dark Materials) by Philip Pullman. The last time I saw this kind of concern over the religious impact of a movie was when The Chronicles of Narnia came out, but that was a different crowd voicing their concerns. The Golden Compass (which I must admit I have neither read, nor seen yet) supposedly advocates atheism, although the author, a British “self-proclaimed atheist,” says he was just telling a story. In particular, Catholic groups worry that parents might take their kids to see a cute movie with talking animals, and be inadvertently exposed to an anti-religious message, thus being indoctrinated with atheism. Now flip to the The Chronicles of Narnia discussion a few years ago (fabulous Wikipedia article), where some media commentators voiced concerns that children would be exposed to a story of sacrifice reminiscent of Christ when watching a cute movie with talking animals, thus being indoctrinated with Christianity. There were also Christian groups worrying that Narnia would convert children to paganism. All this worry about stories, in a time of a Culture War—what luxury, that we can take time out for these kinds of concerns when terrorists are at our gates, and our climate seems to be going haywire, for whatever reason.

           So let’s enjoy the luxury and put this in perspective: We are, with the phrase coined by Alasdair MacIntyre, “storytelling animals.” Stories have been the favorite way to express world views, as far back as we can trace myths and legends, and sometimes these world views collide. Good stories generally have several levels, the plot level, and the level of deeper meaning(s). Is it possible to enjoy a well-told plot while disagreeing with the message? Of course it is—it is one of those nicely challenging cultural moments where one’s brain actually gets a workout. Can it be dangerous for gullible minds to be exposed to stories that may sway them in a new direction? Yes indeed, that’s what we call propaganda. Sometimes the danger is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes we have to resort to the theory that there actually is an underlying set of good values that we should all subscribe to, and that some stories are harmful in themselves if they espouse a lack of respect for other human beings (that ought to be another blog thread).

But the bottom line is that stories are great vehicles for discussing cultural values. There are stories kids shouldn’t be exposed to, because they don’t understand them yet, or because the stories are downright obnoxious—but stories with multiple levels, told well, can be wonderful opportunities for adults to have real conversations with kids about the deeper things—and in addition, the adult may get something out of it, either as a confirmation of one’s own set of values, or a challenge to them. But maybe that’s one reason why “concerned” groups harp on movies—it’s a hassle to have to explain them to their kids…




1. BorZu - December 8, 2007

I myself have never heard about the books or movies mentioned , but i have to agree about movies and stories being great vehicles for discussing culture values. And the best way to do that is by making different movies, with different views and thoughts for all ages, and by rating the movies everyone can enjoy and undrestand them pretty well!

2. S. Buchanan - December 10, 2007

I agree that movies and books are a great or maybe a not so great way to influence kids and people in general. But on the flip side this is how we learn, gain insight of other peoples thought process. and we as humans have the ability to agree or disagree with them and it is just that simple. I do not think parents should be concerned with the story of “The Golden Compass” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” if children see the movie and it persuades them to atheism or christianity then that is just the way it should be. So i sort of disagree i think that children should be exposed to movies such as these, so they can ask questions and learn how to become an individual. I do agree the maybe children should not come in contact with movies that have an excessive amount of violence and sexual content, these can just teach them thing thats they many not know how to process until they are a bit older.

3. S.K. - December 11, 2007

I am SO glad you posted about this! I wanted to bring it up in class but was afraid we might end up having a class discussion about it, when our class time has already been cut short due to the wild fires. I work at a movie theater and have to deal with both extremes of people’s reactions to this movie and movies like it all the time. Yes, the author of the Golden Compass series has never out right said “This is the Anti-Narnia”, but he does criticize C.S. Lewis (Author of the Narnia series) for the way he portrays his characters, but so what?! I find it extremely hypocritical that we can have all these movies that preach religious ideals, but as soon as one shows up that questions if the population should believe everything that is spoon fed to them by main stream religion, all hell breaks loose, literally. And honestly, like you said, these stories all have a “take it or leave it” way to them. When I was read and shown the Narnia books and animated movie as a child, it never occurred to me that Aslan, the lion, is Jesus. There should be no harm in reading children these books, or showing them the movies. They will take them however they want, and since they are children, they will probably not think them through any further than good vs. evil. Seriously, to anyone that thinks these things will corrupt your children, it’s a movie, no one is making you watch it and as far as corrupting your children goes, you have much worse influences to worry about!

4. Cyrus Ghahremani - December 11, 2007

In this case, I absolutely believe that you get what you’re looking for. I read the Golden Compass as a child and not once did I consider the religious implications in it – even reflecting on the tale as an adult, it wasn’t until I heard all of the controversy surrounding the film that I started to make connections.

Bottom line: the child would have to have been spoon-fed religious extremism already to sit in the theater and question his belief in god rather than get caught up in a wonderful fantasy tale.

5. A.Drumheller - December 12, 2007

dangerous stories, this is a great topic however if were talking about children, we need to think what age children. for children under the age of 10 there is no way they even realized the movie had anything to do with religion. I feel seeing chronicles of narnia as I did, had no connections to religion when I first watched the movie. however reading this article I feel that yes there are some connections if you look deep into the movie. but still a ten year old did not make that connection as far as we know, it was adults. therefore this movie should be fine for most kids under the age of 12 and any older if they did make a connection they have a smart enough mind to make there own decisions on religion. I am pretty positive close to 100 percent of people would say watching these movies did not change there beliefs but perhaps questioned other beliefs

6. Moriae - December 12, 2007

Dangerous stories? Perhaps it isn’t safe to light a cigaret in a fireworks store, but can a story “really” be dangerous? Are we so devoid of real experience in this country to not know what most children on this planet have had to experience in their own lives?Simply read The Painted Bird. I fully understand how hard it is to extrapolate from one’s own experience and begin generalizing about the lives of others. I would be among the first to object myself. Nevertheless, in my own life I had to witness countless men losing their lives violently, and all of this from the earliest age, beginning around 2-3 and continuing on into adulthood. I must admit that it had an incredible impact on me, and if I may say so, allowed me later to appreciate the insights and corrosive solitudes offered by art, poetry, literature, and philosophy. As I see it the troubling nature of life is not to be avoided, but embraced. It is the “art” in life (philosophy viewed broadly here) that transforms a regretable instance into an event that redeems the circumstance. The burning of the English Parliament was no doubt regretable, and viewed by many as a tragedy, but in an instant it was redeemed by Turner. Being disillusioned can be an eye-popping experience I suppose, but the bland and mollifying illusions of life offered by money-changers of life deserve every thrashing they can get. And if it can be done with “stories” or from a film, then at least let it begin there.

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