Some Christian schools in the suburbs are warning students to stay away from "The Golden Compass," saying the film, opening tonight, carries a message offensive to Christians.
One school sent parents a warning about what it said were the movie's anti-religion overtones, and a teacher at another school reported students were "appalled" when he read them quotes from the book trilogy upon which the movie is based.
But some Catholic organizations didn't find much to object to in the film itself.
At Cross Evangelical Lutheran School in Yorkville, Bill Ziech, youth minister, cautioned school parents in a newsletter that author Philip Pullman expresses atheistic views in the book.
The story concerns a young girl whose unique ability to recognize truth, through an instrument called the golden compass, threatens a corrupt government. In the book, the government is an oppressive theocracy known as "the Magisterium."
"(The book and movie) constitute British agnostic Philip Pullman's deliberate attempt to foist his viciously anti-God beliefs upon his audience," Ziech wrote in a Dec. 4 newsletter sent home with students.
"His books are all about pursuing and killing God," Ziech said in a telephone interview. He has not read the trilogy, however.
The controversy puts Pullman in the company of authors like J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books and subsequent movies were criticized as glorifying the occult.
While Pullman's book portrayed the upper echelons of an organized religion as the bad guys, the movie has been trimmed of almost all references to religion, said Daily Herald Movie Critic Dann Gire.
Ziech agrees, but he cautions that seeing the movie might encourage children to read the books and expose them to a scathing portrayal of religion.
A discussion about "The Golden Compass" drew a strong reaction at another suburban school.
"My students were appalled. They were shocked," says Tony Minell, who teaches Bible classes and serves as chaplain at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. He's describing the reactions of his fifth-, eighth- and ninth-grade students when he read them quotes from the trilogy.
One quote is from a character in "The Amber Spyglass," the third book, which has not yet been made into a film. The character, an angel named Balthamos in rebellion against the Kingdom of Heaven, describes God as "never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves." He continues, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty -- those were all names he gave himself."
The Catholic League has urged Catholics to boycott the movie, but local Catholic schools have not issued any reaction.
Ryan Blackburn, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Chicago, which operates schools in Cook and Lake counties, said the archdiocese doesn't typically make comments on films.
At the Archdiocese of Joliet, which runs schools in DuPage County, Doug Delaney, executive assistant to Bishop Peter Sartain, recommended parents consult the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Web site, www.usccb.org, for a review and comments about the movie.
The review discussed the controversy but didn't take much offense to the movie.
It praised the acting and said viewers who had not read the books would be hard-pressed to find any reference to religion.
It also noted that the heroine's actions, in speaking out for free will against a coercive government, are entirely in tune with Catholic teaching.
"The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers," the review says.