— The plot sounds familiar: movie takes on religion, angers some faction of believers.
But the furor surrounding "The Golden Compass," a $180-million fantasy epic coming to theaters next Friday, is more complex than that.
Based on the first volume in the award-winning trilogy "His Dark Materials" by religious skeptic Philip Pullman, the movie already has been condemned by conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals. They say it will hook children into Pullman's books and a dark, individualistic world where all religion is evil.
But at least one liberal scholar has called the trilogy a "theological masterpiece," and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rates the film "intelligent and well-crafted entertainment."
Meanwhile, some secularists complain the movie from New Line Cinemas waters down Pullman's religious critique. They feel sold out by the author, who has described himself as both an atheist and agnostic.
Starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, "The Golden Compass" traces a 12-year-old girl named Lyra from Oxford, England, to the Arctic to the edge of another universe, where she becomes locked in a battle between good and evil. The characters are shadowed by their own "daemons," talking animal companions that take on soul-like qualities.
In early October, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a boycott of the film, calling it "selling atheism to kids" at Christmastime in stealth fashion.
Director Chris Weitz has said he cut controversial religious content to make the film more commercially viable, with the plan of being more faithful to the original material in sequels.
For instance, the evil organization dominating the world is not "the church," as it is in the book, but the "Magisterium," which is getting criticism anyway because it's a Catholic term.
The later books are even more direct in their religious criticism. One character, a former nun, says: "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." Pullman himself has said, "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief."
Britain's National Secular Society, of which Pullman is a member, has said the changes made to avoid controversy amount to "taking the heart" out of the work.
Yet the film's co-producer, Deborah Forte, said that in 12 years of being associated with the movie and the books, not one young reader has mentioned religion to her. Children love the story and the characters, she said.
"I think it's a tempest in a teapot," Forte said Friday. "What we find interesting about our film is we've made this wonderful epic adventure story for families. ... We encourage parents to make their own decisions."
"The Golden Compass" arrives at an opportune time. Books by atheists are best-sellers, Hollywood studios are plumbing the fantasy genre for the next big franchise, and movies exploring faith are finding a place at the multiplex, if not always box office success.
The Pullman series follows the release of the first movie based on Christian author C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia." Both feature epic battles, talking animals, polar bears and a wardrobe. But from there, the works diverge.
Catholic author Sandra Miesel is among those who call "His Dark Materials" the "anti-Narnia." Miesel co-authored a forthcoming book, "Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy."
Among her complaints: Every clergy person is evil, and their daemons typically take the form of snakes or frogs. And standing in contrast to the Christian belief in heaven, Pullman's afterlife consists of bodies breaking into particles and being recycled into the material world.
But Miesel isn't a believer in protests.
"That only gives it more publicity," she said. "I merely suggest that if you look at what the material is about, you might find it advisable to stay home, go to another movie, or read a good book."
Other critiques have appeared on evangelical blogs and Web sites. Adam Holz of Focus on the Family, writing on the Christian ministry's Plugged In site, calls Pullman's books and the film a "deliberate attempt to foist his viciously anti-God beliefs upon his audience."
Most diabolical, Holz said in an interview, is that Pullman's audience is children, setting it apart from another book-to-movie some Christians view as heretical _ "The DaVinci Code."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting gave the film, which is rated PG-13, a warm review. The film is not blatantly anti-Catholic but a "generalized rejection of authoritarianism," it said.
While noting the story's "spirit of rebellion and stark individualism," the office said Lyra and her allies' stand for free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium is "entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching."
Sister Rose Paccate, director of the Pauline Center of Media Studies in Culver City, Calif., said the books portray benevolence toward children and a God figure _ just one that's much different than the one Christians know.
She sees irony in calls to shun the film, considering that one of Pullman's central themes is that people should not follow orders and forfeit critical thought.
"If you just say 'no' to your kids without engaging in a conversation, they're going to see the movie anyway and all you're teaching them is power, not really teaching your values," Paccate said. "If we have faith, what are we afraid of?"
Donna Freitas, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University, goes a step further, calling the books a "theological masterpiece." Pullman's intent aside, she views the trilogy as a treatise on Christian belief.
To Freitas, the series' mysterious "Dust" _ portrayed in the books as connected to original sin _ represents the Holy Spirit. Pullman is not attacking religion but those who use power to corrupt, she said.
Freitas, who co-authored a book on Pullman and religion, says that "ultimately, the arch of the trilogy is about revealing God."
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