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Much of the controversy that surrounds The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of Philip Pullman's adolescent screed against God (no one familiar with the pagan and Eastern mysticisms championed in the books could credibly call them atheist) is dissipating.
And it isn't the outrage of Christians that is killing it, but the resounding thud the film is producing at the box office. Though the $25.8 million Compass earned in its opening weekend boosted it to the top slot, that figure is far below what New Line Cinema executives were hoping for. (By comparison, Walden's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe earned more than $65 million two years ago during the same period.)
However, while Compass (rated PG-13 for fantasy violence) is a confusing bore despite its spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) effects, the fault lies not with the book's author but with the studio and director Chris Weitzman.
Weitzman and his cast went to great lengths to publicize the fact that Pullman's anti-Christian sentiments were left out of the film version. And while it's true the movie relies on nebulous terms like "the authority" to describe the totalitarian regime 11-yearold Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) and her uncle (Daniel Craig) are out to defeat in a parallel world inhabited by witches, mercenary bears, and animal spirits, there is still no doubt that the enemy is a religious one.
Not many secular organizations would concern themselves with heresy as much as the evil Magisterium does, and even fewer would decorate the walls of their outposts with paintings of saints. But by making the bad guys unrecognizable as priests by anything except their jargon, dress, and lodgings, Weitzman removes all dramatic tension from the narrative.
Any church like that Pullman portrays in his trilogy-deceitful, murderous, shallow, and power-hungry- would indeed inspire feelings of fear and revolt. By leaving out this characterization, Weitzman hits all the book's plot points without ginning up any of its corresponding emotion. We don't know why the conniving Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and her Magisterium cohorts want to experiment on kids; we don't know why they're so afraid of "dust" (what Pullman calls "experiential knowledge," but is more commonly known as sin). In fact, we don't even know what dust is because to explain it is to open the door to the very anti-religious content New Line executives were leery of including. As a result, the Magisterium comes off like arbitrary jerks rather than epic foes out to wrest all pleasure and happiness from mankind. No surprise then that little Lyra's struggle against them didn't inspire much enthusiasm with moviegoers.
Now that the box-office dust has settled, the obvious question for New Line is why buy the rights to a story whose entire point, at least according to the author, is to kill God, if you were too afraid to tell it? Weitzman himself answered that last week, telling The New York Times: "The aim is to put in the elements we need to make this movie a hit, so that we can be much less compromising in how the second and third books are shot." Translation-once we're sure we've launched a profitable fantasy franchise, then we'll go ahead with all that church-bashing.
Pullman may have been offensive in his treatment of Christianity, ignorant of every tenet of the faith, and pitiable in his sad little mutiny against heavenly authority, but at least he was honest about his aims.