Compass pointed toward good Catholics

04 simonmcburney lgIt's kind of hard to kick a major movie when it's down, but I still find the whole story of The Golden Compass quite fascinating. But first, here is the hard news -- after the openings of Will Smith and Alvin -- from the always cheery Entertainment Weekly:

The success of the two new arrivals undermined New Line's The Golden Compass in its second weekend, causing the PG-rated fantasy film to drop a steep 65 percent. The film, which cost more than $200 million to make, has grossed slightly less than $41 million in the U.S. since it bowed ten days ago. Enjoy this one, kids, ’cause at this rate there's no way New Line is going to get behind a sequel.

In other words, Compass failed to find that Holidays sweet spot somewhere in between atheistic evangelism and the family market in middle America.

There is no way around the fact that the creators of the film edited out as much of Philip Pullman's anti-Christian orthodoxy worldview as they could, which led to justified yowls on the religious and cultural left. But Pullman is what he believes that he is -- the anti-C.S. Lewis. He's brilliant at what he does and the movie tried to dumb him down.

So what was the most important religion story in the semi-flop of this very expensive attempt to create an anti-Christian movie franchise? After all, I have always thought that very expensive failures tell you more about their makers than the success stories.

So here is my nomination for the most interesting religion-beat story linked to this movie, care of The Baltimore Sun:

Days after its publication, a largely positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers across the country was retracted this week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops, who could not be reached for comment, offered no explanation for the decision. But Catholic groups, including the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, have urged moviegoers to boycott the film, saying the film and the book on which it is based are anti-Catholic.

The pulled review in question -- click here for a discussion of some of its contents -- was written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the director and staff reviewer of the bishops' office on film. They gave the film an A-II, appropriate for adults and adolescents. The Sun noted:

In their review, Forbes and Mulderig praised the film as "lavish, well-acted and fast-paced," and noted that the book's anti-Catholic tone had been considerably watered down. "The good news is that the first book's explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium remaining."

They also suggested the film could prompt some worthwhile discussions in Catholic households. "Rather than banning the movie or books," they wrote, "parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens."

GoldencompassThus, the bishops conference staff was, initially, more positive about the movie than the vast majority -- Rotten Tomatoes here -- of the nation's mainstream critics. That is really interesting. Perhaps it was more important to send a message to Catholic traditionalists than to Hollywood.

The key is that Compass turned into another fault line between, to use James Davison Hunter language, the progressives and the orthodox. The movie, you see, was not an attack on Catholics. It was an attack on bad Catholics. It was not an anti-Christian movie, it was a pro-good Christianity movie. It was an attack on traditional Christianity, not the faith itself. Got that?

Early on, this was stated quite clearly in an excellent Washington Post interview with Chris Weitz, the film's director -- a self-proclaimed "lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist."

... Weitz always knew that bringing "The Golden Compass" to theaters ... would take extraordinary finesse. The book, published in 1995, is a parable that attacks the concept of organized religion -- more specifically, any religion that rules by fiat and claims an exclusive pipeline to the truth. The book describes a world ruled by a pious, punitive outfit called the Magisterium. It doesn't just dress its leaders in ominous frocks -- it tries to repress knowledge in the name of protecting humanity. It also tortures children by trying to rob them of their daemons, the soul-mate pets that every human in this alternate universe needs in order to think and live. The point, it seems, is to crush curiosity and freethinking and tighten the Magisterium's grip on power.

Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, had to convey Pullman's cosmology while slaloming between two very different and very important interest groups: the book's fans, who would feel cheated if the movie didn't stay true to its anticlerical spirit, and the movie's backers, who would feel cheated if they infuriated religious people and the movie bombed. The grumbling has already started. On fan sites, such as, you'll read a few complaints that Weitz soft-pedaled Pullman's critique of religious dogma.

I am left with one question: What is the name of this acceptable version of Christian faith? Hollywood Buddhism? Unitarianism? New Oxford Anglicanism?

That's a great story. But we can expect total silence from the U.S. Catholic bishops on that.

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