How Hollywood Saved God
Posted on by Will

Update: Chris Weitz, the film’s director, has responded to the AM’s piece, calling it a “hatchet-job”. You can read his response here.

This month’s Atlantic Monthly has an excellent article on the controversy surrounding The Golden Compass movie, featuring new quotes from New Line and Philip Pullman. It sheds light on the decisions the movie studio have had to make about the book’s (anti-)religious content and the deliberations over how much of it should be removed. The article is only able to view through subscription, so we’ve summarised the contents here. It’s worth reading in full and addresses with clarity many of the issues fans of His Dark Materials have been concerned with for the past four years.

Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained how the religious Magisterium have been changed to “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian / KGB / SS.” AM write rather damningly that, “with $180 million at stake” [the figure has in fact risen to $205 million +], that “the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.”

Philip Pullman has remained resolute in his defence of the film-makers and became involved in the film much more than he expected or initially professed a desire for. The status of a living author is one New Line were understandably nervous about, however – if he spoke out against the film, Pullman could put a dent in its box office takings. AM asked Pullman if “New Line would prefer he were, well, the late author of The Golden Compass.” The author responded, “Dead? Yes! Absolutely!” If something happened to him, there “would be expressions of the most heartfelt regrets, yet privately they would be saying, ‘Thank God.'”

The article reports that Pullman has been to a screening of the film and that he “praised many specific scenes”; extolling the virtues of Dakota Blue Richards and saying that Nicole Kidman has the “exact quality of warm and cold, seductive and terrifying” to portray Mrs Coulter. When discussing the film, AM say “he chose[s] his words carefully, acknowledging that his role now is to be ‘sensible’ so that the next two films get made. Nonetheless, he was honest about what was missing:

“They do know where to put the theology,” Pullman said,
“and that’s off the film.”

Pullman goes on, “I think if everything that is made explicit in the book or everything that is implied clearly in the book or everything that can be understood by a close reading of the book were present in the film, they’d have the biggest hit they’ve ever had in their lives. If they allowed the religious meaning of the book to be fully explicit, it would be a huge hit. Suddenly, they’d have letters of appreciation from people who felt this but never dared say it. They would be the heroes of liberal thought, of freedom of thought … And it would be the greatest pity if that didn’t happen.”

“I didn’t put that very well. What I mean is that I want this film to succeed in every possible way. And what I don’t want to do, you see, is talk the other two films out of existence. So I’ll stop there.”

Moving on to more familiar territory for long-time followers of the film, the article recounts the lengthy and troubled history of the production beginning with Tom Stoppard’s commissioned adaptation, through the unsolicited proposal of an enthusiastic Chris Weitz (and his hiring as director) through’s interview with Chris Weitz that sparked such negative publicty for the film and led to The Times running an article, “God Is Cut From Film of Dark Materials”.

Weitz recalls his feelings upon reading the newspaper piece: “Why am I doing this?”, he thought. “I’ll end up being hated by the fans and ripped into by the press. And this is a huge, huge endeavor. Maybe this isn’t for me.” Weitz was of course then to leave the production, citing those “technical challenges”. With the film’s new director, Anand Tucker, leaving due to “creative differences”, Weitz came back on-board: “I’d started to care less about what people might think of me.” He also took heart from email correspondence with Philip Pullman in which the author revealed he wouldn’t mind a version of the story that didn’t include a critique of organised religion.

Script Alterations

The clearest expression of religion in The Golden Compass is the scene where Lord Asriel reads Genesis to Lyra in the North and explains the concept of Original Sin, a crucial part of His Dark Materials. This scene, says AM, “was in the earliest versions of the movie script, but over time it has been slowly erased. As Pullman points out, it “comes at the point in the story when we most need that explanation.” But no $180 million movie is going to trash the first book of the Bible, so the movie will have to do without it.”

The earlier scripts are also reported as having made passing reference to the Fall: “In the Stoppard script, Asriel, in a rage about the Authority, mocks the “apple of desire” and the “fig-leaf of shame”; a few scenes later Coulter, the evil Nicole Kidman character, yells at Asriel, “You can’t conquer God!” ”

Weitz originally wrote along similar lines, with the opening scene featuring Lyra in a college chapel listening to a sermon about the alternative Genesis. The director relates, however, that movie was not going to get made.” By December 2004, references to Genesis were gone. What remained was Dust and its theology: Lord Asriel’s powerful speech telling Lyra how Dust is sin and that he will destroy Dust, bringing an end to death, was still present. By the final script, this too was gone. No mention of sin or death remain.

Quotes on Dust instead include Mrs Coulter telling Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel says, “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it. They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

AM make a damning assessment of how this all fits together:

“What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all.”

” “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions. This is Hollywood at its most hazily indignant and self-congratulatory, recycling the generic themes of countless other films – a band of grubby, half-crazed heroes takes on the System and wins.”

Chris Weitz has done what he can to keep mentions of religion in the film. He tried to keep in Asriel’s line “Dust is sin,” a line which he says “didn’t make it. What can I say?” Hollywood, he says, “is just terrified that anything that brings up religion or anything controversial will be disastrous.” Weitz reiterates that some religious imagery will be in the movie, but it seems it will be much much less than obvious: it will be so far into the background as to require “a DVD player and working knowledge of Latin to decipher the symbols.” Visible in the trailers, icons of Orthodox saints will be on the outside of some Magisterium buildings, with Latin inscriptions from the Bible sprinkled around the film.

This certainly isn’t the message New Line have been putting out. AM allege that at Cannes, “the studio had delivered a sheet of talking points to the hotel room of at least one cast member, Sam Elliott, who plays a Texas aeronaut in the film. According to Elliott, the talking points instructed that if the question of Pullman’s religious views came up, the actors should just “avoid it and play stupid.” The message they all agreed on was something along the lines of, “How can I possibly tell what Pullman had in mind?”

The publication concludes:

“Marketing plans aside, New Line executives likely believe they were doing Pullman no great disservice by stripping out his theology and replacing it with some vague derivative of the Force. Values such as obedience, religious devotion, and chastity are so rare in Hollywood’s culture that they probably seem archaic and quaint – courtly rules that no one lives by anyway. Certainly not something to get exercised over.”

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80 Responses to How Hollywood Saved God

  1. Jonnie says:

    So just before God DIES in The Amber Spyglass, and a Homosexual Angel dies in his lover’s arms, and Lyra realizes that she has to, “rebuild the Kingdom of Heaven” (aka Become the new Authority, or GOD) we’re going to cut away to the lollipop guild singing about chastity and suppressed free thought? Please New Line, you should be really taking notes, this is good stuff here.

    Because, hey, when it comes down to it, the entire three volume arc of this epic fantasy has little to do with the destruction of God’s evil totalitarian Heaven and the remaking of it by the main youthful protagonist. Seriously, cut it, the story doesn’t NEED an arc, a backbone, or let’s say ANY DIRECTION AT ALL.

    And why even introduce Mary Malone in Subtle Knife? Remember guys (hey you petty middle-aged scared little conservative executives, I’m talking to you) how she is the Snake whose job it is to seduce the main character into wakeful awareness of Good and Evil (mind her tool is the love of a boy, not an apple). Let’s be honest. She only makes the titular Amber Spyglass, what’s the point of even casting her? Just focus on the pretty bearsies and sparkly dragonfliesies and kids will go ooh and ahh and you can go home with a fat pay check and buy your snotty little daughter an SUV.

    I for one am looking forward to it!!

  2. pineapple says:

    i might not see it.

  3. Melancholy Man says:

    Like the nurses at Bolvangar with the nice little doggy daemon.

  4. Melancholy Man says:

    Like the nurses on Bolvanger with their good little doggy daemons.

  5. SoulLily says:

    This is just sad. So, so sad. I think I’m going to cry.
    That or scream. Plug your ears.

    Nope, still don’t feel better. I can’t believe I’ve been counting down over 200 days to find out it’s going to be a complete bust.

    Just one question: If TGC is such a scandal, how the hell do they plan to do TAS? That entire book is the most blasphemous thing I ever did see, much more so than TGC, and if they’re so concerned about offending people that they won’t even say “Dust is sin” on camera, I don’t see how they’re going to have a war against God and win in a few years’ time. (Or show an angel killing a priest who was set to kill a child, or the Authority/God being an old, decrepit and inferior angel) This is all just… Well, I don’t have a word for it. Terrible, idiotic, horrendous, things along those lines.

  6. chris says:

    Until now, I’ve been holding out hope that a good movie could be made of this installment without mention of religion. But now hearing about the Magisterium being compared to the KGB is frankly ridiculous. That sounds like every other pseudo-rebellious movie ever made, and leaves out the heart of these books.

    If the movie turns out to be good, then I hope it makes a lot of money, but if not, then I hope it fails miserably. I’m just worried that all of us fans are going to see it anyway, to see for ourselves what they did right or wrong. Personally, I think we should wait a few days after the release, and read the reviews of critics and other fans like ourselves. That way, if it sucks, then at least we didn’t give our money to New Line, and if we hear that it’s good, then we can go see it and support it.

  7. jose says:

    wow jonnie said it best.

  8. Edwin says:

    The book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an important social commentary about the gold standard, but the movie was a huge success because of it’s characters, imagery and creativity. The Golden Compass is my favorite novel because of it’s religious commentary, but more importantly because of it’s characters. Pullman didn’t say anything new about religion that you can’t figure out yourself from reading a history book, but the characters and world he created are the reason this book is such a huge success and why people read it over and over.

    Granted, the consequences of a dominant religious power is a major theme, but the movie still has a chance to be wonderful if the characters are depicted well. However, it will probably not be as lasting or as important as the book with that theme removed. But that’s like saying “It’s not going to be the best of all time, so that means it’s not good.” The characters can make the movie and if they’re half as well drawn out as the book, the movie is going to be fine.

  9. boci says:


    kinda dissapointing…

    this whole book is meant to challange the establishment of religion, of how people are willing to follow blindly and perform horrendous acts in the name of god. How we are so obsessed with working towards salvation that we don’t live and love the world we are in, snuffing out all sense of feeling out of life because we are afraid of not getting into heaven…

    i know that’s a big thing to show, but it’s better to shocking close minded people then to water down the truth because it might ruffle feathers…c’mon, this book was MEANT to ruffle feathers, it’s a damn good book..

  10. Matt Pellizzari says:

    Oh boy…well I’m sure the movie is still going to be amazing. But inside I have a terrible longing for Hollywood to just take a chance with this one…

    And I hope Dust is more acurately depicted than from what I see in this article.

    Here’s hoping.

  11. Gabriel says:

    SONS OF A B….

  12. Alanna says:

    Lord save us.

    What the hell is going on man??? I’m not going to see this movie. And if I do I am starting protests afterwards. His Dark Materials is too important to be trashed like this.

    Does anyone feel like remaking the movie in a while? I’m actually serious about this, people.

  13. Alanna says:

    They’ve trashed it for good.

    Help me remake it when I get out of school!!!?

    Oh lord.

  14. Debbie says:

    This is so disappointing, I don’t even know what to say to express how I feel. First the dark is rising was ruined by another studio and now this, why don’t the imbecilic members of a film studios realise that if a book is popular, a film that is loyal to that book has a good chance to be popular too?

    We’ve been heading in this direction for a while with the quotes about it being ‘watered down’ etc. but this just puts the tin lid on it. I also think that this seriously throws into question New Line’s commitment to the other two books. Northern Lights is the lightest of the three books in terms of the religious subplot, if they are sanitising it to the degree where they are terrified to mention the word ‘sin’ then how on earth are they going to make the other two?!

    As for them adding religious elements to the other two if this is a success, I wouldn’t kid yourselves. If Northern lights is a success without the religious aspect it will simply be taken as confirmation by New Line that they were right to remove it in the first place.

    I’m utterly disillusioned and deeply disappointed, I don’t really want to see the film anymore, to be honest I‘d rather sit and re-read the book. This movie has been sanitised and sold out to fit a narrow minded minority, extremely sad.

    Who the hell are they actually making this movie for? It certainly isn’t for the millions of people who love the books.

    And I’ve got to add, Well said Jonnie!

  15. Molly says:


    Well, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. When I saw the last trailer and realized they’d replaced every reference to the “alethiometer” with the “golden compass”, I knew the Hollywood Dumbing-Down was well on its way. When they don’t even have enough faith in their audience to allow a five-syllable word into the script, I give up. (I’m American, btw.)

    I’m going to see it, because I can’t not. But I’m going to have a stiff drink beforehand. And possibly afterward. Hell, I’m bringing in a flask. Sigh.


  16. James Daae says:

    I totally agree with Stacy. I’m starting to feel that this film will rely on looks and completely forget the personality!

    Why bother making an adaptation if you can’t remain true to the book/comic. I can’t stand this dumbing down of things as far as Hollywood is concerned. New Line/Peter Jackson did a bloody good job with ‘Lord Of The Rings’ and I expected just as faithful an adaptation with TGC. Now, more than ever, I’m dubious about this movie :/

  17. Aletheia Dolorosa says:

    The worst part is that now all the religious fundamentalists will be able to go around saying that they managed to change the ‘message’ of the books (in the film). I never had any intention of seeing the film, but it absolutely tears my heart that the fundies will be able to claim this as some kind of moral victory.

    I expected the film to be bad, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad.

  18. moyeongsu says:

    I think I’m gonna take a different approach on this, guys. I’m pissed that they’re taking the core of the story out and turning it into a mockery of what Dust and the other parts of the story should be. But perhaps, they’ll leave enough subtle hints intact that the true Sraffies can see exactly what’s going on and be happy too.

    Or maybe I’ll be pissed

  19. Lux says:

    Actually, it isn’t as bad as the article suggest, because almost all the religion references that they’ve cut were supposed to be in final scenes, wich have been moved to the TSK movie. So, if TGC is a succes and TSK and TAS are made, those references will probably be put back in, because well, they’ll need to if they want those movies to make sense.

  20. Debbie says:

    Lux I’m sorry to say it, I know where you are coming from and I really want to believe that too, but I really think that is being optimistic almost to the point of foolishness. The scene at the end of The Golden Compass has been written, it doesn’t matter that it has been moved to TSK it has been written and they are not including religious references at all, that is what the article is saying. The storyline has had it’s soul ‘cut’ away so that New Line can sell a pretty looking action movie to the kids, the story has been stripped down and sanitised to try and appease a minority. As I said above, if The Golden Compass is successful without even the slightest references to religion, New Line will take is as confirmation that they were correct to remove it and what people really want is pretty images, cool things like armoured bears and the most simplistic plot line that they can derive from the books.

    I really, really want for New Line to prove me wrong and have the courage to put out intelligent and thought provoking films which are loyal to the books, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, I really don’t. :~(

  21. Lux says:

    Then just tell me how they could make TSK and TAS without -any- reference to religion.

    IMO, it’s clear that this is a test-movie. It’s made to gather as many people as possible and check if the movie audience still likes fantasy movies: if it’s a succes they’ll probably include the religious themes later, if it’s a failure… well, I guess we could just wait 20 years like the LOTR fans did…

  22. Debbie says:

    “Then just tell me how they could make TSK and TAS without -any- reference to religion.”

    Quite honestly I really don’t know, personally I don’t think you could and that is why I’m now wondering if they are having second thoughts about making them at all.

    The article confirms that New Line have sanitised the storyline to the point where they are terrified to mention the word ‘sin’ in reference to dust, if they are really that scared about it what else will have to be changed or re-worded to fit? Is a Daemon now just an animal companion and not a soul? I know that the final scene is now attached to TSK and the climate may change by the time they make and release it, but the films won’t flow right at all if there is no mention of the church or religion in TGC and then bang it’s prevalent throughout the other two. I also think if all references are cut from TCG then New Line are going to be in a quandary, they are not going to know how or even if they should introduce those themes later on. Isn’t it going to seem more of a risk to introduce religion to the TSK and AS if TGC has been a success without it?

    I honestly don’t think their main issue is whether people will go to see a fantasy movie, if you remove the deeper themes then pretty much all HDM is is a fantasy and that is all they seem to be marketing it as. I personally think it’s the fact that they have bottled it when it comes to the darker themes of the books, that’s pretty much confirmed by what the New Line execs and other things in that article. They bought the rights to HDM a while back and now are having second thoughts about whether they want to make them, or at least make them loyally.

    As I said above, I really, really hope I’m wrong despite everything I still want to be able to love this movie, I just think it’s becoming increasing less likely that I will love it as an adaptation to the book.

  23. Elvine says:

    *Raises hand*
    I volunteer to be Philip Pullman’s media coach! Mr Pullman, whenever you are asked if the film represents the message in your novel, just answer “more than I could ever imagine”.

  24. Lux says:

    Well Debbie, you could also see it the other way around. Maybe they cut the ending -because- they haven’t yet decided what to do. In that sense maybe they’re doing us a favour by waiting TSK to release those scenes with their full religious message.

    But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, is that we won’t see God in the movies. The Authority won’t be a God that is also a evil ruler, but rather an evil ruler that also claims to be God. In that perspective the Magisterium being openly showed as a religious institution or not in TGC isn’t that important.

    I’m worried abut the movie, I admit it. But I still have a bit of trust. I want to have it.

  25. Jonnie says:

    HA! Elvine, it’s so true! The entire message of mature curiosity and reflective interpretation and free thought is exactly what is being sucked out of this adaptation in a liposuction tube. The Church and the Executive Producers are acting just as Pullman has them acting in his radically perceptive novels. This could very well be the most ironic film of all time!

  26. Pingback: OH MY GOD! They Killed God! Those Bastards! « ProcrastinatioNation

  27. australis says:

    (dreams…)The film doesn’t bomb, but doesn’t make a mint, either. New Line decide they never did like HDM all that much anyway, and sell the rights for the next two films to an English production company, or French, or German, or, heck, ANYBODY that will not be afraid to give the story a little depth and meaning. This mythical production company then reshoots excised scenes from TGC and re-releases it, with the promise of making the sequels true to the spirit of the source material. (sigh) Dream on…

    Back in the real world…

    As I see it now, the NL sequels could go two ways. 1. The kiddies liked it, lets dumb down the next two to the same degree and we can’t miss! 2. TGC made us buckets of money, let’s say to hell with the whinging fundamentalist religeous minority, and make two films that show Hollywood can confound the critics and have some artistic integrity after all.

    OK people, based on past experience, what’s the more likely?

    I really wonder if any NL execs actually read HDM to the end, and thought, yes, we’re happy with showing the death of a god-figure, a war on heaven, the possibility of intimacy between children (depending how you read it), and (to many people) one hell of a downer of an ending.

    They’re presumably smart enough to know what they would be getting themselves into, but you really do wonder.

    An emasculated TGC may be a success, but given the poor box office of fantasy films of late (and TGC will be classed as that by many people who do not know the books) TGC may do no better. Retaining the religeous/philosophical aspects of the story may have garnered more controversy (read publicity) but we would surely have ended up with a richer, more memorable cinema experience.

    As PP has said, they haven’t done anything to his books, they’re still there sitting on the shelf. Trouble is, after a film is made of a book, with good, bad or indifferent results, one’s perception of the book cannot help but be influenced by the movie. Usually not for the better.

  28. cc says:

    Just a quick message for green ink here. This may seem very after the fact as there is a swathe of comments inbetween your last posting but although i’m not a massive Alan Moore fan I do admire his integrity. DC comics own the rights to a lot of his work (which he thought would revert back to him after a certain time, DC found a way round this though) and it is precisely because he has had such a raw deal with adaptations that he now only publishes his work through companies that allow him to keep the rights to his work. He isn’t a hypocrite, just a man who has wised up to the way that corporate America works. Similarly Pullman sold the rights to Northern Lights before the acclaim really came his way, so he relinquished control over a film version of the story before it became important to so many people. Of course Pullman wants a good version of his story but he doesn’t have to endorse this product, which is what it has become. I’m personally not looking forward to walking down the streets of my local town and sees the umpteenth armoured bear happy meal packaging discarded as litter but that is neither here nor there.

  29. Matt says:

    I don’t understand how they will even do the second and especially the third movie without religious elements. I mean, what are they going to totally remove the angels? The third book is all about religion, its the “bigger picture” to the whole adventure. Are they going to replace “God” with some magesterium kingpin and have to fight him…not in the clouded mountain, no…just on earth in some big palace? And how will they draw so much emotion in Will and Lyra’s parting if the reason they are separating is obscured?

  30. Aaron says:

    “sigh… i really wanted to wait for the films release to make any judgments about the film, but reading all this is really depressing.

    what a shame.”

    Then do. This article tells us nothing we didn’t already know, and what it does tell us, it says with a spin. Remain optimistic, see the movie, and don’t condemn it until you actually know what it’s like. Presumptions based on slanted journalism are completely out of place.