The leader of a conservative Catholic watchdog group is imploring people not to see The Golden Compass - a children's fantasy based on the first book of British author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman's work, says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, promotes an atheist agenda that is profoundly anti-Church.
True, he hasn't seen the movie, which comes out Dec. 7, and he has little reason to doubt the filmmakers' claims that it considerably waters down the book's more controversial aspects. But the possibility that the movie could persuade some unsuspecting parents to buy the book for their children makes him furious.
"It's selling the virtues of atheism," Donohue says over the phone from the league's New York office. "The real person we want to get on this is Pullman. I don't want to see these books flying off the shelves at Christmas. I want them to be collecting dust."
But like the apple Eve just couldn't resist sampling, all the negative publicity could just play to the film's advantage.
"Right now, it's hard to see where it's going to have a real impact on the movie," speculates Gregg Kilday, film editor of The Hollywood Reporter. "Historically, these warnings sent as many people to see the movie, once they were labeled 'forbidden fruit,' as they kept away."
His Dark Materials centers on a world run by the sinister and dictatorial Magisterium, a force that suppresses free will, demands conformity and punishes anyone who deviates from the norm. "The first volume, the one that's being adapted, doesn't have much in it, in terms of the author's philosophizing," says Kilday, who has read the trilogy. "The latter volumes do have more, and they are a kind of metaphorical attack on the church."
Golden Compass director Chris Weitz recently told the London Daily Telegraph: "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."
The filmmakers didn't go so far as to change the name Magisterium, which in Catholicism refers to the teaching authority of the church. Still, Thomas Doherty, the executive director of Britain's National Secular Society, decried the changes, telling The Daily Telegraph, "This is part of a long-term problem over freedom of speech."
Doherty has written extensively on film censorship. He says protests like those spearheaded by Donohue and the league are far less effective today than they were in the past, when the Roman Catholic Church could slap a film with the dreaded "condemned" tag and seriously affect its box-office potential.
"Basically, today, Catholics themselves are far less willing to obey either the priesthood or their alleged spokesman and forgo seeing a film," says Doherty, author of Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration.
When Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988, the Catholic Church excoriated the film for portraying Christ as a man who had doubts about his mission and had sex with Mary Magdalene. It did the same to Jean-Luc Godard's 1985 Hail Mary, a contemporary rumination on divine birth that had Joseph working in a gas station and Mary shooting hoops.
Although neither film proved a box-office smash, plenty of people went to see them based on their notoriety alone - certainly more than normally would have attended a nearly three-hour contemplation of Christ's divinity or a French film made by a proudly nonmainstream director. At the Charles Theatre in Baltimore, audiences lined up to see Hail Mary (and got doused with holy water while standing outside the theater). Scorsese received an Oscar nomination for Last Temptation.
"Catholics have less impact on motion-picture content today than People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals," Doherty says.
And then there's the nightmare vision, as personified by Baltimore's own connoisseur of the outrageous, director John Waters. "When I was a kid, I had never heard about all these movies [the church] told us we'd go to hell if we'd see them. So I saw them, and I turned it into a career," he says. "Maybe the Catholic League is inspiring some other troublemaker Catholic child."
None of that, however, is going to stop Donohue. "If we're a reliable voice out there in America, if we're regarded as a credible source, people will at least say, 'Hmm?'" he says. "I mean, come on, who's likely to go see this because I'm trumpeting this as a problem?"