Clergymen who kidnap children. Witches who aren't wicked. Even a pair of sexually ambiguous angels. If you thought Harry Potter was blasphemous, wait till you get a look at the His Dark Materials trilogy. New Line's $150 million adaptation of the first in Philip Pullman's series of theologically trippy novels, The Golden Compass follows 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) as she sets off on an epic odyssey through a fantastical parallel universe inhabited by armor-wearing polar bears and shape-shifting daemons. Translating the book's complex metaphysical multiverse to the screen would make even the most CGI-savvy filmmaker jittery, let alone one whose biggest previous accomplishment was a comedy about a kid who has sex with a pastry. '' To be honest, I didn't think I'd survive it,'' Chris Weitz (American Pie) confesses. ''It seemed like the kind of thing that could break a person's mind. I mean, this movie is a megillah.'' Indeed, after a trip to New Zealand to observe Peter Jackson on the set of a certain megillah called The Lord of the Rings, Weitz got cold feet and left the picture; he only returned to the job after his replacement, Anand Tucker (Shopgirl), ran into creative differences with the studio. ''I'm both the first and third director on the film,'' he says. ''But I did a lot of growing in the interim.'' He's also the movie's screenwriter, which means he'll get the hate mail if Pullman's fans decide it veers too far from the book. ''It follows the novel as closely as it can,'' promises Daniel Craig, who grew an un-Bondlike beard to play Lord Asriel, Lyra's explorer uncle, ''but there's still a lot missing. That's always the case when you adapt a book into a movie. You have to focus more on the storytelling.'' Conspicuously absent, for instance, is any reference to Catholicism; instead, the malevolent organization that snatches children to surgically remove their souls is referred to in the movie only as the Magisterium. ''It has been watered down a little,'' admits Nicole Kidman, who stars as the icily evil Mrs. Coulter. Not that she's complaining. Quite the contrary. ''I was raised Catholic,'' she says. ''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 wouldn't be able to do any possible sequels, either, but Kidman and Craig have both signed on for two.