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.

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.

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Interviews: "Transcending God" (July 2007)
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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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