The movie's director, Chris Weitz, spins it this way: "In the books, the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots. If that's what you want in the film, you'll be disappointed." Weitz says they merely "expanded the range of meanings" for the Magisterium, that it's merely a metaphor for tyranny of any stripe: "Philip Pullman is against any kind of organized dogma whether it is Church hierarchy or, say, a Soviet hierarchy." That would be more believable if Hollywood had a track record of casting a Soviet hierarchy as evil -- and if Hollywood didn't have its own organized dogma of secular fundamentalism.
Nicole Kidman spins it her way: "I was raised Catholic, 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."
The media have played happily along in disguising Pullman's religion-bashing. On NBC's "Today," weatherman Al Roker delighted in making "The Golden Compass" the fall book selection of "Al's Book Club for Kids." Pullman appeared on NBC to deny that he was really promoting atheism. He touted letting the reader decide what the author intended, in a "democracy of reading." The closest he came to atheism was saying the book championed "open-minded intellectual curiosity." If that sounds like a transparent dodge, it certainly was. He told the students asking questions to think of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the menace in Pullman's trilogy isn't called the Caliphate, and its hideous monsters aren't mullahs. They are cardinals and priests, and the heroes are an atheist former nun and two rebellious gay male angels.
The atheists may be angry that the movie waters down Pullman's anti-religious message, but they can take comfort in the fact that many parents (and grandparents and even godparents) will, sadly, buy the hype over this movie and buy this trilogy of vicious anti-religious books for the young readers in their lives. To the Christian book buyer, beware: Instead of celebrating God's son born in the flesh, you'll be celebrating God being killed so that man can advance to true consciousness.
For those anticipating the wonder of Narnia, you'll have to wait until next May, when "Prince Caspian," the second installment, returns magic to the screen.