The Church vs the cinema: Philip Pullman's blasphemous materials?

The Golden Compass, which premiered in London last night, has angered the Catholic Church, which regards it as a pernicious attack by a militant atheist. Ciar Byrne investigates
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The Independent Culture

Last night, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig took to the red carpet for the premiere in London's Leicester Square of their new film, The Golden Compass. The $150m (£75m) movie adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy novel has all the ingredients of a runaway blockbuster hit in the mould of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It boasts a glittering cast – Craig is reunited with the Bond girl Eva Green – as well as a new child star, 13-year-old Dakota Blue Richards, and magnificent special effects, from a magical re-imagining of Oxford's gleaming spires to talking animals, including Iorek Byrnison, a bear voiced by Sir Ian McKellen.

But there is one formidable obstacle in the path of the film, which opens to the public on 5 December: the intense antipathy of the American Catholic Church, which has turned its wrath on the production for promoting what it deems a viciously sacrilegious message that boils down to nothing less than "atheism for kids".

In recent years, the Church has looked to Hollywood with renewed interest as a string of films seen as portraying Christianity in a favourable light were embraced as useful recruiting weapons among a younger, trendier demographic. No less a figure than the late Pope John Paul II approved Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, prompting church groups to embark on a sophisticated new marketing strategy in which free tickets were distributed, entire cinemas booked out, and blogs crammed full of positive reviews exhorting the public to follow suit.

So too with the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for which Catholic publishing companies brought out companion guides and Church representatives arrived in their busloads for specially arranged advanced screenings.

Now, though, the Church is mobilising those resources against The Golden Compass with the same vigour. Catholic organisations have called on followers to boycott the film, which they accuse of denigrating their faith and of pursuing an unambiguously anti-Catholic agenda.

Published in Britain as Northern Lights, the book on which the film is based is the first installment of Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, which also includes The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass and bears echoes of John Milton's Paradise Lost and William Blake. It tells the story of 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua, who lives in a parallel universe which resembles our own in many ways, with some crucial differences. The most important of these is that human beings are physically separated from their souls, which live outside them as animals, or "daemons". The daemons of children slip from one animal form to another, only taking on a permanent appearance when their human counterpart reaches adulthood.

Lyra has been left by her Uncle Asriel, played by Craig, to be raised by the fellows of Jordan College, Oxford, but when a mysterious and beautiful woman by the name of Mrs Coulter (Kidman) arrives and offers to take her north in the footsteps of her uncle, she is swift to accept. Too late, she realises that Mrs Coulter is not what she seems, but is connected to a sinister organisation called the Magisterium.

Some people have interpreted the Magisterium to be a representation of the Roman Catholic Church. While there is little doubt that Pullman intended to portray a theocracy wielding dangerous power, nowhere in the novels is the Catholic Church overtly criticised. Rather, Pullman's supporters contend, the books attempt to show the dangers inherent in all organised religion when political power rather than spirituality becomes its driving focus.

This is an argument which has been lost on the Catholic League in the US, whose president, Bill Donohue, has accused the film of acting as "bait" to lure young people to read Pullman's novels, where he claims they will find a "pernicious atheist agenda".

The Catholic League claims: "[The film's] objective is to bash Catholicism and promote atheism," although it admits the movie version of The Golden Compass has been "toned down so that Catholics, as well as Protestants, are not enraged". The League has gone so far as to produce a booklet entitled: The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked, which is made up of comments from reviewers as well as "revealing comments" made by Pullman himself. It said: "Pullman represents the new face of atheism: it is aggressive, dogmatic and unrelenting. It is also fuelled by hate – by a crusading hatred of all religions, but most especially ours. His side is counting on our side to lie down and die. He may have experienced little resistance in England, but it's a different story here."

Pullman has defended himself in typically robust style against these charges, saying in an interview with Newsweek magazine: "Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world." He added: "To regard it as this Donohue man has said – that I'm a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people – how the hell does he know that? Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers?"

In Canada, the Catholic Schoolboard in Halton, Ontario, has removed The Golden Compass from its library shelves, although students can still ask the librarian to give it to them from behind the counter. The board claimed pulling the book was standard procedure following a complaint, but critics have linked the move to the Catholic League's campaign. In the US, the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia has urged parents not to take their offspring to see the film.

The saga has distinct echoes of past attempts by the Church to condemn films it believes are insulting to its faith. In 1988, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis and starring Willem Dafoe, sparked outrage for scenes in which Jesus imagines himself engaged in sexual activity. In the US, preachers railed against the film, but the most dramatic protest happened in Paris, where arsonists connected to an extreme right-wing organisation started a fire at a midnight screening of the film at the Saint Michel cinema, leaving 13 people hospitalised.

More recently, the film version of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou was condemned by some Catholics for its controversial depiction of the real-life organisation Opus Dei and for claims made about the Holy Family, including the suggestion that Mary Magdelene was not a prostitute, but the wife of Christ. The Catholic League sprung into action, requesting a disclaimer from the movie's director, Ron Howard, informing the audience that what they were about to see was based on fiction, not fact. In India, the film was not shown in several states after protests from the country's Catholic community.

Ironically, Chris Weitz, the director of The Golden Compass accused of peddling an anti-Catholic line, has also been accused of watering down Pullman's criticism of organised religion. The director of the comedies American Pie and About A Boy has described the Magisterium of the books as "a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots," but added: "If that's what you want in the film, you'll be disappointed."

In an interview with the Pullman fan website bridgetothestars.net, Weitz said that from his discussions with the author, the "authority" in his books "could represent any arbitrary establishment that curtails the freedom of the individual, whether it be religious, political, totalitarian, fundamentalist, communist, what have you". But, he confessed: "New Line is a company that makes films for economic concerns. You would hardly expect them to be anything else. They have expressed worry about the possibility of HDMs' [His Dark Materials'] perceived antireligiosity making it an unviable project financially... All my best efforts will be directed towards keeping HDM as liberating and iconoclastic an experience as I can. But there may be some modification of terms. You will probably not hear of the 'Church', but you will hear of the Magisterium."

Fans of the books were incensed and, fearful that he would go down in history as the man who ruined The Golden Compass, Weitz resigned and was only persuaded to return to the film by a handwritten letter from Pullman.

The film's stars have also done their best to dampen the controversy surrounding the movie. Kidman told Australian journalists: "I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic." Craig insisted: "These books are not anti-religious. I think that mainly they're anti-misuse of power – whether it's religious or political."

Pullman himself has refused to be pigeonholed as to his beliefs and how they appear in his fiction. In an interview with the Christian magazine Third Way, he said: "I'm not making an argument, or preaching a sermon, or setting out a political tract: I'm telling a story." He added: "I don't know whether I'm an atheist or an agnostic. I'm both, depending on where the standpoint is."

Making clear his disdain for C S Lewis, he added: "I loathe the Narnia novels... The values depicted in the Narnia stories are certainly not the values I read in the Gospels. Hatred of the flesh? Condemning children for growing up?"

In Britain, religious backlashes and cheerleading alike have tended to be more muted, although the potential for protest was ably demonstrated when the BBC2 controller, Roly Keating, and his family were forced into hiding after Christian extremists made death threats over the decision to screen the controversial musical Jerry Springer: The Opera.

Displaying a more moderate approach, at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales yesterday, a polite young woman explained: "We can't comment on a film we haven't seen yet."

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