“The Golden Compass” as seen in the Catholic press

Dakota Blue Richards stars in a scene from the movie 'The Golden Compass.' (CNS photo/New Line)Long before the firestorm that greeted the review of “The Golden Compass” posted here last week, CNS and its partners in the Catholic press have been covering the growing controversy surrounding the movie. Like in the public at large, there’s no unanimity in church circles on the movie or the books behind the film. But there are plenty of resources available for those still trying to make up their minds.

For us, the coverage began five weeks ago with a story out of San Diego on the trilogy of books behind the film. Even then, before many even knew about the December release of the film, concern was being expressed that the movie might make the books more attractive for young readers.

But that was just the tip of the snowball (pardon the mixed metaphor) that was beginning to gather steam (pardon again …). In short order there were articles this fall in the National Catholic Register, the Catholic New World in Chicago, Our Sunday Visitor, The Monitor in Trenton, N.J., and The Catholic Moment in Lafayette, Ind., among others, mostly critical of either the movie or the trilogy by British author Philip Pullman.

Another CNS client, America magazine, posted an item on its blog by Jesuit Father James Martin, author of last year’s Catholic best-seller “My Life With the Saints.” In the blog, Father Martin agrees that warnings to parents might be legitimate and asks those who have read the book or seen the movie to weigh in (and several did, leading to a lively discussion).

At least one bishop also has weighed in: Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans. In a column in late November in his newspaper, the Clarion Herald, the archbishop wrote that books in the Pullman trilogy “surreptitiously lead children to atheism and pose a special threat to Christianity.”

But when the movie review for “The Golden Compass” was released by the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and posted on the CNS Web site (technically it’s not our review; we simply distribute film office reviews to the Catholic press), the question raised on a number of blogs and elsewhere was whether the review missed the boat in its evaluation of both the film and the larger controversy over Pullman’s trilogy.

Here too there is little unanimity. One editor of a diocesan newspaper (I’m not naming names here since these are simply e-mail chats and not published commentaries) told me that the review posted by CNS “downplayed and misrepresented the concerns that have been raised about the movie.” This editor said the review implied “that it’s not known for sure that the books are anti-Catholic when the author has, as a matter of public record, stated that his books are about killing God and that he wants to undermine the basis of the Christian faith.”

Another editor, though, said the reviewers “did a fine job.” They looked at the film “on the face value of the movie. Period. Not what it could have been, should have been, etc.”

Defenders of the review also point to positive evaluations of the film by Signis: The World Catholic Association for Communication and by media expert Sister Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul.

Signis uses words such as “well-made” and “intelligent” and says the film should be appealing for adolescents and adults. Sister Rose says the film “is an opportunity for us to develop our critical thinking skills: to ask questions and seek and articulate the answers: the answers to ‘why?'”

When I mentioned these to another editor I’ve been in correspondence with this week, he said he thought both Signis and Sister Rose “fail to appreciate the fact that these books, of which the movie is a lead-in, are for children” and that responsible critics of the books have been warning parents and educators about their dangers.

Another sharply critical analysis of the film and books appeared last month in The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., by Msgr. Eric Barr, the vicar for clergy and religious in Rockford who is described by the paper as a fantasy-film fan. He wrote, “Clearly, the film and the books it is based upon are an attack on Christianity and the values Christ taught.”

So, is “The Golden Compass” “overtly anti-Christian”, or is it a film that children can handle with the guidance of their parents? That’s up to individuals — and especially parents — to decide.

PHOTO: Dakota Blue Richards stars in a scene from the movie ‘The Golden Compass.’ (CNS photo/New Line)

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