Message-driven fiction and The Golden Compass

Everyone’s up in arms about the anti-Christian content of the movie The Golden Compass, etc. Personally, I see one movie a year and I’ve already seen TMNT (which ROCKED, for the record!) so it’s not an issue for me. I haven’t read the books nor have I any plans to see the movie.

I’m an avid SFF reader, however, and SF writer John Wright has a *literary* critique of “The Golden Compass” (the whole trilogy really) over at his weblog. (Thanks to The Curt Jester for linking to it.)

The point of his post is to compare the “demands of the story” with the “demands of the message” and to show which way the writer moves every time the story and the message conflict.

As a writer, I’ve been told many times that if there’s a loaded gun in the first scene, that gun has to be fired by the climax. In Narnia, if Aslan and the four children had nothing to do with the deposition of the WHite Witch, we’d feel that was an unfulfilled promise of the story. Wright follows the thread of unfulfilled promises in the story, and he reaches the conclusion that the only reason NOT to write the story promised by the beginning is because the author wanted the message to win out. (And Wright is on record as saying that he finds Pullman to be an excellent writer, so it’s not lack of talent that causes these literary problems.)

As someone who writes fiction from a Christian worldview, his was a fascinating post because I don’t ever want my stories to come off as “preachy.” Someone told me people would be converted by the ending of “Damage” and my response was–gee, I hope not. I’m not a missionary writer. How can I be responsible for the state of someone else’s soul? I’m not even competent to take care of my own! Let God make the converts.

My goal is to tell a good story, and if that story happens to involve Jesus or someone who believes in Jesus, that’s where the story goes. But having to force the plot to uphold the message, Wright says, is where message-driven fiction falls flat. And it makes me wonder where my choices may have fallen short, and if the plot required me to have a character or the universe act against my personal beliefs, what would I do?

All very interesting to me from a professional perspective, and if it helps anyone make a decision about seeing the movie–one way or the other–more the better.


  1. Jenni

    Yes, don’t waste your time on these books. After seeing a preview for the movie, I decided to read them but only got halfway through the second one for the same reason that Mr. Wright didn’t like them. The message trumped the story and neither was very good. I kept asking my husband why they got so many awards.

  2. Diinzumo

    Thanks for saving me a few $s. I was curious, but this review hints that I would be very bored. Too bad. The web site was cool.

  3. philangelus

    Maybe you could borrow the DVD of it from the library?

    I’m just intrigued by the idea that it’s not just preachy fiction that gets preachy, and the in-depth analysis of what it is that makes something preachy. I never thought to frame it in terms of the story itself getting compromised.

  4. Diinzumo

    The funny part was I didn’t read the review to assess the story’s preachiness, but rather whether the story fulfilled its promises. According to the review, it doesn’t (you mentioned the “gun rack law”). That’s important. I’m also turned off by preachiness and any author’s attempts to drive home a message with a giant mallet.

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