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Catholic Bishops rescind “Golden Compass” review

posted by Nell Minow

Thanks to Eric Bateman for this update:
The Catholic News Service reports that the Conference of Catholic Bishops has withdrawn its review of “The Golden Compass.”
There are news reports that the US Bishops have been asked to fire the critic who wrote the positive review.
Beliefnet’s “Idol Chatter” blog has a thoughtful comment by Ellen Leventry:

It’s unfortunate that the bishops’ conference dropped the review, giving in to political pressure and further characterizing the Catholic Church as a place where different opinions are not valued or welcomed. And the Catholic League is playing right into Pullman’s denunciation of organized religious groups, acting like the villainous, dogmatic “Magisterium” in its desire to quash the film.

Comments on the review of “The Golden Compass” or its withdrawal by the USCCB can be sent to CommDept@usccb.org.
For the record, here is the full text of the original review:


Golden Compass
By Harry Forbes and John Mulderig
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS)—Hollywood history is rife with examples of literary works that by dint of problematic sexual, violent or religious content have been softened to varying degrees to mollify public sensibilities.
So it appears to be with “The Golden Compass” (New Line) which, we’ll say right at the start, is a lavish, well-acted and fast-paced adaptation of “Northern Lights,” the original title of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s much-awarded trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” published in 1995.
The film has already caused some concern in Catholic circles because of the author’s professed atheism, and the more overt issue of the novels’ negative portrayal of his (very much fictionalized) church, a stand-in for all organized religion.
The good news is that the first book’s explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium retained. The choice is still a bit unfortunate, however, as the word refers so specifically to the church’s teaching authority. Yet the film’s only clue that the Magisterium is a religious body comes in the form of the icons which decorate one of their local headquarters.
Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman’s personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure. This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” or “The Da Vinci Code.” Religious elements, as such, are practically nil.
The narrative itself charts the adventures of spunky 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who leaves Oxford’s Jordan College, where she resides as a ward to become apprentice to a glamorous scholar known as Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).
She’s allowed to leave, equipped with the titular compass—a truth meter which Lyra is among the privileged few to know how to interpret. Once in Mrs. Coulter’s care, Lyra begins to surmise that the woman’s motives are far from pure, and she escapes.
Inspired by her Arctic-exploring-uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig)—who, to the consternation of the Magisterium, is about to make some discoveries about the mysterious substance called Dust—Lyra journeys northward. She hopes to rescue her young friend Roger (Ben Walker), who has been kidnapped by the Magisterium.
Lyra picks up several useful allies along the way, including John Faa (Jim Carter), a piratelike seafarer of the wandering tribe called Gyptians, Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and a great polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen).
Even if Pullman’s fanciful universe has a patchwork feel, with elements culled from other fantasy-adventure stories—most especially “The Chronicles of Narnia” (a work Pullman disdains)—there’s hardly a dull moment, and the effects are beautifully realized, including the anthropomorphized creatures like the polar bears whose climactic fight is superbly done.
Richards makes an appealingly no-nonsense heroine, and Kidman makes a glamorous and chilling villain. Christopher Lee, Tom Courtenay and Derek Jacobi round out a distinguished cast, with excellent voice work from McKellen and others (e.g. Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ian McShane and Freddie Highmore).
Whatever author Pullman’s putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz’s film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.
To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.
There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church’s restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.
The script also makes use of some of the occult concepts found in the books, such as the diabolically named “daemons”—animal companions to each person, identified as their human counterpart’s visible soul.
Is Pullman trying to undermine anyone’s belief in God? Leaving the books aside, and focusing on what has ended up on-screen, the script can reasonably be interpreted in the broadest sense as an appeal against the abuse of political power.
Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.
The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film—altered, as it is, from its source material—rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.
The film contains intense but bloodless fantasy violence, anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, a character born out of wedlock and a whiskey-guzzling bear. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
– – –
Forbes is director and Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.



  • Tom

    Why is there a problem with the USCCB wanting to modify a movie review that is presented in their name? The modified version of the “Brokeback Mountain” review kept basically the same comments about the artistic and humanistic aspects of the original review and just added certain amounts of clarification on the Church’s teaching on sexual behavior. This is more than the Democratic Party allowed on the abortion issue at its last convention when it refused any dissent and did not let a Pro-Life speaker’s address be given.
    Incidentally or otherwise, the Catholic League is not part of and does not speak for the Catholic Church or the USCCB. Separately, why is there a problem with the CL giving their First Amendment of the United States Constitution entitled view that the more innocuous movie will lead some children to the less innocuous books? In addition, if more people see the movie, the director has stated that subsequent movies will be truer to the books and the author’s vision of undermining Christianity. Does this not grant some validity to the CL’s view?
    It is also curious that you are focusing a lot of time and energy denouncing those that are associated with a pro-religious viewpoint that don’t like the movie because it seems to deceitfully water down the anti-religion aspects of the book. However, the atheists and other anti-religion supporters of Pullman that have denounced the movie for basically the same reason get zero comment? What does this say about one group’s agenda vs. the other?
    Last, it is also laughable that Pullman and his supports would say with a straight face that someone should read his books and view the movie before they pass judgment. That’s as good as Briar Rabbit begging not to be thrown into the briar patch. Maybe we should ask the president of Iran to speak at Columbia College and thank him for opening up the discussion on whether the Holocaust occurred and the right of the Israel to exist because there is new ground to consider.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Tom. I appreciate it very much and hope you will visit often. I will do my best to answer your questions.
    Q. Why is there a problem with the USCCB wanting to modify a movie review that is presented in their name? The modified version of the “Brokeback Mountain” review kept basically the same comments about the artistic and humanistic aspects of the original review and just added certain amounts of clarification on the Church’s teaching on sexual behavior. This is more than the Democratic Party allowed on the abortion issue at its last convention when it refused any dissent and did not let a Pro-Life speaker’s address be given.
    A. The USCCB has the right to modify or rescind the review, just as I have the right to comment on that decision. I thought the original review was very fair. The fact that it was published and then rescinded (not modified) rather than edited before publication suggests that it was the result of pressure after the fact rather than a reasoned assessment based on the merits. I wish they had amended and clarified the review as you point out they did on “Brokeback Mountain.” Instead, they obliterated it without any further guidance, as though pretending it had never existed. Your point about the Democratic convention is irrelevant — two wrongs do not make a right.
    Q. Why is there a problem with the CL giving their First Amendment of the United States Constitution entitled view that the more innocuous movie will lead some children to the less innocuous books? In addition, if more people see the movie, the director has stated that subsequent movies will be truer to the books and the author’s vision of undermining Christianity. Does this not grant some validity to the CL’s view?
    A. I have noted the CL’s status as an independent organization in other posts on this subject. As above, they have every right to express their view and I have every right to express my view of their view. No one is suggesting that the CL’s First Amendment rights (which only guarantee no government abridgement of freedom of speech and have nothing to do with any private entity’s response) be violated. On the contrary, my view is that the more speech the better because the more ideas and information that enter the marketplace, the more informed the ability of the audience to evaluate them. For that reason, I do not support the suppression of any form of speech except in the direst and most extreme circumstances, and that means that I do not agree that teenagers and adults should not see this movie just because the next one might have more troubling material.
    I do, of course, support the right of each family to make a decision that is right for them, but I believe those decisions should be made on the facts. For that reason, my comments on the movie and books have included a number of links to a variety of sources, including Pullman’s own words and theologians who find his work very worthwhile, even highly religious.
    Q: It is also curious that you are focusing a lot of time and energy denouncing those that are associated with a pro-religious viewpoint that don’t like the movie because it seems to deceitfully water down the anti-religion aspects of the book. However, the atheists and other anti-religion supporters of Pullman that have denounced the movie for basically the same reason get zero comment? What does this say about one group’s agenda vs. the other?
    A: Denouncing? That seems a bit strong; I don’t think I have denounced anyone. I have tried to make my posts informational and responsive to questions I’ve been asked. Not much time or energy at all. Believe me, when I denounce something, it will be unmistakeable. Some of the people I have quoted are pro-religious (as I am, myself) and found the movie profoundly spiritual (as I did). I have not seen any comments from atheists that I thought were worth repeating, but if you want to link to some, I’ll be glad to see them. I’m not sure I understand your point about one agenda vs. another, though. I’m not promoting anyone’s agenda, and, as I said, two wrongs don’t make a right.
    Q: Last, it is also laughable that Pullman and his supports would say with a straight face that someone should read his books and view the movie before they pass judgment. That’s as good as Briar Rabbit begging not to be thrown into the briar patch. Maybe we should ask the president of Iran to speak at Columbia College and thank him for opening up the discussion on whether the Holocaust occurred and the right of the Israel to exist because there is new ground to consider.
    A: Now who’s trying to abridge someone’s right of speech? I support Ahmadinejad’s speaking at Columbia. For one thing, it gives him a chance to see what freedom of speech means. For another, it gives Americans and the rest of the world a chance to see directly what a disturbing guy he is. Notice that he did speak and the world did not end. No one came away more convinced that he was right about anything. Instead, he was subjected to universal derision and a “Saturday Night Live” skit that cut him down to size pretty effectively.
    The movie is not intended for or appropriate for young children. It is rated PG-13. Middle and high schoolers are well able to appreciate the symbolism and engage with it intellectually. I think it does a real disservice to the power of the intellect and the faith of believers to suggest that either could be shaken by a story like this one. Apparently you were able to read the books (or excerpts from them) without any damage to your faith or failure of your ability to evaluate what you read. I am always skeptical when people think that they can read something without being tainted but no one else has the strength to withstand pernicious influence.
    In my view, the people who are over-reacting to this movie are doing more to damage the credibility of the Christian faith than the movie has. And world events are more likely to drive people to atheism than anyone’s complaints about the church leadership.
    History has shown us that censorship in the name of heresy, whether Gallileo or a fatwa, has not been a good idea and has not been effective at censorship or pretending other points of view do not exist. If I did think the movie and book were anti-religion, I would still be very reluctant to call for a boycott.
    But I do not find the movie or the book anti-religion. I find them anti-human beings who exploit and subvert religion for personal power. The individuals who are triumphed over in the books are not religious. They do not behave the way Christians are taught to behave. But neither do some of the people who are acting like this movie is a serious threat to anyone or any church. If they want to show what the church is about, let’s see some grace.

  • Johnathan

    “The fact that these gentlemen could recommend this movie to children is just abhorrent to me. I really do believe these guys should be fired,” Fr. Euteneuer told LifeSiteNews.com. “Whatever happened to rejecting Satan and all his empty work and empty promises.”
    But is not also “evil” to reject someone based on his or her opinion? Forgive me for saying so but organized religion has become a shelter of contradiction through time and it’s no wonder more and more people are turning away from religion, especially our youth, for it is being taught by the churh that individualism is near blasphemous.
    If I was granted the time of day I’d gladly like to have a Q & A with both the Pope and his officials as to why their biggotry(sp) is some how superior to the biggotry of say…someone who isn’t Catholic? You may not feel that their rejection of public opinion and other forms of faith is anti-religious, but anyone moderately educated in religion and the Christian teachings will argue otherwise as I have.
    There is a reason why music, literature and film have been dubbed a part of the entertainment industry; they are all form of ENTERTAINMENT

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks for writing, Jonathan. I appreciate your comments very much. As I have said before, I do not believe the book or the movie are anti-religion. Even if they were, however, I think it is almost always better to engage with and respond to challenges rather than ignoring or trying to ban them. Their faith cannot be very strong if they think it can be so easily shaken by what, as you say, is entertainment.

  • Susan

    I am reading The Golden Compass for the first time. My 12 year old son has read the entire series multiple times, and my 10 year old son recently finished the series for the first time. Needless to say they are both begging to go see the film.
    I am very near the end of the novel, and my impression of the story is that the author, Philip Pullman, is very well tuned in to the literary predilection of middle school aged kids: a gripping fantasy starring a strong, independent, intelligent, brave young person who rises above the nasty trickiness of adults and at the same time impresses them with her innnate abilities. Madeleine L’engle would be proud of his accomplishment.
    There are many elements from Christian fantasy books present here as well, the Chronicles of Narnia being perhaps the most obvious example. But Pullman takes the elements of the Christian fantasy novel and turns them upside down. The rebellious child is not the bad seed led into temptation by her ego, she’s the clear sighted hero. The docile children are not heirs to a kingdom, they are empty shells forcibly separated from their individuality by a malicious establishment. And the large, ferocious beast which protects the hero is far from the paragon embodied by Aslan. Rather, he’s a drunken bear with a vicious temper.
    What I love about this inversion of Christian fantasy is how on the mark it is with biblical heroism. The Old Testament is a who’s who of authentic personal weaknesses: alcoholism, selfishness, cowardice, vengefulness, and on and on. God chose real people with real faults to do his work in the world. Similarly, the saviours in Pullman’s novel do not meet anyone’s definition of perfection. But they know the difference between right and wrong, and more importantly they act on what they know.
    And that’s the kind of book I want my boys to be reading. I hope the movie does justice to the novel

  • Nell Minow

    Susan, many, many thanks for your eloquent and thoughtful comments, which reflect my own views. I appreciated your reference to Madeliene L’Engle. Like the heroine of “A Wrinkle In Time,” Lyra is stubborn and curious and does not fit in easily, qualities that serve both heroines well as they must rely on their persistance to prevail. As I have said before, the theme of the books and movie is the integrity of the soul, which I find inspiring, moving, and deeply spiritual. I especially appreciated this post from Idol Chatter blogger Donna Freitas about the spiritual lessons in the books.
    I really appreciate your post and hope you will return often.

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