The Golden Compass," directed by Chris Weitz, who fell in love with the books while directing "About a Boy," is based on the first book in a rich trilogy by nonbelieving British children's author, Philip Pullman.
Pullman wrote the books, a fantasy tour de force, in small part to counter the religious message of the Narnia series. He offers an absorbing sci-fi, freethinking, feminist rewrite of the Genesis story of Adam, Eve and original sin, drawing heavily from Milton's "Paradise Lost."
The critically-acclaimed trilogy, which was a bestseller in the United Kingdom, has an adult following and was dubbed "Harry Potter for grown-ups" by The New York Times.
The trilogy's villain is the Church, also known as the Magisterium, although that theme does not become clear until books 2 and 3. The religious make-up of the Magisterium in the film is left ambiguous; officials in one scene rage against "freethinkers and heretics."
The movie features high-powered actors such as the perfectly-cast Nicole Kidman. New Line Cinema went to astonishing lengths with expensive special effects to successfully create "The Golden Compass'" parallel universe, which includes children-pleasing "daemons," or animal-like embodiments of the souls of humans.
The Catholic League aggressively urged parents to boycott the movie, featuring a 12-year-old heroine, Lyra, who battles the "Gobblers" kidnapping children for sinister reasons. The League warned parents not to buy their children the trilogy for Christmas. Some Mormon and Protestant fundamentalists took up the cudgels.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation took complaints about public school principals recycling the Catholic League warning to parents.
Although the U.S. Catholic Conference did not condemn the movie, the Vatican did, along with many individual U.S. Catholic officials.
The Vatican newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano, called the film the "most anti-Christmas" movie ever.
The $180 million fantasy epic, although the top money-making movie the weekend of its U.S. release (Dec. 7), made a weak $26 million its opening weekend, and $9 million the following week.
But "The Golden Compass" was "golden overseas," as an entertainment writer for the Kansas City Star noted. It did three times the business ($90 million) abroad, where it is better known, in the first two weeks of its European release.
"Australians have voted on 'The Golden Compass' with their wallets, giving the film a big $1.6 million Boxing Day [Dec. 26] opening despite its mixed fortunes in the U.S.," reported the Herald Sun.
As Variety put it: "The action-fantasy should remain a respectable, rather than blockbuster, player among families through the holiday season,"
How well the film does will determine whether the rest of the trilogy will be adapted to the screen.
Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave a thumb's up:
"'The Golden Compass' is a darker, deeper fantasy epic than the 'Rings' trilogy, 'The Chronicles of Narnia' or the 'Potter' films. It springs from the same British world of quasi-philosophical magic, but creates more complex villains and poses more intriguing questions. As a visual experience, it is superb. As an escapist fantasy, it is challenging. Teenagers may be absorbed and younger children captivated;. . . .
"Let me just say that I think 'The Golden Compass' is a wonderfully good-looking movie, with exciting passages and a captivating heroine in Lyra. That the controversy surrounding it obscures its function as a splendid entertainment. That for adults, it will not be boring or too simplistic."
Meanwhile, Catholic denunciations continue:
"As archbishop, I caution all Catholics regarding the atheistic and anti-Catholic nature of Mr. Pullman's writings, upon which 'The Golden Compass' is based," intoned St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke.
"The aggressively antireligious, antiChristian undercurrent in 'The Golden Compass' is unmistakable and at times undisguised," said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver.
Bishop Jerome Listecki of La Crosse, Wis., instructed his priests to warn parents against the film and the book series on which it was based:
"Instead of using fantasy to lead people to truth and to God, this trilogy tries to lead them away from God.
"Despite the engaging special effects and famous actors involved, it is clear that this movie is the first part of a trilogy that expresses hatred of Christianity and that portrays God, the Church and religion as evil and oppressive and urges children to join fallen angels in a rebellion against God."
Bishop Listecki concluded: "I urge you to caution the faithful, especially parents, against this pernicious attack on the foundations of our Christian faith and on the innocence of our children."
Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said:
"We warmly recommend the books and movie to freethinkers and urge them to support the movie. It is important for the future of freethought representation in films to support this major Hollywood effort involving the most important freethinking novels ever penned for children."
Listen to Freethought Radio's interview of articulate author Philip Pullman (Dec. 8, 2007 show) at: ffrf.org/radio/.