A movie based on a book that portrays the Church as the villain is not receiving much applause for its removal of religious references.
On the contrary, some Christian groups are upset over New Line Cinema's concerted effort to keep religion and godless themes out of the upcoming movie, "The Golden Compass," claiming it will encourage children to read a series that promotes atheism and "denigrates Christianity."
"The movie is made for the books," said Bill Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League. "Pullman (the author) is hoping his books will fly off the shelves at Christmastime."
Actress Nicole Kidman and James Bond actor Daniel Craig star in the movie adapted from the first novel in a fantasy trilogy called "His Dark Materials" by self-described atheist author Philip Pullman.
The series focuses on a 12-year-old girl named Lyra who sets on a quest in search of answers after her best friend is kidnapped. She travels to a parallel universe where everyone's soul is physically manifested into an alter ego, or "daemon," in animal form.
In the story, a malevolent governing body called "the Church," which answers to the "Vatican Council," is known to kidnap children for experimentation. With the help of a golden compass that reveals a coded answer to any question asked by the user, Lyra, by the trilogy's end, gets to the bottom of the missing children and kills a character called "God."
"These books denigrate Christianity, thrash the Catholic Church and sell the virtues of atheism," asserted Donahue of Catholic League, who earlier this month called on Christians to boycott the movie.
In the movie, which has been marketed as a children's fantasy film, many of the direct references to the Catholic Church have been relabeled. For instance, "the Church" is only referred to as "the Magisterium."
"They're intentionally watering down the most offensive element," Donohue said in a FOX News report.
While Donahue said he's not concerned about the movie, which he described as "fairly innocuous," he charges movie makers for engaging in a "deceitful, stealth campaign" to promote the book.
Donahue's organization has even published a brochure, entitled "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked," as part of a campaign aimed to expose atheist elements of the series similar to what many conservatives have done to witchcraft in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books.
While Christian groups have unanimously denounced the English writer's books, some are waiting to see the "Compass" before taking a stance on the movie.
"I don't think a boycott will be effective. We have to see the film before we make that evaluation," Ted Baehr of The Christian Film and Television Commission said.
Other Christians think the book will inspire readers to search for a true higher power.
"It undoubtedly makes people question, but inspires them to look harder for more authentic religion," said Craig Detweiler, co-director of Reel Spirituality, a pop culture and religion think tank at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif, according to FOX News. "Pullman takes license in pointing out the scary, false gods and destructive idols we've created. In that sense, I think he's doing a great service."
Other critics of the movie also include fans of Pullman's trilogy. Many say they were disappointed that anti-religious and anti-Church themes of the book were "castrated" from the movie to make it more marketable to audiences in the United States and United Kingdom.
"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 earlier this month. "What a shame that we have to endure such censorship here too."
Back in 2004, director Chris Weitz had told fans in an online posting that the removal of godless themes in the book was a high possibility since the "perceived anti-religiosity" would make the project financially "unviable."
Despite the changes, however, Pullman said in an interview with Western Mail, a Welsh newspaper, that he was "very happy" with the movie version of his story.
Pullman has revealed that his main contention is with those who "misuse religion, or any other kind of doctrine with a holy book" as means "to dominate and suppress human freedoms," according to a 2004 posting on his website Philip-Pullman.com.
The author, who is an honorary associate at Britain's National Secular Society and supporter of the British Humanist Association, has also admitted that "His Dark Materials" is a response to Christian author C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia."
"I loathe the 'Narnia' books," Pullman has said in previous press interviews. "I hate them with a deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling away."
"The Golden Compass" is scheduled to hit U.S. theaters on Dec. 7, 2007.