'The Golden Compass' Spurs Controversy

Despite the fantastical scenery, talking armor-wearing polar bears and even a swarm of flying witches, "The Golden Compass" is getting more attention not for its use of fantasy, but instead for something very real: religion.

The film, now open nationwide, is based on "His Dark Materials," a trilogy of books by English author Philip Pullman, a self-proclaimed atheist.

Since the film was commissioned — and even before shooting began — religious groups were outraged, pegging "The Golden Compass" as a direct attack on organized religion, particularly Catholicism.

The film chronicles the adventures of young protagonist Lyra, played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, as she seeks to find her schoolyard friend who has been kidnapped by the Magisterium — the name of the governing body of the fantasy world. The Magisterium's objective, we learn early on, is to rid all citizens of their free will.

The characters are all accompanied by "daemons," essentially talking animals intended to portray their inner spirits.

The children — whose spirits are presumably ever-changing — have daemons that are also constantly changing (Lyra's goes from cat to moth to ferret), while the adults' daemons remain constant. Members of the Magisterium have less-friendly daemons, such as hissing beetles and slithering snakes.

As Lyra gets closer to her goal of reaching the Magisterium — located in the alternate universe of Bolvanger — she realizes that it has been capturing children, removing their souls and preventing them from being touched by "dust," a substance that is alluded to be representative of the free will the Magisterium is trying to avoid and eliminate.

While the religious connotations are probably too advanced for younger viewers to pick up on — the supposed likeness of the Magisterium to the Catholic Church and the irony of its members having the ugliest of all the daemons to represent their true spirits — critics and fans have launched into a heated debate over the film, which some believe should be boycotted.

People of Faith Displeased by 'Compass' Premise

The first book of Pullman's trilogy was published in 1995, and saw great success in the United Kingdom and the United States selling more than 15 million copies, a figure that many say speaks to the author's storytelling ability.

Pullman, who was unavailable to comment directly to ABC News, was recently interviewed by Time magazine, where he quashed allegations that his film and books are anti-religious.

"I wouldn't want to be a part of any movement that had an agenda," Pullman told the magazine. "I'm not arguing a case. I'm not preaching a sermon. I'm not giving a lecture. I'm telling a story. Any position I take is that of a storyteller who says, 'Once upon a time, this happened.'"

New Line Cinema, the film's distributor, stood by Pullman, noting in a statement to ABC News that the film has been "praised by countless clergy and religious scholars, including the archbishop of Canterbury, for its deep spirituality and exploration of important theological issues."

But groups such as the Catholic League for Religious and Spiritual Rights don't agree, and say while the film is notably more "watered down" than Pullman's books are, both are still highly "anti-Christian and pro-atheist."

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