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Hollywood's heresy

Finessing a film version to appease narrow-minded religious groups does a disservice to great fiction.

December 08, 2007

It's become an article of faith among many Americans that Hollywood hates God. So it's not really surprising that, hoping for big box-office returns this holiday season, New Line Pictures decided to mute the religious content in its $180-million adaptation of "The Golden Compass," which opened in Los Angeles on Friday. It's a conciliatory move, but one that hasn't made anyone happy.

"The Golden Compass" is based on the first novel in a series for young readers by British author Philip Pullman, an atheist who once wryly told an Australian newspaper that "my books are about killing God." Indeed, over the course of the "His Dark Materials" fantasy trilogy, the young heroine, Lyra Belacqua, helps to undermine the "Holy Church" and upends the notion of original sin, befriending gay angels and -- yes -- leading to the death of a poseur God.

So, hoping not to offend sensitive religious moviegoers, New Line excised explicit references to the church in its film version of "The Golden Compass" in favor of a vaguer, more hazily defined threat. Some religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have tepidly endorsed the film on the grounds that most who see it "will scarcely be aware of religious connotations." But others, such as William Donohue's Catholic League and James Dobson's Focus on the Family, persist in warning parents that Hollywood is out to poison children's minds. Many Pullman fans are also aghast, but for the opposite reason: They want elements of the book that question organized religion to stay in.

We too distrust the airbrush treatment, but not for reasons of faith (though we welcome forthright expression of any and all views on God, politics, the Lakers or any other sensitive subject). We dislike Hollywood's approach because watering down Pullman's themes undermines the beauty of his books. Yes, "The Golden Compass" is a subversive book. It is also a spellbinding tale, an insightful saga about growing up, loyalty, morality and love. Taking the religious premise out of Lyra's quest severs her story from its anchor. It may make commercial sense, but it also makes a muddle of the book's wise clarity.

It's a pity the religious groups that oppose Pullman's books and the film are so frightened of the prospect of encouraging kids to immerse themselves in compelling, thoughtful literature. Surely their beliefs are strong enough to stand up to a children's story. And surely Hollywood can put more faith in the power of great fiction. Fiddling with art to appease narrow-minded interest groups is its own heresy, one with which Hollywood unfortunately is all too familiar.

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