On second thought, take the review down

Catholic bishops order `Golden Compass' article off their Web site

December 12, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Reporter

Days after its publication, a largely positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers across the country was retracted this week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops, who could not be reached for comment, offered no explanation for the decision. But Catholic groups, including the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, have urged moviegoers to boycott the film, saying the film and the book on which it is based are anti-Catholic.

"Certainly, there was all kinds of speculation from the day it went up [on the Web site] as to whether or not something like this would happen," said Jim Lackey, general news editor for the Catholic News Service, a wire service run by the bishops' conference. He was told Monday to remove the review from the service's Web site.

"It's hard for me to categorize whether or not it was a surprise," he said.

The conference's Office for Film and Broadcasting routinely reviews new movies and has its work distributed by CNS. It also rates films according to whether Catholics should see them or not. The Golden Compass review, written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the office's director and staff reviewer, awarded the film an A-II, appropriate for adults and adolescents.

The film is based on the first book of British author Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It's set in a world where free will is discouraged and dictatorial rule is imposed by a group of authoritarian elders known as the Magisterium. In Catholicism, the term Magisterium applies to the teaching authority of the church.

That CNS would distribute a laudatory review -- which appeared in Baltimore's Catholic Review Thursday -- surprised many Catholics. Pullman has made no secret of his negative view of the church.

"The Archdiocese of Baltimore is grateful that the Conference withdrew the review because it caused much confusion in the Catholic Community," Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said in an e-mailed statement. "From all reports, the review failed to adequately warn parents about the movie's widely recognized dark themes and anti-Catholic imagery."

For months, the New York-based Catholic League has been orchestrating a campaign against the film -- not so much because of the film itself, which league officials had not yet seen when they began their campaign, but because of Pullman's books. While acknowledging the filmmakers' claims that they had removed any overt anti-Catholic content from the film, league President William Donohue warned that a successful film could lead to increased interest in the books.

The movie, which opened Friday, was the top-grossing film of the weekend, earning $25.8 million. But New Line Cinema, which produced the film that stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, had hoped it would open much bigger -- perhaps on par with 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, a church-friendly, live-action fantasy that earned $65.6 million its opening weekend.

Yesterday, Donohue was taking full credit for the film's lackluster performance and praising the bishops' decision to retract the review.

"We saw this thing exploding over the weekend," Donohue said. "It was just a matter of time before they had to take it down."

In their review, Forbes and Mulderig praised the film as "lavish, well-acted and fast-paced," and noted that the book's anti-Catholic tone had been considerably watered down. "The good news is that the first book's explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium remaining."

They also suggested the film could prompt some worthwhile discussions in Catholic households. "Rather than banning the movie or books," they wrote, "parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens."

This is not the first time the conference of bishops has changed course over a movie review after its initial publication. Two years ago, its review of Brokeback Mountain, in which two modern cowboys struggle for years to hide their sexual attraction to each other, praised the film.

"While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed," the review read, "the universal themes of love and loss ring true." The initial review awarded the film an L rating, appropriate for a limited adult audience. That rating was later changed to O, morally offensive -- the group's most restrictive rating.

The Golden Compass review can no longer be found on the service's Web site. Instead, a brief message appears reporting the bishops' decision and referring readers to other articles concerning the film and the controversy surrounding it.

Among those articles is a review from Sister Rose Pacatte, director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, Calif., in which she praises The Golden Compass as "a very exciting film about a young girl, Lyra, and her high-spirited companion, Pan."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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