Published October 29, 2007
A children’s fantasy film that stars Nicole Kidman and features a little girl on a quest to kill God has some Christian groups upset over what they believe is a ploy to promote atheism to kids.
The movie, “The Golden Compass,” is adapted from the first novel in a trilogy called “His Dark Materials” by English author Philip Pullman, an outspoken atheist. Critics fear that the film, due out in December, will encourage children to read the anti-Church series.
"These books denigrate Christianity, thrash the Catholic Church and sell the virtues of atheism," said Bill Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League.
The film itself is unlikely to offend — because New Line Cinema has tried to keep religion out of it, focusing on the story of a little girl named Lyra and her journey within a strange, parallel universe.
"'The Golden Compass' is an entertaining fantasy about love, courage, responsibility and freedom," a New Line spokesman said. "We look forward to the Dec. 7 opening."
But the removal of the Godless themes from the movie has some Christian organizations seething.
"They’re intentionally watering down the most offensive element,” Donohue said. “I'm not really concerned about the movie, [which] looks fairly innocuous. The movie is made for the books. ... It's a deceitful, stealth campaign. Pullman is hoping his books will fly off the shelves at Christmastime."
Some atheists and fans of the books aren't happy, either. They say the studio has caved to pressure from the Christian right by sanitizing the tale for the big screen.
In "Compass," the curious 12-year-old protagonist, Lyra (played by British newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), stumbles on an adventure very close to home when she overhears talk of an amazing substance called Dust, which can unite the world but is so feared that many are scrambling to eradicate it.
Lyra travels to an alternative universe where everyone has a spiritual alter-ego, or demon, in animal form — and she goes there not knowing what she'll find or what her role will be. In her quest for the truth, she receives a magical golden compass that has the answers for those savvy enough to decipher it. Kidman plays Mrs. Coulter, who turns out to be Lyra's mother; Daniel Craig (the current James Bond) co-stars as her "uncle" Lord Asriel — who is really her dad.
The anti-religious themes get progressively stronger with each book in the trilogy; in the final installment, the characters succeed in killing a character called God — who turns out to be a phony, and not God after all. The series has soared to the top of bestseller lists in the U.K. and other countries but has not caught on in the United States.
The Catholic League has mounted a PR campaign against the movie after researching Pullman's own writings about his series. The organization has published a pamphlet called "'The Golden Compass': Unmasked," which is for sale on its Web site.
Evangelical groups like The Christian Film and Television Commission, run by Ted Baehr, and James Dobson's Focus on the Family say they're taking a wait-and-see approach to the movie, although Baehr has plenty to say about the literary version of the series. (Both Baehr and Donohue say they've read "The Golden Compass" and had staff members read the other two.)
"I don't think a boycott will be effective. We have to see the film before we make that evaluation," Baehr said. "We'll put out writings on the book. Children who buy into this are going to be trapped in a sad, desperate world."
Pullman, a co-screenwriter on the project, hasn't commented much on the controversy, but in an interview last week with the Western Mail, a Welsh newspaper, he defended the movie version of his fantasy.
“This must be the only film attacked in the same week for being too religious and for being anti-religious — and by people who haven’t seen it," he said. "I have very friendly and happy relations with the filmmakers, and I'm very happy with what they are doing."
Trade publications like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety have been buzzing for years about New Line Cinema's deliberate attempts to water down the movie version in anticipation of the backlash from faith-seeking moviegoers. The film has been in the works since 2004.
Chris Weitz, the movie's director and co-screenwriter, wrote on a "Dark Materials" fan site three years ago about the push-and-pull at the studio, according to film source IMDB.com. Followers of the writer's trilogy had been complaining in chat rooms about the news that the first movie would be stripped of its down-with-religion references.
New Line "expressed worry about the possibility of perceived anti-religiosity" and instructed those making the movie that if the Godless themes stayed put, the project would turn "unviable, financially," Weitz wrote in December 2004 on Bridgetothestars.net. In those discussions, he said, Pullman suggested that the Church and God in his trilogy could become "any arbitrary establishment that curtails the freedom of the individual."
"You will probably not hear of the 'Church,'" the director wrote, sparking one fan to retort that Hollywood had engaged in a "blatant cop-out to the Bible Belt of America."
Pullman has not been shy in the past about verbalizing his beliefs — or, some might say, nonbeliefs — and his intentions in writing the "Dark Materials" novels.
The novelist has said they are in response to C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia," the popular children's fantasy series of which "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the first book — written by Lewis to teach Christian ideals to kids.
"I loathe the 'Narnia' books," Pullman has said in previous press interviews. "I hate them with a deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling away." He has called the series "one of the most ugly and poisonous things" he's ever read.
In spite of complaints about the forthcoming film, Pullman fans and atheists are still excited about the exposure it will give his novels. They say the American literary market is sorely lacking material for those who don't believe in God, and they scoff at the idea that the series is hazardous to children.
"Philip Pullman and I would say it is religion that poisons everything," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the atheist advocacy group the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and a co-host of Freethought Radio, a talk show that recently went national on Air America Radio.
Gaylor said her now-18-year-old daughter read the "Dark Materials" books "over and over" when she was a middle-school student about the same age as the heroine.
"What this book is about is casting off Church authority," Gaylor said. "I think it's very, very positive. There should be something for freethinking children. It's a very good yarn."
Others believe that the uproar over atheist themes and their absence from the movie is much ado about nothing, because children and parents will form their own interpretations anyway.
One thing "Compass" debaters seem to agree on is the quality of Pullman's writing; even his critics begrudgingly praise his prose. Donohue, for instance, calls him "very talented."
"The writing of his 'Dark Materials' is so masterful that it is bound to spark the spiritual imagination of anyone who reads it," said Craig Detweiler, co-director of Reel Spirituality, a pop culture and religion think tank at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
"In this era of the messy marriage of politics and religion, we desperately need more imaginative expressions of faith and doubt."
Detweiler accused conservative Christian activists like Baehr and Donohue of cashing in on the controversy for their own gain, just as they accuse Pullman of doing. And he thinks the controversial author could actually have the opposite effect on readers than the one he or his critics think — and lead people to find faith in a true higher power instead of merely a dogmatic, power-hungry establishment.
"It undoubtedly makes people question, but inspires them to look harder for more authentic religion," Detweiler said. "Pullman takes license in pointing out the scary, false gods and destructive idols we've created. In that sense, I think he's doing a great service."