Image from The Golden Compass filmWe’re a week away from the opening of The Golden Compass, the new film based on the first volume of Philip Pullman’s "His Dark Materials" trilogy, and the pre-release hype has crescendoed to a deafening roar. The central issue is whether the film will influence innocent tykes to become atheists, and whether that would be a bad thing if it happened.

Certainly Pullman has made it perfectly clear in all his public statements and in the trilogy of fantasy novels that yes, he is an atheist, and yes, he would very much like to see all religious belief done away with if such a thing were possible.

The filmmakers, led by director Chris Weitz, understandably fear that the picture will not return the huge amount of money invested in it if American parents tumble to the idea that The Golden Compass not only isn’t as Bible-friendly as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the ongoing Narnia film series but instead will probably transform their children into snarling little village atheists obsessed with ensuring nobody puts a Christmas tree on public property.

To forestall such a catastrophe, the filmmakers and studios have taken a twofold strategy. One, they removed all references to the Church, which were central to the book’s meaning and effect, and two, they’ve trotted out Weitz and, especially, Nicole Kidman to emphasize that the people directly involved in the film are not anti-Catholic and would never try to slam the church.

Kidman, for example, has been widely quoted as noting that she was raised a Catholic (which suggests that she no longer is one) and would never be involved in a movie that was against religion. Of course, whether she is a good judge of prose narrative fiction is a valid question.

Nicole Kidman in The Golden Compass

Director Weitz, as Newsweek reported, sees the books as presenting a negative view of religion but not of his intended audience:

The film is not, director Chris Weitz tells Newsweek, an attack on people of faith; like the books, it tells a story "that attempts to rescue the religious spirit from its perversion into political power."

That may be rather too nuanced an argument to hold much persuasive power—and indeed it may be entirely sophistic. Anything that is inevitably perverted toward evil ends can hardly be a good thing, can it, and those who adhere to it cannot really be good, can they? Certainly most people would not think so.

The film’s producer hopes that audiences will "pay no attention to the aggressive atheist behind the curtain" and instead urges audiences to concentrate on the film’s surface glamour, according to Newsweek:

In any case, says Deborah Forte, the film’s producer, "when you talk to young people who are passionate fans of the books, they only talk about the golden monkey, and the armored bear, and Lyra, and daemons."

Image from The Golden Compass film 

Not surprisingly, some prominent American Catholics aren’t buying this, as Newsweek notes:

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, from accusing the film of being "bait" to lure children to the novels, where they will be ensnared by Pullman’s "pernicious atheist agenda," Gordon reports.

The same is true among evangelicals. A detailed article on the Breakpoint website showed that the entire trilogy is much more explicit in presenting Pullman’s anti-Christian, anti-Catholic agenda than the filmmakers are willing to admit, and that children drawn in by appealing golden monkeys and talking critters will get a strong dose of explicit atheism and God-hatred when they read the books. Even the first book makes this all quite clear, author Tom Gilson notes:

[T]he anti-Church, anti-Biblical elements of even the first book are plenty strong. The Church is presented as highly controlling and evil; and this is not some other-world, purely fantastical church with no connection to our own world. In Chapter 16 we learn of its “Vatican Council.” In Chapter 19 a character speaks of being “baptized as a Christian” in Geneva. Chapter 2 tells us the last Pope in this world was John Calvin, which in another context would be knee-slapping hilarious, but here contributes to the strength of the connection this fictional world has to our real one.

One of the prominent themes of the book is “Dust,” a mysterious “charged particle” from the sky. In the closing chapters of the book, the protagonist, Lyra, finally learns that Dust is “the physical evidence for original sin”. . . . Dust and the alethiometer—central symbols in this book—together send the clear message that truth is measured by the power of original sin. In the closing pages, Lyra decides that Dust is a good thing after all, and she determines to go on and defend this original sin against the Church. Thus we are ushered into the second book.

The themes become even more explicit, and Pullman’s targets even more obvious, in the second and third volumes:

The second book is entitled The Subtle Knife. That happens to be the name of the one weapon that can kill God. The third book tells us that God is relieved to be killed. He’s a rather pathetic character, tired of all the responsibility, “half-crazed with age and infirmity,” in SparkNotes’ words. He had been rather mixed up about things all along, though. The Satan figure in the trilogy was the one who brought freedom to humans. God—and the dominating, violent, fearful church—fought against this freedom. Pullman cheers for their downfall. He has said so not only in his fiction, but also in interviews. The books, he says, are “about killing God.”

Gilson’s conclusion is simple and direct:

This is certainly not a message we want our children to take to heart.

Scholastic, the publisher of the novels and financial partner in the movie, is pushing hard to get schools to place the trilogy in their curricula. This will surely raise serious objections.

And in trying to lure Christians and other non-atheists into the theaters, the filmmakers have managed to offend some of Pullman’s most avid fans, as Reuters reports:

"The removal of their religious motivations makes the institution (Magisterium) incredibly bland, a mere band of thugs with a domineering power for no apparent reason," said fan site in a broadly positive review.

Image from The Golden Compass film

Weitz is aware that if the second and third parts of the trilogies are adapted to film, the controversy will heighten, as the Reuters story reports:

"I still maintain that the people who are attacking these films and the books as kind of atheist recruiting posters are wrong, but life is going to become more difficult with them if and when we go ahead," he said.

The film may end up pleasing no one fully, but it’s clear that it will bring more readers and attention to Pullman’s books.