LONDON (Reuters) - The Church is a central theme of Philip Pullman's acclaimed novel "Northern Lights", but there is no mention of it in a new blockbuster Hollywood adaptation.
"The Golden Compass", a $180 million (87 million pounds) picture released on December 7, is caught between a U.S. Catholic group that has called for a boycott of what it sees as an attack on religion and Pullman purists who do not want the original watered down.
The U.S.-based Catholic League urged Christians not to see the movie, fearing even a diluted version of the book might draw people to read the bestselling "His Dark Materials" trilogy.
Calling Pullman "a noted English atheist", the group said on its Web site: "It is his objective to bash Christianity and promote atheism. To kids.
"Though the movie promises to be fairly non-controversial, it may very well act as an inducement to buy Pullman's trilogy, 'His Dark Materials'."
In the fantasy world created by Pullman, the Church and its governing body the Magisterium, are linked to cruel experiments on children aimed at discovering the nature of sin and attempts to suppress facts that would undermine the Church's legitimacy and power.
Pullman's main character in the books, a girl named Lyra, battles the dark forces controlled by the Magisterium.
But in the film all references to the Church have been stripped out, with director Chris Weitz keen to avoid offending religious cinema goers.
"To me that was about not being aggressive and offending the individual audience goer who might be religious," he said.
"I don't really believe that when it comes down to it, 'His Dark Materials' is an aggressively anti-religious or anti-Catholic series of books."
Pullman has taken issue with the Catholic League and its president Bill Donohue.
"Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world," he told Newsweek magazine.
SOME FANS DISAPPOINTED
Early reviews of the movie have been mixed, with several praising Nicole Kidman's performance and the special effects in particular. But fans have expressed disappointment at the decision to tone down the books' religious content.
"The removal of their religious motivations makes the institution (Magisterium) incredibly bland, a mere band of thugs with a domineering power for no apparent reason," said fan site www.bridgetothestars.net in a broadly positive review.
Kidman, a Catholic, said she would not want to be involved in a movie that was anti-religious.
And co-star Daniel Craig, best known as the new James Bond, said he felt the film worked as it was, although he would have welcomed the inclusion of more overt religious content.
"I wish there was, because I think the debate that Philip Pullman raises is incredibly healthy," he told Reuters.
Craig likened the controversy surrounding "The Golden Compass" to Vatican objections to the movie based on Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code". That film went on to become the second highest grossing picture internationally in 2006.
As well as removing references to the church, the Bible and sin, the film leaves out the final three chapters in which our assumptions about two of the main characters are challenged and tragedy befalls one of Lyra's friends.
Weitz said his decision to end the movie earlier in the narrative had been influenced by the need for a more box office-friendly happy ending to establish the foundation for what he hopes will be a film trilogy.
He also expected more controversy to come should the franchise go ahead.
"I still maintain that the people who are attacking these films and the books as kind of atheist recruiting posters are wrong, but life is going to become more difficult with them if and when we go ahead," he said.