When Signe Cohen took her 9-year-old son to see “The Golden Compass,” she knew she was taking him to a controversial children’s movie.
Cohen, an assistant professor of Asian religious studies at MU, had read the best-selling first novel of atheist Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. She knew the fantasy book was critical of organized religions but didn’t think it was opposed to religion altogether.
“He thought it was wonderful,” Cohen said of her son’s reaction to the movie.
But some Christians would question her decision to let her son see “The Golden Compass.” In the month since the release of the film, church leaders across the world have condemned it as a damaging influence on young audiences.
The plot follows the mystery of an evil organization called the “Magisterium.” It abducts children in an attempt to suppress a mystical and fictional substance called “Dust,” a metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood, namely the phase of puberty.
This movie subtly explores how churches impose their values on adolescents. The term “Magisterium” has replaced all of the book’s direct references to the church. According to Cohen, the term “Magisterium” in reality is associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
“It’s a film that leaves one cold, because it brings with it the coldness and the desperation of rebellion, solitude and individualism,” said an article in L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican City. It blasted Chris Weitz’s epic adaptation, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, as “the most anti-Christmas film possible.”
The paper described the $180 million production as “the enemy of all religions — traditional and institutional — and of Christianity and Catholicism,” despite the editing out of much of the religious content deemed too controversial for the big screen.
Pullman, a self-described atheist, according to Christianity Today, has rebelled against his Church of England upbringing but denies any attempt to influence young readers through his writing.
“The director makes his or her own choices,” Cohen said. Compared to the novel, she added, in the movie “the religious themes were toned way down so that the film would have more of a chance.”
One of the major ways in which the film differs from the novel is its ending. In the movie, the main character, a young girl named Lyra, escapes unharmed from a great battle and journeys onward, ready to start another adventure. By contrast, the book doesn’t end with the battle but continues further. Lyra discovers more information about “Dust,” with references to Adam and Eve and original sin. The book’s ending is frightening and ambiguous, as gateways between dimensions are opened. Eventually, Lyra’s fate is to be explained in the secondinstallment.
“Somewhat odd to end the film that way,” Cohen said. She added that the ending of the novel had likely been excluded from the final cut because of Pullman’s references to religion. And she was “much more comfortable taking (her) child to see it” with those changes.
A Columbia Catholic priest said he is worried about the movie, which he sees as part of a trend of popular stories attacking Christianity.
“Call them fantasy or not, they are stridingly anti-religious ... knocking belief,” said the Rev. Jeremy Secrist, associate pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes.
Secrist said he sees danger in the “sugar-coating” of the needlessness of God within fantasy stories. He called the release of the film right before Christmas “ironic” and a “very inappropriate” scheme to cause controversy.
Secrist also suggested there is a possible threat that children who see the film would denounce religious values. The book has been banned from some school libraries across the world. According to reports in the Toronto Star, Canada’s Halton’s Catholic District School Board banned “The Golden Compass” and removed the following two installments of the trilogy from every Catholic school library affiliated with their organization as a precaution.
Christian groups have ridiculed Pullman for his glamorization of magic and depiction of non-wicked witches. Ultimately, however, it is the villainous portrayal of the church as a power-hungry authority, kidnapping children that has stirred most of the international criticism of “The Golden Compass.” An article in Catholic Online calls the book “some propaganda piece of atheism” in which “the main enemy is the Church.”
The film rides the wave of popularity of several fantasy stories that base their plots around magic and wizardry.
For example, the difficult time of growing up and how it can undermine religious values is also explored in “The Chronicles of Narnia” but from a different perspective. In the final book of the series, writer and devout Protestant C.S. Lewis describes one of his main characters, Susan Pevensie, as “no longer a friend of Narnia,” a mythical world that often alludes to heaven. This loss results from her choice of “lipstick, nylons and invitations.”
By contrast, her siblings chose to remain in Narnia with Aslan, a noble lion who, according to Beliefnet columnist Ben Witherington III, was Lewis’s choice to represent the character of Jesus Christ in the books.
Both Pullman and J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter fantasy saga, don’t quite agree with the Narnia approach.
In his Christianity Today interview, Pullman said that he detests “The Chronicles of Narnia” and that the “His Dark Materials” trilogy offers alternative answers to the “big questions” raised in both his and Lewis’s books. Questions, he said, such as “is there a God?” and “what must I do to be good?”
Rowling also believes there is nothing wrong with puberty and the changes it brings.
“There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. ... I have a big problem with that,” Rowling said in an online Time article. In her own books, Rowling said she really wanted her “heroes to grow up” and used this natural change for effective character growth.
In her own rise to success, Rowling has had to deny claims that her novels are tools for manipulating children.
Cohen, who is set to teach a course called “Religion and Magic: An exploration of the Harry Potter books,” said many believe Rowling has hidden Christian and even Wiccan subtexts in her writing. It is these Christian activists that have banned Harry Potter books from many school reading lists around the world, she said.
The books have even been destroyed in burning protests. Secrist said such acts are “extreme” and do “no good either.”
Ultimately, these religious protestors are only “small pockets of people,” said Richard Callahan, assistant professor of religious studies at MU. His area of expertise is religion in America.
“Some of them just have louder voices than others,” Callahan said, adding that media’s coverage of such concerned minorities misleads people to perceive a war between religion and fantasy fans.
As New Age beliefs continue to influence society, it is likely that they will set new values along with already established ones. And history shows that not only charismatic prophets can give birth to a new religion.
The Web site for the Church of Scientology says that this religion was born from the exploration of a 1950s science fiction book, “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard. One can only speculate about what book might be the next one to be embraced as a new religion.
Callahan said fantasy books “probably are influencing people.” But are they dangerous? “No,” he said.