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Laurie Sparham, New Line Cinema
Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in "The Golden Compass." Critics of the film say the story's author is trying to manipulate children's attitudes about God.

With sneak previews scheduled today in theaters along the Wasatch Front, a new fantasy film for children based on a book called "The Golden Compass" is creating concern among some Utah parents, as well as several national conservative Christian groups.

The crux of the debate is whether author Philip Pullman — and by extension, Hollywood's New Line Cinema — is trying to manipulate children's attitudes about God through what some have charged is an anti-Catholic, anti-religious film that reflects Pullman's atheist views, much like the 2005 Christmas-time release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on the book by C.S. Lewis, reflected that author's Christian beliefs.

E-mails warning parents about Pullman's books have circulated widely in recent weeks, describing Pullman's books, the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, as "a series of children's books about killing God. It is the anti-Narnia and the writer is an admitted atheist who is trying to get his word out."

The Catholic League has called for a boycott of the film, which opens nationwide Dec. 7, and other conservative Christian groups, including Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, have urged parents to avoid seeing the film or buying the books for their children.

First published in 1995, the book has won several awards, including the Carnegie Medal in England, and Pullman has been widely quoted in national media in recent weeks, in large part answering questions about provocative past statements. He told the Washington Post in 2001 that he was "trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief."

When some controversy surrounded the Harry Potter series, Pullman told one interviewer that his books had been "flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God."

Concern apparently has spilled over into selected areas along the Wasatch Front, where the $180 million movie's debut is causing discussion among some parents, teachers and students.

In October, Kevin Prusse, principal at Leo Muir Elementary in Bountiful, sent a message to parents giving them a heads-up about the film through the Davis School District e-mail system. "I feel that this information about this movie is too important for you not to know about it. I hope it does not offend any of you," he wrote.

He then forwarded a comment from his sister, which read, "I find it ironic how the God in this movie is portrayed and that the writer of the books has actually come out openly about his atheist message wanting to target kids and writing specifically for them in more than one interview I read," the e-mail said.

The e-mail included another section that has been widely circulated on the Internet (referenced above).

Prusse later received a reprimand from the district, since anything that is "partisan, commercial or religious" should not be sent through its e-mail system.

"He thought he was doing what was correct. His philosophy is, as a principal, you have the role of protecting students and letting parents know things they should be aware of," said Chris Williams, spokesman for Davis School District. "He just saw this as an extension of that role he plays."

On the flip side in Utah County, school librarian Angel Pearce was so concerned about the fear she has seen from children regarding the book that she penned a lengthy letter to the editor of the Provo Daily Herald earlier this month, asking parents to read the book before making a decision about its merits.

"I can no longer hold my tongue as I watch an excellent book be defamed and vilified by the members of our community based not on their knowledge from the reading of the book, but an e-mail that was sent around the community and the world at large," she wrote.

"If you choose not to read a certain book, fine, but what I have seen in the children is a type of fear of this book as if it has power to suck them into the depths of Hell by itself," she wrote. "Please, do not give power to any book by casting baseless fears about it. If you have questions about the book, read it.

"I saw similar reactions when the first Harry Potter book was placed on our shelves, and news flash, but this one has been on our shelves and checked out for eight years with no noticeable ill affects," she wrote. "Be an informed citizen and a knowledgable reader. Please, don't cause your children to fear a book."

Pearce did not return messages seeking additional comment or an explanation of how widespread she believes the fear over the book has become in Springville.

Nebo School District spokeswoman Lana Hiskey said she was aware of some public discussion about the film, but not within the school district or the schools themselves. "We're not addressing the movie, because that's not part of our curriculum."

She said "not many" of the schools in the district have "The Golden Compass" in their libraries, and "it will not be required reading for any class.

"If parents have a concern, we ask them to contact the teacher or the principal. We put the responsibility back in the parents' hands as to what we want them to read or not to read."

She said there has been no direction from the district to the schools regarding the book itself, and she knows of no discussion within school community councils regarding "The Golden Compass."

Janice Dole, associate professor in the department of teaching and learning at the University of Utah, said she was not aware of the controversy being generated by the upcoming film, but as a reading expert, "you want your children to read as widely as possible. That may include reading some things parents don't believe in.

"The whole point is it builds students' background knowledge of the world and how it works, and exposes them to differing viewpoints. I hope most parents would see that as a good and not a negative thing."

Dole said she doesn't believe children "should read anything they want any time they want. Parents have a right to say 'I don't think this is appropriate."' If kids really want to read something, parents should read it with them and then discuss it. "Parents do have the right to impart their values to their children, and they do it whether they know it or not."

"To me, the greater fear is closing your kids off, not opening them up. In the information age, there's no doubt in my mind that our children and grandchildren will be exposed to so many more ideas than we ever were. Our job as parents and educators is to teach kids to think critically."

Officials in one Catholic school district in Ontario, Canada, are so concerned about the book and upcoming film that they have pulled the book from school shelves, according to The Associated Press.

The Catholic League's Bill Donohue has blasted the book as blatantly anti-Catholic, and the group has penned a written response titled, "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked." A similar outcry ensued over what the group said were anti-Catholic themes in Dan Brown's best-selling book, "The Da Vinci Code," which was also later made into one of the most successful feature films of 2006, despite calls for a Catholic boycott.

Yet some secularists say they are disappointed that the film does not contain what they call the book's "anti-religious references." A press release from the National Secular Society in Britain, where the film premiered earlier this week, called the decision by filmmakers to water down the religion-as-evil messages in the book "a great shame. The fight against the Magisterium (a thinly-disguised version of the Catholic Church) is the whole point of the book."

The real objections from the Catholic League to the books are "not against the film itself, but an attempt to stop the stories becoming popular, which might lead children who haven't already done so to read the books," the society said.

Contributing: Tiffany Erickson

E-mail: [email protected]