They helped turn Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ into a $370 million phenomenon. They were instrumental in pushing The Chronicles of Narnia to a $291 million gross. Now America’s Christian moviegoers are giving the thumbs-down to The Golden Compass, writer-director Chris Weitz’s $180 million adaptation of the first volume in Philip Pullman’s best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy. Could this latest headache (there are also rumors of postproduction problems, which New Line dismisses) ruin the fun for the holiday fantasy epic?
The trouble began last month, when the Catholic League, gearing up for Compass‘ Dec. 7 release, announced a boycott of the film starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Why? Because, the League declared, Pullman aims to ”bash Christianity and promote atheism. To kids.” That same day, the group published a 23-page takedown of the movie. Other members of the Christian community quickly followed suit, sending e-mails and posting Web alerts.
An avowed atheist, Pullman has never denied that his series uses biblical allegory to question the absolute authority of organized religion. (Some argue he’s specifically targeting the Catholic Church.) But here’s the irony: Weitz’s version has stripped away all direct reference to religion — a decision he has admitted was motivated partly by concerns about alienating the Christian market. That’s not enough, say protesters. ”Parents might be inclined to say, ‘Hey, our kid really enjoyed the movie, why don’t we buy him His Dark Materials for Christmas?”’ says Catholic League president William Donohue, who has read Compass but does not plan on seeing the film. ”What [that does] is introduce the kid to atheism. [It’s] a stealth campaign.”
Pullman, meanwhile, is handling the controversy gracefully. At a New York City lunch that New Line held in his honor last week, the British author wagered that the hullabaloo ”will make more people see the film.” And when asked about an earlier debate among fans claiming that Weitz (About a Boy and American Pie) whitewashed the trilogy’s philosophy, he replied, ”I didn’t set out to preach. If the film tells the events of the story and depicts the characters in a true light, the themes are inherent.”
And to Weitz, those themes represent the core of Christianity. ”Loyalty, kindness, courage, independent thought — all good things, last time I checked,” he says. Even the archbishop of Canterbury shares Weitz’s opinion. (Yes, seriously; holy man Rowan Williams is an avid supporter of His Dark Materials.) And if that’s not comfort for New Line, one recent film may be: The Da Vinci Code grossed $217 million last year amid a boycott. So, as mightily as Christian groups can rally the faithful to the cineplex, they still have yet to prove they’re as adept at keeping people away. — Additional reporting by Thom Geier and Vanessa Juarez