For the prickly atheists, the Pullman authenticity police and for myself, I will get this out of the way first: God and the Bible are nowhere in the movie version of The Golden Compass, which opens Friday. Unlike in the Philip Pullman novel of the same name, there is no perversion of Genesis or retelling of Adam and Eve. Nothing in the movie should make the Pope blanch or America’s self-appointed censors ring the theater in protest. One Christian reviewing site did warn this week that “the real goal is to lead young, impressionable minds into the deception of atheism.” But this is a preemptive objection based on the trilogy of books, which reach many layers deeper than the movie in their subversion, sense of danger and intellectual scope.
In the books, the villainous ruling power sometimes goes by the name “Holy Church.” In the movie it’s always “Magisterium”—which could cover any form of tyrannical power from Oz to the Third Reich. When shot from the waist up, some of its functionaries look like they’re wearing cassocks. But in full view, they are just generic evil guy Waffen SS-ish uniforms—black and severe with shiny buttons. Throughout the movie, the characters speak darkly of “heresy” but it’s never entirely clear what might provoke this charge. The heroes—the pre-teen Lyra and her band of rebel scientists, explorers, witches, and “gyptians” (Pullman's version of gypsies), meanwhile, fight to rescue dozens of children kidnapped by forces allied with the Magisterium. This mission has something to do with “free will.”
"How Hollywood Saved God" (December 2007)
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 By Hanna Rosin
Of course, movies are not books. In a movie, you can just throw out words such as “heresy” and “free will” and hope people get the point: that this is something to do with a theocracy and its overzealous pursuit of sin. You might even say that a studio would be nuts to hang a big cross around the child-stealing villain’s neck, particularly when the movie costs $180 million to make and it comes out three weeks before Christmas. Besides, I have many reasonably intelligent friends who have read the Pullman books and tuned out his anti-God streak, or found that layer of meaning Ayn Randish and annoying. Instead, what they like is his rich imagination, coupled with the kind of psychological depth you don’t normally find in a fantasy epic.