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October 28, 2007 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed


Tests of faith over 'Compass'

In adapting Philip Pullman's novel, New Line is in a tight spot between the book's true-believer following and those who find it anti-religious.
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By Gina Piccalo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

DOES this scenario sound familiar? Movie studio bets the house on a beloved epic fantasy trilogy, filling fans of the novels with as much breathless anticipation as dread.

The studio is the same: New Line Cinema. But adapting "The Golden Compass" -- the first in Philip Pullman's complex and heady series "His Dark Materials" -- is far trickier a gamble than "The Lord of the Rings." This time around, New Line's grappling with a story that many perceive as anti-religious, written by an outspoken atheist who merges fairy tale characters with Christian theology, quantum physics and Nietzschean pondering. And it has entrusted the $180-million, special effects-heavy production to Chris Weitz, a director best known for his romantic comedies.

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All this leaves New Line in a precarious spot, trying to please fans who relish Pullman's philosophical and theological puzzles without alienating the very bankable Christian masses.

Predictably, the film, opening Dec. 7, already has raised the ire of one outspoken conservative, Catholic League President William Donahue. Earlier this month, he called on Christians to boycott the movie because it will "seduce" parents into buying Pullman's "pro-atheist" book. Thus far, Donahue's blanket mailing to media and other religious groups of his exhaustive 30-page brochure titled "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked" seems to have done little more than help promote the film.

Of course, all that hubbub about Harry Potter promoting witchcraft to kids didn't stop that franchise from becoming the highest-grossing film series of all time. But Donahue's protest got the attention of James Dobson's evangelical Christian behemoth Focus on the Family, the moral activists who review films and books for an audience of 5 million -- though even that group's protests of Fox Searchlight's 2004 film on pioneering sex researcher "Kinsey" and the TV cartoon "SpongeBob Squarepants" didn't significantly affect viewership of either. That group expects to take a stand on the film and the trilogy next month.

Pullman fans, meanwhile, seem to be conflicted about Hollywood's take on the series. Around the same time that Donahue piped up this month, Weitz prompted anguished cries from fans with his announcement that the script (which he is adapting) would not include the book's last three cliffhanger chapters. Instead, those will be pushed into the sequel "The Subtle Knife," a film the studio has yet to confirm. One despairing fan vowed not to see the film and declared on fansite that the change marked "the death of Golden Compass (the movie)."

A few days later, Britain's National Secular Society, of which Pullman is an honorary associate, told the U.K.'s Observer that the filmmakers were "taking the heart" out of the series by removing its "anti-religious elements."

Weitz has kept fans apprised of the reasoning behind his decisions and Pullman has consistently chimed his enthusiasm for the production, the casting and the script. Indeed, Pullman has helped write a number of scenes for the film and has always wanted Nicole Kidman in the role of Mrs. Coulter, an evil beauty with bewitching charm.

"I'm very happy with the work the filmmakers have done," he wrote in an Oct. 11 post on his website. "And no one wants this film to succeed more, or believes in it more firmly, than I do."

As for the debate over the film's handling of the book's theological themes, Weitz considers that "a bit of a tempest in a teapot."

"I believe the film is about honor and courage and loyalty and free choice and the human will and it's not really about all the issues people are really keen to slam us with," he said, calling from the famed Abbey Road recording studio in London where he was completing the film's music. "It's coming from people who are unwilling to read the books with an open mind."

Parallel universe

THE "Golden Compass" movie is set in a parallel universe similar to Oxford, England, where everyone's soul is physically manifested as a "daemon" or talking animal counselor. Witch clans patrol from the skies and warrior polar bears do battle. The malevolent governing body "the Magisterium" -- also referenced in the book as "the Church" -- is racing to decipher the true nature of the mystical particles known as "Dust" by kidnapping children and cutting away the invisible thread that bonds them to their daemons, which, in essence, removes their souls. Lyra Belacqua (12-year-old newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a canny urchin raised by scholars, is thrust into the drama when her best friend is snatched.

But to rescue him, Lyra must outwit Kidman's Mrs. Coulter as well as her ex-lover, the mysterious Lord Asriel, played by Daniel Craig, and survive all nature of mythological adversaries along the way.

"The Golden Compass" was first published in the U.K. by Scholastic in 1995 as "Northern Lights," and the book was selected by judges of the Carnegie Medal as one of the 10 most important children's novels of the past 70 years. "The Subtle Knife" was published in 1997, followed in 2000 by "The Amber Spyglass." New Line bought the film rights to the series in 2002.

Pullman fans rival those of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling in their fervor. During the three years it has taken to bring "The Golden Compass" to the screen, they crafted homemade fan films to satisfy their yearning. On websites such as His and BridgetotheStars .net, they track every slight deviation the screenplay makes from the novel. Some still bemoan that Kidman's Mrs. Coulter has blond hair, not black as the character had in the book.

Pullman himself has long denied that his books are anti-Catholic. He was unavailable to comment, the studio said, because of scheduling conflicts. But in a 2004 post still featured on his website, he wrote that his main quarrel is with the "literalist, fundamentalist nature of absolute power" and "those who pervert and misuse religion, or any other kind of doctrine with a holy book and a priesthood and an apparatus of power that wields unchallengeable authority, in order to dominate and suppress human freedoms."

Still, fans energetically debate Pullman's intent. Some consider his trilogy a cutting-edge work of Christian theology.

Pullman's refutations aside, Catholic theology in the books is depicted as sinister and the villains are often cardinals and priests. The "Church," or the "Magisterium," answers to the "Vatican Council," and kidnaps children, tortures witches and aims to suppress all natural impulses and control the world. In one book, "Dust" is described as the physical manifestation of Original Sin.

In the film, however, there's no mention of the Church or Catholicism. The bad guys are known only as the Magisterium, which in fact is the term the Roman Catholic Church uses to describe its body charged with interpreting "the Word of God." Weitz, who described himself on one fan site as "a lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist," explained those changes to fans in 2004 as a way to allay the studio's early concern that the "perceived anti-religiosity" of "His Dark Materials" would make the franchise "an unviable project."

Kidman, who was raised Catholic, spoke up in defense of the film, telling Entertainment Weekly last summer "the Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic." Weitz said she has already tentatively signed on to star in the sequel "The Subtle Knife" should there be one. Though the studio won't commit to a second or third film before "Compass" proves to be a box office success, screenwriter Hossein Amini was hired early this year to adapt "The Subtle Knife."

Weitz has called "The Golden Compass" "the most important work of my life." It's by far the largest and most expensive. The film includes 1,100 special effects shots created by half a dozen or so effects houses. Weitz is best known for the comedies "American Pie" and "About a Boy"; his most expensive film was 2001's "Down to Earth," with a budget of $35 million.

In fact, Weitz famously had such early qualms about the project's enormity he quit the production in late 2004 and returned only after the studio fired his replacement, director Anand Tucker.

Making a point

NEW LINE executives would not directly address the Catholic League's protest or the film's handling of religious themes. Chris Carlisle, the studio's president of theatrical marketing, said in a statement only that the film "is an exciting fantasy adventure film that we believe families will enjoy."

But the studio made its point in other ways. One studio spokeswoman pointed to an Oct. 16 article in Wales' Western Mail newspaper in which Pullman complained that "this must be the only film attacked in the same week for being too religious and for being anti-religious -- and by people who haven't seen it."

"Golden Compass" producer Kyle Good helped further the conversation without actually granting an interview. Good wrangled author Donna Freitas, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University who, with Jason King, co-wrote "Killing the Impostor God: Philip Pullman's Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials," published last month. (Freitas said she wasn't helping market the film, but her book "serendipitously" addressed many of the issues raised by the League's protest, so she obliged the studio's request that she speak with The Times.)

"This is a thrilling, cutting-edge work of Christian theology," said Freitas, who is Catholic. "What's distressing about [League President] Bill Donahue's message is he's talking about 'His Dark Materials' as if it's this atheist manifesto geared at children. He's forgetting this is a wonderful literary fantasy for children. It's a story first."

That may be true for books, but movie adaptations are often on a different page. Riding on the coattails of this fancy yarn are hundreds of millions of dollars, more than a few careers and the loyalties of an army of fans. But if New Line gets this one right, look out Harry, little Lyra's going to give you a run for your money.

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