LONDON – A debate over a movie's anti-religious antagonism – or lack thereof – is heating up ahead of its upcoming release, with some accusing Hollywood of "castrating" the anti-Catholic themes present in the novel from which it is based.
The expected blockbuster, "The Golden Compass," is named after the American title of best-selling author Philip Pullman's novel "Northern Lights" and will star actress Nicole Kidman and James Bond star Daniel Craig.
The original children's novel, part of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, rejects organized religion – in particular, the Catholic Church – and critics of the movie version say the anti-religious elements of the book have been taken out of the storyline so as not to offend faithful moviegoers in the United Kingdom and United States.
"It was clear right from the start that the makers of this film intended to take out the anti-religious elements of Pullman's book. In doing that they are taking the heart out of it, losing the point of it, castrating it," said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, a British organization that promotes secularism and which Pullman is an honorary associate of.
"It seems that religion has now completely conquered America's cultural life and it is much the poorer for it," she said in The Guardian newspaper Sunday. "What a shame that we have to endure such censorship here too."
Filmmakers, however, say they have stayed true to a majority of the narrative in the fantasy novel – which tells the story of a young heroine and her battle against a dominant religious authority called the Magisterium, which condones the abduction of children for experimentation.
Movie director Chris Weitz, who directed the British hit family comedy "About A Boy," starring actor Hugh Grant, assured that the film would be a fair reflection of Pullman's novel.
"In the books, the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots. If that's what you want in the film, you'll be disappointed," he said.
The filmmaker explained that the sinister organization has been changed so that the film will now appear to be a more general widespread attack on dogmatic authorities.
"We have expanded the range of meanings of what the Magisterium represents. Philip Pullman is against any kind of organized dogma whether it is church hierarchy or, say, a Soviet hierarchy," he noted.
Nicole Kidman, who is reportedly Christian herself, has also defended the movie.
She acknowledged that the movie "has been watered down a little," but that it still introduces a world that is "dominated by the Magisterium, which seeks to control all humanity, and whose greatest threat, is the curiosity of a child."
"I was raised Catholic. The Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic," she has also stated.
Pullman, meanwhile, has said that he believes the "outline of the story is faithful to what I wrote, given my knowledge of what they have done."
Although he is a self-professed atheist and a supporter of the British Humanist Association, Pullman has found support from some Christians – most notably Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams. They point out that the English writer's negative portrayal of the "Church" in "His Dark Materials" amounts to an attack on dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself. Williams has gone so far as to propose that "His Dark Materials" be taught as part of religious education in schools.
Others, however, view the "His Dark Materials" series as a direct rebuttal of C. S. Lewis' series "The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," as both feature children facing adult moral choices, talking animals, religious allegories, parallel worlds, and concern the ultimate fate of those worlds. Furthermore, the first published book from "Narnia" begins with a young girl hiding in a wardrobe, as does the first "His Dark Materials" book.
The U.S. release date for "The Golden Compass," based off the first installment of Pullman's "His Dark Material" triology, is Dec. 7, 2007.
Christian Post correspondent Anne Thomas in London contributed to this report.