When I first heard that a film was being made of The Golden Compass, the first novel in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- and that it was being adapted as a family film -- I thought to myself, "Hmmm ... I wonder how they're going to pull THAT off." Then I heard the planned release date -- just in time for Christmas, 2007 -- and then I sat back and waited for the inevitable storm of controversy that would start swirling as soon as Christian groups got wind of the film and its storyline.
The other day, Fox had this story about Christian groups claiming The Golden Compass is a "stealth atheism campaign" aimed at children, which starts out, "A children's fantasy film that stars Nicole Kidman and features a little girl on a quest to kill God has some Christian groups upset over what they believe is a ploy to promote atheism to kids." The story goes on to note that New Line has taken most of the "godless" elements out of the film and that the studio has made a film that focuses on the "entertaining fantasy" elements of the story.
The opener of the Fox article is annoyingly misleading right off the bat; The Golden Compass is not a story about a little girl on a quest to kill God, it's about a little girl, Lyra (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards in the film), on a quest to find her friend, who's been kidnapped by Mrs. Coulter (played by Kidman in the film). Lyra is never on a quest to kill God, she's on a quest to find out why children are disappearing, and in the process she becomes involved with a plot concerning her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and Mrs. Coulter, and a mysterious substance called "dust" that may or may not have something to do with sin.
The plot involves (in the books at least) one side (the Church) trying to rid the world of sin by committing atrocious acts against children, while the other side, headed up by Lord Asriel, which is trying to stop them, are not clearly the "good guys" either. Unless someone has substantially changed the plot for the film to something that is certainly not in the book (and I doubt that, given that New Line would like this film to be marketable), saying this story is about a little girl trying to kill God is both misleading and irresponsible.
On the other side, you have the atheists and hardcore fans of the His Dark Materials series, who are not happy at hearing that the explicitly anti-religious theme of the books has been watered down to appease middle America. The thing is, while The Golden Compass is a fantastic book to make into a film, with heaps of fantasy elements that just cry out for wicked special effects, it's also a hard story to know how to market. The story centers around a 12-year-old heroine, which ought to make it a good film to market to the tween audience, but the material is heavy, darker even than the later books in the Harry Potter series. It deals with weighty themes and philosophical questions that would challenge the thinking of most adults. And the source material is controversial and offensive to a big chunk of the American demographic -- the Christian Right.
I've already seen some controversy around the film swirling around on some of the homeschooling discussion lists I'm on, and stories like the Fox one are starting to pop up. When I mentioned on one homeschool list that my 10-year-old daughter is a fan of the series (she also really got into the viral marketing campaign, and created her own daemon on the film's official site as soon as that came out) and has been looking forward to the film since it was first announced, I had people who have never even read the book saying things like, they couldn't imagine any parent "allowing" their child to read a book that had the kidnapping and murder of children -- not to mention that whole anti-God theme.
We're not really big on censorship in our house, nor do we assume that our kids aren't intellectually capable of processing reading material with heavier themes. The Harry Potter series, for instance, has been the focal point of many philosophical discussions around our dinner table, as has the Narnia series, which we're just wrapping up with our nightly read-aloud storytime. If anything, the controversy around The Golden Compass.would have encouraged me to see it with my daughter, even if we hadn't already read the books. But at the same time, I also recognize that not all families are like mine, and a lot of parents would not allow their kids to read these books.
Preachers, if they haven't already, will no doubt be pounding their pulpits urging their congregations to keep their kids far away from the film. And the thing is, while they're not entirely right about the film's content (I can't say just how much until I'm able to actually see it for myself), neither are they entirely wrong. The books in the His Dark Materials series are far more blatantly anti-religious than the Harry Potter series, which some Christian groups also oppose. (It's worth noting that the opposition of Christians to that series hasn't exactly hurt Harry Potter in either book sales or box office receipts). I don't expect it will matter much to the harder-core Christian set that the story is set in a fictional world, and that the God in question is not necessarily their God. It's enough that characters in the book are going after the "higher authority," whether he's a God made up for the purpose of this story or the God they choose to pray to. I suppose Pullman could have made it easier on himself by calling the God in his story Zeus or something -- but then again perhaps it was his intent to make it somewhat ambiguous whether the God and the Church in the His Dark Materials stories are intended to be the ones from Christian theology or not.
What remains to be seen is whether the controversy around The Golden Compass , which opens December 7, will help or hinder it at the box office. If enough Christians stay away from the film, will it be enough of a dent to make a difference? Or will all the brouhaha merely serve to stir more interest in the film that will give it a box office boost? The box office has been rather unpredictable this fall, so at this point it's anyone's guess; the folks at New Line, which has a lot invested in the film doing well, are no doubt on edge waiting for the film's opening day and reviews and word-of-mouth. I have to give the studio kudos for taking on such a challenging film, and for not being afraid to market pretty serious and dark material to a younger audience. Will the The Golden Compass hit the mark with sci-fi and fantasy fans, and with the hard core fans of the books, as well as with that all-important tween market? The aletheomiter might know the truth, but so far, it's hard to interpret what that will mean for the film.