Hollywood — Nicole Kidman denies the film is anti-Catholic. Bill Donohue is just as adamant that it is. And director Chris Weitz loves the controversy. Just weeks before its Dec. 7 opening in theaters, New Line Cinema’s The Golden Compass, based on atheist author Philip Pullman’s best-selling Dark Materials trilogy, has received a tremendous amount of criticism for its portrayal of Christianity, and more specifically, the Catholic Church.
The New York-based Catholic League has gone so far as to call for a boycott of the film, describing it as "atheism for kids." Pullman tries to sneak his atheism to kids through the back door, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said. "This is the same man who boldly exclaimed a few years ago, ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.’"
The film’s writer and director, Chris Weitz, welcomed the boycott. "It will make more people see the film," said Weitz. "I can’t recall in the history of religious protests when it hurt a movie. It’s extra publicity," said film critic Robert Wilonsky. "I guarantee you, whenever a studio head hears someone is protesting his or her movie, they’re opening a bottle of champagne, and they’re giving out bonuses."
In the fantasy, set in an alternative world, a girl name Lyra searches for children who have been kidnapped. Along the way, she is pursued by the "Magisterium" — evil agents of the Church — and is aided by an adolescent boy, witches, a talking polar bear, a cowboy and others.
"It’s really insidious," said veteran Catholic writer and science fiction and fantasy critic Sandra Miesel, who has read all three books. "No one who doesn’t have to read the books should read them. I felt like I was having poison dripped into my veins." "The books get distinctly nastier as they go on," said Miesel, who compared Pullman to an up-market Dan Brown. "They’re filled with blatant, ridiculous propaganda. It’s militantly atheistic."
Hoping to head off controversy, though, the filmmakers say that the anti-Christian elements found in the books have been tamed down in the film. "One of the series’ main themes — the rejection of organized religion and in particular the abuse of power within the Catholic Church — is to be watered down," reported the British newspaper The Telegraph in September. "But when the film is released in December, the Magisterium will be shown as a critique of all dogmatic organizations, thereby avoiding a religious backlash." Yet, the film’s trailer mentions the Magisterium three times, portrays the witches as good, and portrays one of the evil men dressed in a priest-like collar.
Catholic actress Nicole Kidman, who stars in the film, said that she wouldn’t be involved if she felt the film were overtly anti-Catholic. "I would not be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic," Kidman told journalists this summer.
"In the books, the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots," said Weitz. "If that’s what you want in the film, you’ll be disappointed."
That change has upset anti-censorship groups and some fans of the books.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of Britain’s National Secular Society, which represents "non-believers," described the change as a "white-washing of religious problems from cinema. It is wrong that children watching these films should not get the opportunity to see the more balanced picture of religion," said Wood.
Pullman has denied the criticism, saying that his story is nothing but fiction. "It’s a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy," Pullman said. "I always mistrust people who tell us how we should understand something. I prefer to trust the reader," he told NBC.
The Problem With Pullman
Pullman is among a new wave of atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens with best-selling books on the market. In numerous interviews Pullman has described C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series as "detestable," and has spoken openly of his lack of belief in God or heaven. "Narnia has always seemed to me to be marked by a hatred of the physical world," Pullman told the British newspaper The Mail. "I’ve got no evidence whatever for believing in God," he added. "All I know is that if there is, he hasn’t shown himself on earth."
"Pullman has been clear that he has written these books as a kind of anti-Narnia," said Carl Olson, editor of the online magazine Ignatius Insight. "Pullman despises Narnia and The Lord of the Rings." His hostility toward organized religion, which is manifest in the Dark Materials trilogy, has also been expressed in his interviews. "Wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression," said Pullman. "It’s almost a universal law."
"Statements of ignorance like that make it all the more urgent that the Catholic Church engage the culture and have a stronger presence so that people can have their biases broken down with real experiences, real people and real knowledge," said Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber, who teaches a Religion and the Media course at Northwestern School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill. "I see such statements as a call to be all the more present to answer statements that are so out of the bounds of intelligence."
The books and the film have received an onslaught of criticism by many family organizations, such as the American Family Association and Focus on the Family, as well as those in the Church. Catholic educators Susan and Mary Teresa Tenbusch, who have read and reviewed the books, described them as anti-Christian, anti-Catholic, and heavy with New Age and occult beliefs.
"A fictitious version of the Church plays a central and negative role in this trilogy," they wrote on studiobrien.com, the website of artist and author Michael O’Brien. "The Church in the trilogy not only appears in an evil light, it acts in a manner directly opposed to authentic Catholic teaching."
"Pullman portrays the Christian heaven to be a lie," said O’Brien. "His stated intention is to invert the traditional biblical account of the war between heaven and hell. The overwhelming message, implanted in the minds of young readers, is that the Judeo-Christian God is in fact absolute evil. Christianity is diabolic, and the Church is Satanic."
"The Catholic League wants Christians to stay away from this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: Unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present," said Donohue. "And no parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books."
Still, Sandra Miesel is cautious not to appear alarmist for fear of driving additional viewers to the theaters. "I recommend that families find something else to do the weekend the film opens," said Miesel. "Rent a good DVD."
Copyright © 2007 Circle Media, Inc., National Catholic Register
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.