Some Christians thought Philip Pullman's novel was blasphemous. But now some of the author's fans may think the film adaptation's not provocative enough. Inside the book's long, perilous road to the screen

By Jeff Jensen
Updated December 07, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

In July of 2004, Chris Weitz went all the way to the Arctic Circle just to write a movie. The young filmmaker had fatefully accepted the challenge of adapting Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and since the North Pole was a crucial locale in the book, Weitz thought tapping out the script while communing with a wintry wasteland would be really cool. Putting aside his aversion to snow, ice, and cold weather in general, he set sail from Norway on a boat packed with adventure tourists curious to see polar bears and old whaling stations. On the first day at sea, he plugged in his computer…and the ship’s electricity fried his laptop. He spent the next nine days writing the script by hand.

Looking back on it three years later, Weitz says, ”It was a romantic induction into the process.” But maybe he should have considered it an omen. If all you know about New Line’s The Golden Compass are the ads that make it look like another Chronicles of Narnia flick, you don’t know the half of it. Sure, there’s a plucky kid hero, lots of talking animals, and piles of pretty snow. A wardrobe even makes a coy cameo. But this risky $180 million fantasy is worlds away from C.S. Lewis’ fuzzy Christian fairy tale. In fact, this is the anti-Narnia. Compass is adapted from the first in a trilogy of British kids’ novels collectively known as His Dark Materials, which are a brainy and imaginative critique of Christian dogma and ideological tyranny. Literary critics have hailed the award-winning books as masterpieces and put Pullman on a pedestal next to J.R.R. Tolkien. But the defining struggle in trying to convert Compass into a blockbuster franchise has been in figuring out just how smart — and provocative — a film can be in today’s religiously touchy culture.

The film definitely pushes some buttons. It’s set on an alternate Earth dominated by the Magisterium, an oppressive religious institution akin to the Catholic Church, whose God is a distant, nebulous deity known as the Authority. In this world, every human being has a ”daemon,” an animal companion that reflects his or her conscience and embodies the soul. Golden Compass is partly the story of an adventurer and alleged heretic named Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is obsessed with finding the otherworldly source of the Dust, a mysterious spiritual substance that might be the cause of all human misery. And it is partly the story of a church operative named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who has embarked on a perverse plan to purge mankind of its free spirit, the same one that inspired Adam and Eve to get on God’s bad side by chomping on the apple. But above all, it is the tale of young Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a mischievous girl who could be the fulfillment of a prophecy that threatens the church. Witches, warrior polar bears, riverboat gypsies, and a balloon-flying cowboy are also involved. ”It’s a little story about very little ideas,” quips Craig.

Oh, Bond, do be serious: This is all a devilish business, according to the Catholic League and various evangelical Christian watchdog groups. They believe Pullman’s books slander their faith, celebrate irresponsible behavior, and promote despairing, soulless atheism. But if they ever get around to seeing Weitz’s glittering F/X extravaganza, they’ll discover his adaptation has exorcised much of Pullman’s subversive spirit, a move that has alarmed the author’s Web-chatty fans. Compass presented a truly tough challenge: launching a big-budget franchise based on a property that only gets darker, stranger, and riskier as it goes. (Did we mention that Lord Asriel wants to kill God?) Early reviews are divided — here’s the link to the EW review — and while no one should ever discount the appeal of talking animals, New Line’s bid for a new Lord of the Rings is hardly a slam dunk. One thing’s for certain: The Golden Compass is proving yet again that while our culture may be filled with images of God, it sure has a devil of a time talking about Him.

NEXT PAGE: ”I don’t think [the books] promote anything — except the good qualities of kindness, courage, curiosity, open-mindedness.”

The Golden Compass

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 114 minutes
  • Chris Weitz