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COMPASS-DEBATE Dec-5-2007 (1,240 words) With photos posted Oct. 30 and Nov. 28 and 29. xxxn

Critics debate merits of 'The Golden Compass' movie

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The movie "The Golden Compass" has prompted a blizzard of words assailing the movie and the books on which it is based, as well as defenses of the film.

"Today, I saw the movie. And I'm not going to change a word of what I've written as a result," said a Nov. 20 online posting by Jeffrey Overstreet, author of the book "Through a Screen Darkly," a memoir and travelogue of "dangerous moviegoing," on his blog, the Looking Closer Journal.

"If the filmmakers tried to 'tone down' the anti-religious content, they pretty much failed. 'The Magisterium' is not a term invented by (book author) Philip Pullman. It's a reference to the Catholic Church, or at least to the truth that shines through Scripture and the history of the church. And it isn't hard to see that in the film."

The movie starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, debuting in theaters Dec. 7, is based on the first book of British author Pullman's trilogy titled "His Dark Materials." The other two volumes are "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass."

"His Dark Materials" recounts the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, a 12-year-old girl in an alternate universe that resembles our own. With the assistance of several other characters, she sets out to overthrow the Authority, which is God in Pullman's work. The novels depict him as a weak, false god and, in the final book in the trilogy, he actually dies.

Australian Sacred Heart Father Peter Malone, a film critic and author and former head of Signis, the worldwide association of Catholic communicators, said in a Nov. 25 statement on the movie: "'The Golden Compass' is well-made, with a lot of intelligent dialogue, including the word 'metaphysics' a couple of times. Much of the film requires attention as well as some developed vocabulary."

Father Malone acknowledged, "There are some aspects of the film that may raise a religious eyebrow." One is how "The Golden Compass" treats its parallel world.

"In our world, our souls are within us. In the parallel world, the soul is outside us, in the form of a symbolic animal called a daemon -- not a devil but a 'spirit' according to the origins of the word," he said. Another aspect is its use of "Magisterium" to describe "the all-powerful ruling body which is authoritarian and intent on eradicating free will," he said. The Catholic Church uses the term magisterium to describe its teaching authority.

He added, "As with all controversies and campaigns, attack without the benefit of viewing a film undermines the credibility of a crusade whether it is justified or not."

"Nothing says 'dark irony' like a movie focused on blasting a 'Magisterium' using a group of, er, bishops, to sell itself," said Amy Welborn, a former Catholic News Service columnist, in a Dec. 4 posting on her blog, Charlotte Was Both. Last year she wrote the booklet "The Da Vinci Code Mysteries: What the Movie Doesn't Tell You," which was published a month before the film premiered in theaters.

Welborn mocked the reaction of some critics that "The Golden Compass" "is so, so valuable because it will give parents and young people a great opportunity to discuss the important issues raised by Pullman about religious authority, human freedom and so on. ... After we finish with 'The Golden Compass,' shall we break out 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' to open up discussion on Judaism? Probably not. Why? Because we recognize that the 'Protocols' are lies. ... So it is with 'The Golden Compass.'"

In a joint review by Harry Forbes, director of the U.S. bishops' Office for Film & Broadcasting, and John Mulderig, a staff critic for the office, "The Golden Compass" was classified A-II -- adults and adolescents -- for "intense but bloodless fantasy violence, anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, a character born out of wedlock and a whiskey-guzzling bear."

The review, its more positive than negative tone rankling some in the blogosphere, said: "This film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment. ... Taken purely on its own cinematic terms, ('The Golden Compass') can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism."

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, headed by Bill Donohue, had earlier called for a boycott of the movie, and it maintained its position in a Dec. 3 statement.

"The Catholic League wants Christians to stay away from this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: Unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present," it said. "And no parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books."

Jesuit Father James Martin, associate editor of Jesuit-run America magazine, quoted an article by religion journalist and author Hanna Rosin saying that Christians were offended by the portrayal of religion in the books.

"In this case, I agree with Donohue," Father Martin said in a Nov. 27 posting on the magazine's blog. "Rosin's article seems to warn that when parents buy their kids something they expect to mirror 'The Chronicles of Narnia,' they might be surprised -- or appalled -- when they learn that it's less like ('Narnia' author) C.S. Lewis than Christopher Hitchens," a high-profile anti-religionist who made the best-seller list this year with the book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

In his column in the Nov. 24 issue of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes alluded to "The Golden Compass" in his column, "The Lure of Atheism." "I do understand that the film is less blatant than the books but may serve as an inducement to the purchase of the books. Atheism is alive and well!" he said.

Archbishop Hughes added, "There is a spiritual war going on. The kingdom of Satan is at war with the kingdom of God. Rebellion, from the beginning, has been Satan's goal. His weapons are violence and deceit. In some ways, violence is easier to fight against."

The Pullman trilogy is an "ode to the joy of living in a physical world, a hymn to flesh, to exuberance, to the here and now, to free thought, imagination and feeling, to nobility of spirit," according to a review by Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda.

"I happen to think that these positive traits are entirely compatible with organized religion and so I choose to focus on the positive rather than on any anti-religious themes in these books," said Paul Lauritzen, director of the Program in Applied Ethics at Jesuit-run John Carroll University in Cleveland, commenting on Dirda's review. Lauritzen is a contributor to dotCommonweal, a blog run by the Catholic magazine Commonweal.

"Movies are cultural moments, and those who resist this movie are doing so to build up a culture of respect for the Catholic Church and in so doing militantly oppose those artists who insult and denigrate it. Correctly, I would argue," said a posting on the American Papist blog, run by Thomas Peters, who describes himself as "a young lay Catholic with a master's degree in theology who is studying and working in Washington."

END


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