Religious Groups Question Direction of 'Compass'

The Golden Compass is now pointed at the big screen — an epic based on the first book of novelist Philip Pullman's trilogy. But a campaign is being waged against the movie because of its provocative take on religion.

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The movie "The Golden Compass" opens today. And it's based on the first book in Phillip Pullman's trilogy, "His Dark Materials." It stars Nicole Kidman and it's poised to be one of the big events of the holiday season. But there's a campaign underway against the movie because of its controversial take on religion.

As NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: There's plenty in "The Golden Compass" to keep kids happy. There's a plucky little heroine, Lyra Belacqua. She has a shape-shifting animal called a daemon who represents her soul. Together they set out to the cold north to rescue kids who have been kidnapped for evil purposes. And to top it all off, Lyra recruits a polar bear to help her with her quest.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Golden Compass")

(Soundbite of polar bear growling)

Ms. DAKOTA BLUE RICHARDS (Actress): (As Lyra Belacqua) Lorek. (Unintelligible). Don't fight these men. What they've done ain't right, I know. If you fight, you'll kill them. And there'll be more fighting. We'll never get away to rescue those kids.

NEARY: So why would parents of children who have been raised on the fantasy world of Harry Potter want to keep their kids away from such a film? Why would churchgoers send e-mails to their friends urging them to not let their children see the movie? Why would an advocacy organization like the Catholic League call for a boycott of "The Golden Compass"? The reason: they're afraid the movie will lure kids to read all three books in the trilogy.

Mr. DANIEL MALONE(ph) (Heritage Foundation): The books themselves are explicitly an atheist's fantasy series.

NEARY: Daniel Malone is an expert on religion and culture at the Heritage Foundation. Malone says those calling for a boycott of the movie are doing a service to parents who know nothing about Phillip Pullman and his trilogy. Malone says "The Golden Compass" is, on one level, a great adventure story and a really good read, but he says there's no question Pullman set out to write novels to promote atheism and denigrate the great religions of the world.

Mr. MALONE: And he says that they are anti-truth; manichean, as against the body. They're engines of oppression, engines of fanaticism. He has a fanatical assassin monk who is kind of straight out of one of his old chestnuts of English anti-Catholic propaganda. You know, there are all sorts of things in the book that are designed to provoke an - that's there in the book.

NEARY: Central to the story of "The Golden Compass" is the all-powerful institution known as the Magisterium. And in the book, it clearly represents the church. In order to market the movie more easily, the film makes the Magisterium more secular, though, equally sinister.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Golden Compass")

Ms. RICHARDS: (As Lyra Belacqua) What's the Magisterium for?

Ms. NICOLE KIDMAN (Actress): (As Marisa Coulter) Oh, you have been living in a an ivory tower, haven't you? A Magisterium is what people need to keep things working by telling people what do to.

NEARY: In Catholic theology, the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the church. But Donna Freitas believes such theological details will go right over the heads of most kids.

Ms. DONNA FREITAS (Author, "Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman's Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials"): One of the things that I think we are forgetting in this conversation about the movie, "The Golden Compass," and the trilogy, "His Dark Materials," is the way kids read.

NEARY: Freitas is the author of a book about "His Dark Materials" called "Killing the Imposter God." She doesn't think the books are anti-religious and sees Pullman as a theologian who's developed a compelling new idea about the nature of divinity. But says Freitas, such an interpretation is the work of an adult. She says the books can be read on many levels.

Ms. FREITAS: You can come to it as a kid and read a wonderful, exciting adventure and be thrilled by all these magical concepts and talking animals. You can come back to it as a college student and analyze all its literary themes, its religious themes. You can come back to it as a parent, whose child is reading it. So I feel like it has a really long life because it's so layered.

Professor PHILIP NEL (Kansas State University): I think "The Golden Compass" is the one that is the most subtle in the way that it addresses questions of faith and questions of religion.

NEARY: Philip Nel teaches adolescent literature at Kansas State University. Nel says kids who read "The Golden Compass" are mostly drawn to the character of Lyra.

Prof. NEL: To be a child is to be on the receiving end of power. And she is able to counter that power and I could see, as a child reading that, that you'd be able to identify with her wit and her resourcefulness and her intelligence, and experience it in that way.

NEARY: But Nel says even for a young adolescent it would be almost impossible to ignore the questions raised about religion in the second and third books in the series. Daniel Malone agrees, but he says parents may not need to worry too much. Malone thinks kids will be turned off because Pullman gets too preachy about his atheism in the last book.

Mr. MALONE: The failures of the book, esthetically as a novel, inoculate to a certain extent, the children who read it from the anti-religion message within it.

NEARY: Even if kids don't read all three books, they might want to see the sequel of the movie. And if indeed sequels are made, say Philip Nel, it won't be easy to tone down the religious references in the second and third books.

Prof. NEL: Angels are major characters, right? I mean, you can't get away from the fact that angels are major characters. I don't know how they will grapple with the second and third books in the series when they adapt them. I am glad I don't have to grapple with these things. It's going to be a tough one.

NEARY: But sequels are made when movies make money. So whether anyone will have to grapple with all the daemons and angels that Phillip Pullman has created will depend on just how well "The Golden Compass" does at the box office.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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