How Hollywood Saved God

It took five years, two screenwriters, and $180 million to turn a best-selling antireligious children’s book into a star-studded epic—just in time for Christmas.
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Golden Compass
GET ME REWRITE! A bear king on his throne in a scene from The Golden Compass

This month, New Line Cinema will release The Golden Compass, based on the first book in a trilogy of edgy children’s novels written by the British author Philip Pullman. A trailer for the movie evokes The Lord of the Rings, and comparisons have been made to The Chronicles of Narnia. All three are epic adventures that unfold in a rich fantasy world, perfect for the big screen. But beyond that basic description, the comparisons fall apart. In the past, Pullman has expressed mainly contempt for the books on which the other movies were based. He once dismissed the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an “infantile work” primarily concerned with “maps and plans and languages and codes.” Narnia got it even worse: “Morally loathsome,” he called it. “One of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” He described his own series as Narnia’s moral opposite. “That’s the Christian one,” he told me. “And mine is the non-Christian.”

From the archives:

Dispatch: "Compass Without Direction" (December 5, 2007)
The movie version of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass creates a luminous fantasy world, but loses the book's magnetic force of meaning. By Hanna Rosin

Pullman’s books have sold 15 million copies worldwide, although it’s difficult to imagine adolescent novels any more openly subversive. The series, known collectively as His Dark Materials, centers on Lyra Belacqua, a preteen orphan who’s pursued by a murderous institution known as “the Magisterium.” Or to use the more familiar name, “the Holy Church.” In its quest to eradicate sin, the Church sanctions experiments involving the kidnap and torture of hundreds of children—experiments that separate body from soul and leave the children to stumble around zombie-like, and then die.

The series builds up to a cataclysmic war between Heaven and Earth, on the model of Paradise Lost (the source of the phrase his dark materials). But in Pullman’s version, God is revealed to be a charlatan more pitiable even than Oz. His death scene is memorable only for its lack of drama and dignity: The feeble, demented being, called “the ancient of days,” cowers and cries like a baby, dissolving in air. The final book climaxes, so to speak, in a love scene that could rattle the sensibilities of an American culture that tolerates even Girls Gone Wild, because in this case the girl is still a few years away from college. (More on this later.)

Four years ago, before anyone worried about marketing a movie, Pullman wondered why his books hadn’t attracted as much controversy as the Harry Potter series—another Hollywood favorite. As he told The Sydney Morning Herald, he was “saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”

In 2001, Pullman became the first author to win the prestigious Whitbread Award for a children’s book—The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the series. A six-hour London theater production of the books sold out its entire four-month run even before the reviews were published. Many of Pullman’s avid adult fans seek out his books because of his critique of religion. But they, like his adolescent readers, get drawn into his world by his fantastic imagination.

The series begins in a parallel Oxford, England, at “Jordan College,” where the familiar and the fantastic coexist. Lyra is the anti-Disney heroine: an unruly, unteachable orphan cared for by the university’s dons who spits and lies her way out of trouble. She cobbles together a family from other brave, reckless cast-offs like herself: a kitchen boy; a young, runaway murderer; gypsies and witches. For a time she finds a surrogate father in Iorek Byrnison, a deposed bear king decked out in metal armor who speeds her through one of several parallel worlds. (As with most fantasies, any attempt to summarize plot and character edges too close to Dungeons & Dragons. Trust me, in the novels it all hangs together.) Her most intimate relationship is with her “daemon,” a soul that lives outside the body in animal form. In Lyra’s world, a child’s daemon can change form—hers can shift rapidly from moth to ermine to rat, depending on her mood—until its companion hits puberty, at which point it settles as a fitting animal. The daemons of the Holy Church functionaries? They tend to be dogs.

To an industry intoxicated with sophisticated visual effects, Pullman’s creations were irresistible. In 2003, when describing what sold him on the movie, Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained, “It was two words: Iorek Byrnison.” Iorek is an “insanely awesome character,” he added. “He can’t tell a lie,” Emmerich told me recently, “and [Lyra] is an expert liar.” And Hollywood had a precedent in the perfect chemistry between Narnia’s little Lucy and the special-effects lion Aslan. (Of course, Aslan is a stand-in for Jesus, while Iorek helps Lyra conquer the forces of God.)

New Line commissioned the first script in 2002. In the five years since—spanning two writers, two directors, and several scripts—the studio has spent enormous energy sorting out exactly how to characterize the villains in the movie.

You can probably guess how things turned out. Given enough time and effort, Hollywood can tweak and polish and recast even the darkest message until it would seem at home in a Fourth of July parade. In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable. The studio settled on villains that, as Emmerich put it, “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian/KGB/SS” stew. The movie’s main theme became, in one producer’s summary, “One small child can save the world.” With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.

When director Ridley Scott was shooting Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick had a feverish, paranoid vision of the filming. He imagined himself seizing leading man Harrison Ford by the throat and “battering him against the wall,” he told The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1982. He imagined security guards netting him with a blanket and forcing Thorazine on him as he screamed, “You’ve destroyed my book!”

By that standard, Pullman has remained serene about the translation of his own book to film. In August, I met him in Oxford, where he used to live before too many fans came knocking at his door (he now lives a few miles outside of town). Despite his frequent combative essays in British papers, Pullman in person is an exceedingly amiable man. At 61, he preserves the air of the middle-school teacher he once was. He is tall, with tufts of gray hair and sly, amused eyes. When we met, he wore a rumpled oxford shirt and carried a beat-up leather satchel. It’s easy to imagine him meeting dull student questions with the liveliest of answers.

In the past, Pullman has defended the “good faith of the film-makers” and denied any “betrayal.” On the surface, his relationship with the studio has remained “cordial,” as he put it. The director, Chris Weitz, has made several pilgrimages to Oxford, and the two men exchange e-mails. Pullman got to review a video of the final 50 candidates for the part of Lyra, and he has made script suggestions. Still, the studio publicist seemed nervous when she heard I was going to visit him. All things being equal, Pullman told me, New Line would prefer he were, well, the late author of The Golden Compass. Dead? “Yes! Absolutely!” If something happened to him, there “would be expressions of the most heartfelt regrets, yet privately they would be saying, ‘Thank God.’”

When we met, Pullman had just been to a screening of the film, and he praised many specific scenes. He was thrilled with Dakota Blue Richards, the previously unknown English schoolgirl who plays Lyra. And with Nicole Kidman, whom he described as having the “exact quality of warm and cold, seductive and terrifying” to portray the tender and evil Marisa Coulter. In discussing the film, he chose his words carefully, acknowledging that his role now is to be “sensible” so that the next two films get made. Nonetheless, he was honest about what was missing: “They do know where to put the theology,” he said, “and that’s off the film.”

Long silence. Then, “I think if everything that is made explicit in the book or everything that is implied clearly in the book or everything that can be understood by a close reading of the book were present in the film, they’d have the biggest hit they’ve ever had in their lives. If they allowed the religious meaning of the book to be fully explicit, it would be a huge hit. Suddenly, they’d have letters of appreciation from people who felt this but never dared say it. They would be the heroes of liberal thought, of freedom of thought … And it would be the greatest pity if that didn’t happen.

“I didn’t put that very well. What I mean is that I want this film to succeed in every possible way. And what I don’t want to do, you see, is talk the other two films out of existence. So I’ll stop there.”

Witch Queen
THE WITCH QUEEN Serafina Pekkala, played by Eva Green, flies above a land denuded of religious imagery.

Pullman has expressed admiration for Richard Dawkins, a fellow British atheist. Like him, Pullman views the prevailing forms of religion as destructive and oppressive forces in history. “Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him,” he once said. But his views are not as coldly antiseptic as Dawkins’s. He grew up going to Sunday school and has only fond memories of serving as a choirboy in his grandfather’s rural Anglican parish. One of Pullman’s favorite subjects is the moral power of stories, and he can sound preacher-like when he addresses it. “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he once wrote. Pullman’s own books are full of the mysticism and grandeur often associated with religion, which is no doubt part of their appeal. “We need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things the Kingdom of Heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver,” he said in a 2000 speech.

When pressed, Pullman grants that he’s not really trying to kill God, but rather the outdated idea of God as an old guy with a beard in the sky. In his novels, he replaces the idea of God with “Dust,” made up of invisible particles that begin to cluster around people when they hit puberty. The Church believes Dust to be the physical evidence of original sin and hopes to eradicate it. But over the course of the series, Pullman reveals it to be the opposite: evidence of human consciousness, a kind of godlike energy that surrounds everyone. People accumulate Dust by “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on.” It starts to build up around puberty because, for Pullman, sexual awakening triggers the beginning of self-knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To him, the loss of sexual innocence is not a tragedy; it’s the springboard to a productive and virtuous adulthood.

The most curious aspect of Pullman’s theology is the primacy he places on teen sexuality; like the best heavy-metal songs, the whole series builds up to a celebration of losing your virginity, or at least getting to first base. In The Amber Spyglass, a former nun turned physicist guides Lyra to her destiny using clues from the I Ching. The physicist divines that she should tell Lyra the story of when she was 12 years old at a birthday party and a boy “took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth,” and she fell in love.

This simple story sets off salvation. When she hears it, Lyra “felt something strange happen to her body. She felt a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster.” (At least that’s what she felt in the British edition; the American version leaves these lines out.) A few scenes later, Lyra, alone in the woods with her friend Will, lifts a little red fruit “gently to his mouth.” They bump together clumsily, and Will is soon described, in terms familiar to Playboy readers, “kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body,” his nerves “ablaze.” What happens next is not entirely clear. The scene is intended as a rewriting of Genesis, with Lyra replaying the role of Eve, so presumably some nakedness is required. But she and Will are still several years shy of 18, which might make the scene’s fullest implication illegal in some states. When critics accused Pullman of sanctioning underage sex, he said: “Nowhere in the book do I talk about anything more than a kiss. And as a child, a kiss is enough. A kiss can change the world.” What the novel says is, “Around them there was nothing but silence, as if all the world were holding its breath.” When they return from the woods, after an ambiguous gap in the narrative, holding hands and “oblivious to everything else,” all is suddenly well with the world: “The Dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home again, and these children-no-longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all.”

“This is exactly what happens in the Garden of Eden,” Pullman told me. “They become aware of sexuality, of the power the body has to attract attention from someone else. This is not only natural, but a wonderful thing! To be celebrated! Why the Christian Church has spent 2,000 years condemning this glorious moment, well, that’s a mystery. I want to confront that, I suppose, by telling a story that this so-called original sin is anything but. It’s the thing that makes us fully human.”

Pullman gets annoyed whenever he recalls a passage in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: In the final book of the series, Lewis excludes Susan Pevensie, the oldest sister, from what is essentially Paradise because she is “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Pullman, in an essay called “The Dark Side of Narnia,” cites this as evidence that Lewis disliked women and sexuality and was “frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.”

The Narnia series, in his view, embraces a worldview that comes close to “life-hating ideology”—punishing, misogynistic, racist, and death-obsessed. By contrast, his own books are filled with a kind of warmth, an exuberance for finding utopia in this life. When he loses patience with his Christian critics, he lists the values he promotes in his own stories: tolerance, love, kindness, courage, duty, individual freedom over blind obedience. The series ends with Lyra realizing she has to return to her world and separate from Will. She is heartbroken, but accepts that this is the only way she can fulfill her ultimate destiny, which is to help build the “Republic of Heaven.” She understands this to be a paradise on Earth where she can learn to be “kind and curious and patient,” and where she can rely on her own knowledge and wisdom, not the mandates of God or the Magisterium. This reads as a moment of heroic idealism, one that not so subtly mocks the whole notion of a Kingdom of Heaven that rules and oppresses us while we live, and from which we are excluded until after we die.

In 2002, New Line commissioned the English playwright Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay for The Golden Compass. As a playwright, Stoppard is drawn to the dark and philosophical. His biggest success in Hollywood came from co-writing a comedy (Shakespeare in Love), which The Golden Compass is decidedly not. So New Line should not have been surprised by the outcome. In its choice of villains, Stoppard’s script stays relatively faithful to Pullman. The script introduces Father MacPhail, an odious clergyman with a lizard daemon, who in a later book tries to kill Lyra. In intermittent scenes, MacPhail and other clerics gather to discuss Dust and heresy. Stoppard told The New York Times that he turned in the script in 2003 and didn’t hear back from the studio for quite some time. Ultimately, New Line decided the script was “too intellectual,” and “not Lyra-centric enough.” Stoppard “was interested in the discussions between old men with beards,” Pullman told me, “and those discussions are only important in how they affect Lyra.”

In 2004, while it was sitting on Stoppard’s script, the studio received an unsolicited 40-page adaptation plan from the screenwriter and director Chris Weitz. Given his résumé, Weitz was an unlikely candidate. He was best known for directing, with his brother, Paul, the raunchy teenage comedy American Pie. He also co-directed and co-wrote About a Boy (based on the Nick Hornby novel), which was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Although The Golden Compass was on an entirely different scale, Weitz made a convincing case for himself. He wrote that he, too, had attended an “Oxbridge College,” in his case, Trinity College, Cambridge, where he’d studied 17th-century literature and Milton’s Paradise Lost. A friend had given Pullman’s books to Weitz while he was filming About a Boy, and when he imagined them onscreen, they seemed to him “everything I loved about moviemaking.” He loved the combination of epic adventure and coming-of-age story; in the books, the drama comes as much from Lyra’s learning her true identity as it does from the battle scenes. He loved that the hero was a girl who was stubborn and defiant. And he loved that even the battles seemed beautiful and elegant, not “bunches of armies hacking at each other.” The studio reportedly called Stoppard and told him not to do any more work on the script.

Weitz got the job as writer and director, and immediately set out to prove to Pullman’s devoted fan base that he deserved it. In December 2004, before he’d started filming, Weitz did a Q&A with bridgetothestars.net, the main Pullman fan site. Weitz was intelligent, expansive, self-deprecating, and honest. The interview turned out to be a fiasco:

BRIDGETOTHESTARS.NET: Do you think any of the more controversial aspects of HDM (like the portrayal of religion) will be toned down or removed altogether?

CHRIS WEITZ: Here we are at the heart of the matter. This will certainly be the issue that will ignite the most controversy amongst fans and amongst the general public …

New Line is a company that makes films for economic returns. You would hardly expect them to be anything else. They have expressed worry about the possibility of HDM’s perceived antireligiosity making it an unviable project financially … Needless to say, all my best efforts will be directed towards keeping HDM as liberating and iconoclastic an experience as I can. But there may be some modification of terms. You will probably not hear of the “Church” but you will hear of the Magisterium. Those who will understand will understand. I have no desire to change the nature or intentions of the villains of the piece, but they may appear in more subtle guises.

“Economic returns.” “Unviable project financially.” This is not the kind of boardroom blather a fan committed to the darkest side of His Dark Materials wants to hear. The message boards quickly soured on Weitz. “Like it or lump it, Pullman’s atheism is an integral part of his novels,” one fan wrote. “I’m led to assume that Weitz isn’t currently pursuing a career in spin only because he’s crap at it,” sneered another. The Times of London ran a story headlined “God Is Cut From Film of Dark Materials.”

Weitz had believed that his (safe) take on Pullman’s theology—the Magisterium represents an oppressive theocracy or a totalitarian state, not religion in general—was widely shared. He hadn’t quite realized that the loudest part of Pullman’s fan base regarded that interpretation as a cop-out. These fans were committed to the broader interpretation of the villain’s identity as God himself. In their defense, Pullman does spell this out rather unambiguously, for those who missed the earlier hints, in the final book: “The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself.”

Weitz told me that after reading the Times story, he went into a cold sweat. “Why am I doing this?” he remembered thinking. “I’ll end up being hated by the fans and ripped into by the press. And this is a huge, huge endeavor. Maybe this isn’t for me.” All of a sudden, he felt overwhelmed by all of it: the visual effects, the cost and scope of the project. Only a short time after Weitz got his dream directing job, he backed out of it.

In 2005, the studio hired the British director Anand Tucker, best known for directing Shopgirl. In under a year, Tucker too was gone (“Creative differences,” the studio said). New Line persuaded Weitz, who’d stayed on as screenwriter, to become the director again. By then, he told me, “I’d started to care less about what people might think of me.” Besides, he added, “This thing about the books being antireligion is a bit of a canard. They are, in fact, very spiritual.”

Studios usually try to maintain good relations with authors, especially when an author has a large fan base. When Weitz came back to the project, he took comfort in an e-mail exchange he had with Pullman. He had asked him whether a “version that wasn’t superficially so much a critique of organized dogmatic religions would fly with him,” and Pullman, Weitz reported, “didn’t seem particularly bothered by that.”

Pullman has at times offered up a similar interpretation of his work, calling Soviet Russia, for example, a form of theocracy: “They start with a Holy Book that’s inerrant, in that case the writings of Marx,” he told me. “They have doctors of the ‘Church,’ and a priesthood that has privileges not afforded to common people. They have a teleological view of history moving inexorably to a certain point. They have demons, who are called traitors. So are there examples of the Magisterium in the secular world? Of course.” But when I asked whether he considered this a limited interpretation of his views and not the “heart of the matter,” he smiled mischievously and suggested I put down, “Pullman nodded enthusiastically.”

The heart of the matter is introduced at the end of the first book and is critical to the progression of the rest of the series. It was in the earliest versions of the movie script, but over time it has been slowly erased. In the book, Lord Asriel, an enigmatic explorer, lectures Lyra on the story of Adam and Eve. In Lyra and Asriel’s world, the story goes: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one’s daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat.”

According to Western religions, human history began with the Creation. But the cruel world as we know it began with the moment when Eve ate the fruit and then gave it to Adam. This is the Fall, which brought on sin and suffering. Adam and Eve were cursed by God and expelled from Eden. (The full consequences of their act are laid out in a photo display at the new creationist museum in Kentucky: viruses, death, war, concentration camps, and starvation in Sudan.) Asriel is unsettled by this interpretation of history. Over time, witches reveal that Lyra’s destiny is to replay the Eve story and undo original sin. Lyra fulfills this destiny in the third novel when she does whatever she does with Will. For the purpose of streamlining the plot, the reversed Eve story is perfect: simple, elegant, and accessible. And, as Pullman points out, it “comes at the point in the story when we most need that explanation.” But no $180 million movie is going to trash the first book of the Bible, so the movie will have to do without it.

The earlier scripts made passing reference to the Fall. In the Stoppard script, Asriel, in a rage about the Authority, mocks the “apple of desire” and the “fig-leaf of shame”; a few scenes later Coulter, the evil Nicole Kidman character, yells at Asriel, “You can’t conquer God!” Weitz told me he’d originally written an opening scene showing Lyra in a college chapel listening to a sermon about the alternative Genesis, “but that movie was not going to get made.” A Weitz script dated December 2004 makes no explicit reference to Genesis. Instead, the theology is mediated entirely through a discussion of Dust, which, according to your taste, is either more highbrow or just more muddled. Asriel tells Lyra that people believe Dust is sin and that it brings on misery. He says he will set out to destroy Dust and essentially reverse the consequences of original sin: “When I do—pain, sin, suffering—death itself will die.”

The final, shooting script includes no mention of sin or the end of death. As Emmerich told me, Dust is “akin to the Force” in Star Wars. Coulter tells Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi: “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it,” he says. “They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

It may make sense if you’re in a dark room dazzled by special effects and not thinking too hard. Then again, maybe it won’t. What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all: “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions.

This is Hollywood at its most hazily indignant and self-congratulatory, recycling the generic theme of Victory, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poets Society, and countless other films—a band of grubby, half-crazed heroes takes on the System and wins. When I talked to Weitz in August, he expected that he would still be tinkering with the opening voice-over until just before the release, but the general direction was already set. New Line’s publicity materials describe it this way: “One child stands between the end of free will and the beginning of a new age. Lyra Belacqua … is only 12, but even she knows that doing what you’re told versus doing what you feel is right can yield very different outcomes.” The message is nominally loyal to Pullman, but it also fetishizes the power of childlike innocence—which is one of his greatest complaints about religion.

Weitz told me he tried to keep in a line where Asriel says, “Dust is sin,” but “that didn’t make it. What can I say?” Hollywood “is just terrified that anything that brings up religion or anything controversial will be disastrous.” But after three years of working on the movie, he’d come up with a solid explanation for why he’s not selling out: In the ’80s and ’90s, Hollywood was “scornful in a very intellectually unsound way about religion. Any priest or nun was a dogmatic idiot. So I think there’s something valid in the way the Christian community has responded.”

There will be some religious imagery in the movie, Weitz said, but it will be blended so unobtrusively into the production design that it will take a “DVD player and working knowledge of Latin to decipher the symbols.” Outside the Magisterium buildings will be icons of Orthodox saints. Sprinkled around the movie will be Latin inscriptions from the Vulgate translation of the Bible, including one in Mrs. Coulter’s bedroom that refers to eating from the tree of good and evil. “Kind of a little joke between me and me,” Weitz told me.

Movies that deeply offend Christian sensibilities do get made from time to time: The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma, and, last year, The Da Vinci Code, a major Sony release. The last one lends credence to Pullman’s idea that a faithful translation of his books could have been commercially viable. It’s possible that New Line’s executives once thought so too. New Line, after all, has a reputation for picking up edgy projects, like Boogie Nights and Se7en. When the studio bought the rights to The Golden Compass, in 2002, it was flush with the success of The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps its leadership imagined making something less anodyne. If so, a more nervous mood has since prevailed. Pullman’s books never had as large a following in the United States as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. And with shape-shifting daemons in most scenes and the armored bear in several, the movie’s production costs were enormous. New Line’s interim projects, meanwhile, met with mixed success. The studio reportedly has tense relations with its parent company, Time Warner, and may be in danger of losing its independence. That’s a lot of pressure, which would naturally lead you to call on the Force.

Also see:

Interviews: "Transcending God" (July 2007)
Christopher Hitchens on his beef with religion, his faith in mankind, and his new bestselling book, God Is Not Great. By Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Despite all of New Line’s efforts, the movie may still be received as offensive in some communities, if only because of its association with the book. Catholic League, a watchdog group that monitors portrayals of the Catholic Church in the media, has printed thousands of copies of a 23-page booklet called “Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked,” which it plans to distribute to reviewers and religious groups. “I don’t want Christians to be seduced by the idea that this is a great fairy-tale story to show your kids at Christmastime,” says Bill Donohue, the group’s president. “This is Hitchens taken to the kids,” he adds, referring to Christopher Hitchens, author of the best seller God Is Not Great. Donohue knows that the moviemakers decided on a “dumbed down” version of the villains, but he still plans to call for a boycott. “It’s a backdoor way of selling atheism,” he says. “Unsuspecting parents will take little Johnny to see the movie. Johnny likes the movie. Johnny gets the trilogy for Christmas.”

But these days Hollywood just doesn’t make for a satisfying enemy in the culture war. After the amazing success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in 2004, studios have at times tried to win over what they initially saw as an untapped Christian market. They’ve arranged press junkets for Christian journalists and hired marketers to reach out to churches. (New Line made a bid with The Nativity Story in 2006, a prequel to The Passion. It bombed.) Right now, the love affair is in limbo. After a rocky start, the studios now seem to view the Christian market as it would a difficult girlfriend: elusive and hard to please; ultimately, you keep your distance but still take pains not to irritate her.

Marketing plans aside, New Line executives likely believe they were doing Pullman no great disservice by stripping out his theology and replacing it with some vague derivative of the Force. Values such as obedience, religious devotion, and chastity are so rare in Hollywood’s culture that they probably seem archaic and quaint—courtly rules that no one lives by anyway. Certainly not something to get exercised over.

At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, in a press conference with cast members of The Golden Compass, a reporter asked if there was any pressure to tone down the anti-Christian elements of the story. It fell to the young Eva Green, the former Bond girl who plays the beautiful witch queen Serafina Pekkala, to answer.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t ans— I don’t know what it’s going to be like. But, um, religion is present; you can’t avoid it; it’s going to be there. People are going to be, ‘Oh, my God.’ You don’t know. It’s a very tricky subject. Chris [Weitz] can answer that. I don’t want to … say something bad.”

When pushed about the book’s “subversive elements,” she said: “It’s very metaphysical, philosophical, about God—but not in a bad way. You know people love ‘Oh, my God, it’s anti-Christian.’ It’s not at all; it’s highly spiritual.”

Pity poor Green. This may have been her mangled attempt to follow orders. At the festival, the studio had delivered a sheet of talking points to the hotel room of at least one cast member, Sam Elliott, who plays a Texas aeronaut in the film. According to Elliott, the talking points instructed that if the question of Pullman’s religious views came up, the actors should just “avoid it and play stupid.” The message they all agreed on was something along the lines of, “How can I possibly tell what Pullman had in mind?”

Still, Green’s reply, with its unintended flashes of id, rang with a certain Hollywood authenticity. This could be Paris Hilton reading her Bible in prison. Or Madonna preaching about Kabbalah. You can almost see Pullman cringing at the standard Tinseltown crypto-Buddhist babble. Be Spiritual. Praise the Divine. Offend No One. Then say, Ommmm.

Hollywood is in somewhat the same position as Las Vegas these days. It went from being the capital of sin to Disneyland, and now it’s landed somewhere in between. It tries to keep the sins hidden away and outwardly present itself as a defender of American virtues: justice, individual freedom, and the power of one innocent soul to save the world. The Golden Compass should not offend, or be controversial at all, Weitz swears. It will certainly not, heaven forbid, offer any critique of religion. “The movie’s first job is to beguile the audience for a couple of hours,” he says, and that much it can promise to do.

Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, published in September.
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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

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Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

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Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

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Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

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The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

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