'Golden Compass' Film Angering Christian Groups -- Even With Its Religious Themes Watered Down

Catholic League worries that movie will encourage parents to buy the 'anti-Christian' books for their kids.

Thought Harry Potter was blasphemous? That was kids' stuff compared to the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, in which God is an imposter, angels are sexually ambiguous and the Church kidnaps, tortures and assassinates to achieve its goals, one of which is stealing children's souls.

But try as the filmmakers might to take religion out of the equation in the first installment — "The Golden Compass," due December 7 — Christian groups are gearing up to protest and fans are urging New Line not to water down the provocative material in remaining films.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which most recently protested a picture of Britney Spears sitting provocatively in a priest's lap — the image appears in her new album, Blackout — takes this issue a little more seriously. The anti-defamation group accuses the film of "selling atheism to kids" and has produced its own booklet in response, "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked," which it's been distributing to churches and other Christian groups.

The evangelical-activist group Focus on the Family, which plans to release a statement about the film early next week, says it's in agreement with Christian leaders and organizations on the issue. Adam Holz, associate editor of Focus on the Family's Plugged In magazine, told MTV News he fears the movie would "plant seeds" to "ultimately encourage some fans to reject God."

Also, Snopes.com, which typically debunks urban legends, claims that the assertion that the film has "anti-religious" themes is "true." (Kansas State literature professor Philip Nel posted an open letter in refute, saying it would be more accurate to call it "a matter of debate.")

Ironically, this debate was exactly what New Line was trying to avoid by softening the religious references in "The Golden Compass." (Whether religion would reappear in "The Subtle Knife" or "The Amber Spyglass," producer Bob Shea told MTV News that plans weren't firm yet: "One film at a time!") So in "Compass," the revisionist Church is simply referred to as the "Magisterium," because the focus is the power of the agency, not the agency itself.

"Religion is at its best when it's far from power," author Philip Pullman said during his Times Talks appearance Tuesday. "When a religion gains power, it goes bad."

"The Church is a symbol of oppression in the books," HisDarkMaterials.org webmaster Ryan den Rooijen said, "and they've retained that essence. Even if they don't name it as the Church, it's not a terrible loss. The story is still retained."

"We'll have to deal [with God and the angels] when we get to the next bit," said "Golden Compass" director Chris Weitz. "I don't think anyone here sees it as a particularly [controversial] series of films that we're making."

"Much has already been made of the fact that New Line Cinema and this film's creators have tried to downplay any anti-church and anti-Christian bias the books it is based on may contain," Focus on the Family's Holz said. "But that bias is there."

"This is the least offensive of the three, and they're watering down the most despicable elements, so why the protest? Not because it's going to be so shocking," Catholic League President Bill Donohue said. "The protest is this: It's being done at Christmastime, and when parents don't find the film troubling, they're going to buy the books for their kids as Christmas gifts. They're doing it through the back door, in a stealth fashion, because each book becomes more provocative, more aggressive and more anti-Christian. I've never seen anything quite like this before, to use a movie like this."

"We'll obviously be happy if they led more kids to read the books," Weitz said, "because they're wonderful books. We should be so lucky. Most readers see this as a story of a young girl fighting the odds, and the intellectual content is a bit of a bonus."

Defenders of Pullman's works — who range from liberal Christians to religious scholars to readers of the books — counter that the Gnostic and Nietzschean ponderings in the series shouldn't make conservative Christians fear that their kids will be "seduced" into atheism. Calling the online chatter "fearful to the point of hysterical," Boston University religion professor Donna Freitas argues on BeliefNet.com that the challenges to traditional images of God should be welcomed, not protested, as part of a "lively dialogue about faith."

Though independent Christian groups may be opposed, not everyone in the Church is upset about that dialogue. Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams has even proposed that "His Dark Materials" be taught as part of religious education in schools.

"I found that to be one of the most provocative elements, the religious overtones, aspects, ramifications of the thing," said actor Sam Elliott, who plays Lee Scoresby in "The Golden Compass." "It's thought-provoking, is all. It's good material, good stuff. But why not deal with it? That's how I feel. It's provocative material, and deal with it as such."

"I really hope that they keep the religious subtext," said 16-year-old "His Dark Materials" fan Zoe Maltby. "If they cut it out, it makes it more like a summer blockbuster, and it's so much more than that."

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[This story was originally published on 11.02.07 at 4:27 p.m. ET]