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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 November 2007, 12:40 GMT
Golden Compass author hits back
Warning: This story contains plot spoilers
By Julian Joyce
BBC News

The author of the book on which the new film The Golden Compass is based has hit back at critics who accuse him of peddling "candy-coated atheism".

Phillip Pullman
Phillip Pullman won the Whitbread prize for the third part of his trilogy

Philip Pullman dismissed as "absolute rubbish" accusations by the US-based Catholic League that the film promotes atheism and denigrates Christianity.

"I am a story teller," he said. "If I wanted to send a message I would have written a sermon."

The Golden Compass - which stars Nicole Kidman - premiered in London on Tuesday.

Epic battle

The film also stars James Bond actor Daniel Craig and is based on the first part of Mr Pullman's best-selling His Dark Materials children's trilogy.

In the book - set in an imaginary world - the heroine Lyra fights against the Magisterium, an evil organisation some have interpreted as based on the Catholic Church.

We knew from the beginning that the producers of this film intended to leave out the anti-religious references. We think this is a great shame
Terry Sanderson, National Secular Society

The three-part series culminates in an epic battle in which God dies - at the hand of a child.

Those who have seen the film - which cost 90m to make - say the explicit anti-religious message of the books has been muted. But the Catholic League, which bills itself as America's largest Catholic civil rights organisation, has nevertheless launched a nationwide boycott campaign.

Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards
Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards star in the film

The League says that parents might be taken in by the toned-down film - but will then be fooled into buying the "overtly atheistic and anti-Christian" books.

League President Bill Donohue said: "Eighty-five per cent of the people in this country are Catholic or Protestant and I'd like them to stay at home, or go see some other movie.

"Pullman is using this film as a sort of stealth campaign. He likes to play the game that he's really not atheistic and anti-Catholic. But yes he is and we have researched this.

"This movie is the bait for the books."

Too many layers

But Mr Pullman - who is attending Tuesday's premier in London's Leicester Square - dismissed the Catholic League as "a tiny, unrepresentative organisation."

He told the BBC: "The only person Bill Donohue represents is himself.

"I don't want to talk about these criticisms about atheism in my books. It's too long an argument to have, and there are too many layers to the subject."

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Church in Britain said she was unaware of a concerted UK campaign to boycott the film: "We have not seen the film yet, so we cannot comment on its message," she said.

Armoured bears fighting
Armoured bears feature in a fantasy set in an imaginary world

Christian journalist Peter Hitchens said that while he opposed a boycott, he wanted parents to be aware of Philip Pullman's themes.

He said: "If you buy this book for your child, don't imagine for a moment that you are handing over a neutral story: this author has a purpose.

"Don't forget, this is a writer who has previously gone on the record to say he is trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief."


Ironically, Mr Pullman has also come under fire from secularists - who say there's isn't enough anti-religious sentiment in the film.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: "We knew from the beginning that the producers of this film intended to leave out the anti-religious references.

Daniel Craig
James Bond actor Daniel Craig plays Lord Asriel

"We think this is a great shame. The fight against the Magisterium (Pullman's thinly-disguised version of the Catholic Church) is the whole point of the book. Take that away and the most original and interesting element of the story is lost."

Whether the Catholic League's campaign against the Golden Compass will succeed is open to question.

It previously spoke out against the Da Vinci Code - a fictional film that alleged Jesus married and had a child.

The film went on to become one of the highest-grossing movies of 2006.

Your Comments

Good for Mr Pullman. Children need to be exposed to other concepts other than religion so they have a balanced upbringing. Should they still choose religion then so be it, but at least they been given the choice.
Richard Finch, Worcester, UK

This is ridiculous. Do us atheists go around saying parents should warn their children about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe? I have read that book and funnily enough I still don't believe in Christ's crucifixion. These people should realise that children aren't stupid and are absolutely capable of making up their own minds.
Hayley, Essex, England

I will most definitely boycott this film. Even if you take out the religious themes, to advocate the killing of God by a child so that they can do what they want, is tantamount to promoting anarchy. What a terrible message to portray to a child. The fact that this is a film aimed at children is the worst form of propaganda.
Tracey Petsivas, Athens, Greece

Why do we have this every time a new film comes out? Why can't we just accept it as an entertaining film? I certainly don't go to the cinema and come out debating whether or not its anti-this or anti-that, its ridiculous.
Dakota, Worcestershire

I would like to say that it is hard to judge a book solely on one chapter (where 'God' does indeed die) and completely miss the other themes. I am a huge fan of the books and am disappointed that the religious theme isn't explored through the book. After all, the book allows you to explore the thought of letting your child choose for his/herself what to believe and how best live your life as 'good' and 'honestly' as you can in a corrupt and 'glamoured' world. In this day and age (and especially in this country) freedom of thought and a right to choose what you like to believe. Boycotting the film is a great shame. Read the books first or watch the film and make an informed criticism. Thank you.
Tarnya Haliti, Essex, UK

The Dark Materials trilogy can be read as several things if one is so inclined. So can Lord of The Rings. For those less prejudiced and without a personal agenda, they are brilliantly written, often challengingly imaginative, and well worth a literary prize. As for the dumbing down of any message, without it almost no book would ever reach the screen. I very much hope that the essence of the story has been retained. If so both children and big kids will love this film.
Bob Downing, Seaford, England

I think this is a ridiculous reaction by people of all faiths that claim to follow Jesus Christ. As a Christian myself, I have read the books and plan to see the movie as soon as it comes out not only because I enjoy the story, but because the only way to say that Pullman's feelings on the church and God are untrue is to go and see it for ourselves. It disappoints me that the Christian church has so little backbone as to be able to watch a children's movie instead of hiding behind film boycotts and silly email chain letters espousing the dangers of seeing it and forming an opinion of their own instead of accepting whatever they hear. The heavy anti-Christian elements don't even come into play until the third book and aside from that the books themselves are quite good.
Morgan Shearn, Lynchburg, Va, USA

The Northern Lights (UK version of the Golden Compass book) is a great read. The anti-religious theme is very mild, but anyway, it is FICTION, it is not about our world at all, it is all about parallel universes. As it happens, it all makes for a great plot. I would recommend it to anyone, and especially children. Book two is not so hot, but it is worth reading for the conclusion in book three.
Kieron Wilkinson, Allington, Kent

I used to be a librarian, and I had more than a few parents come up to question or complain about a book on a reading list or in a display. I always told them that controversial titles provide opportunities to read with their kids and then discuss their own beliefs, what the book seems to say, and what their children understand about each. Too many people, unfortunately, just want to program their kids, and think it's too confusing for children or perhaps too time consuming for them to TALK about what they believe. So don't take your kids if they're too young to understand the film, but don't boycott it just because it presents a point of view you disagree with. Use that to open a discussion. Besides, in the real world nothing is purely black and white - why should we insult kids by demanding that all their books, movies, TV, et al be devoid of shades of grey?
Rebecca, Minneapolis, USA

This film should be boycotted. The author is deliberately attacking Christian belief as well as Jewish and Islamic belief. Children and uninformed people should be made aware of his hidden agenda. The movie in the US is being released on December 7, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbour attack which clearly is against the majority of Christians in the US. It also comes out just before Christmas, and if parents like the film, they would want to purchase the books for their children, unaware of the hidden agenda. This is promoting atheism to children.
Gareth Nicholson, Cape Town, South Africa

These have been my favourite books since I was a child, I never once believed they were anti-religious. I think the catholic church needed something to attack and targeted Pullman for being agnostic. The stories are unique and heartfelt, full of passion for life.
Jessie, Portland, USA

The Dark Materials trilogy is a wonderfully entertaining fantasy that cleverly weaves all sorts of religious threads through its storyline, and provokes the imagination. My children and I all thoroughly enjoyed reading it and, as a Catholic, I do not find it at all threatening. Those who do clearly do not have much faith in the integrity of their beliefs. I will definitely be going to see the film.
Stephen Eggleston, St Ives, Cambs, England

I intend to see the movie as soon as it comes out. While Pullman is certainly an outspoken atheist, his books carry the message that the church is bad because of the authority and power it wields, not because of inherent failings in religion itself. I suspect that Bill Donohue has not even read the books, and has just jumped on the bandwagon because "His Dark Materials" doesn't shower the church with praises.
Josh Mills, Mt. Pleasant, MI, USA

Clips from The Golden Compass

Stars to attend Compass premiere
27 Nov 07 |  Entertainment
Compass maker fears 'jaded' fans
22 May 07 |  Entertainment
Dark Materials film-maker quits
15 Dec 04 |  Entertainment


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