For one reason or another, not every attempt at a film franchise is successful, but there is a reason and a story behind every failure.
In 2002, looking to recreate the success they were experiencing with The Lord of the Rings, New Line bought the rights to the much-beloved His Dark Materials trilogy. The books, written by Philip Pullman, follow young Lyra Belacqua and her adventures and encounters in a parallel universe. The first book – known as Northern Lights in some territories and The Golden Compass in others – won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
“You must tell them stories”
New Line initially hired Tom Stoppard to adapt the first book, but later on About a Boy helmer Chris Weitz was brought on board to both write and direct the film. However, Weitz was balking at the scale of the production, and was on the receiving end of a fan backlash after letting slip that changes were being made to the source material. He left the project in late 2004 and Anand Tucker was named as his replacement.
New Line, however, disagreed with the more modest direction Tucker was taking with the film and brought Weitz back on board three months before filming was due to start. It was not a very happy reunion, with Weitz claiming the studio kept interfering; replacing actors and re-cutting the finished film. He later called the experience “quite a terrible one.“
Despite which, the film of The Golden Compass was delivered just in time for Christmas 2007:
“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
As for the film itself, the troubled production is unfortunately reflected in the final product. Like the eponymous gilded timepiece, we’re given something but not told what it means – there is lots of information from the start, much of it ominously half-explained. Fans of the books would understand what’s being said, but non-fans could easily find it all confusing. Perhaps the language of the film needed simplifying?
Also noticeable from the start is stilted dialogue and actors struggling with their accents. Most of all though is seasoned performers giving questionable performances: Daniel Craig’s take on aristocratic Lord Asriel feels quite hammy, while Nicole Kidman is trying far too hard to appear mystical and sinister. Her character, Mrs Coulter, in particular starts off as ambiguous and ends up feeling more ill-defined. The only cast member who plays it right is Eva Green, perfectly otherworldly as the witch queen Serafina Pekkala.
It’s so swamped in exposition and bad acting, that when the plot does finally get going it’s hard to enjoy. It also feels in a hurry to move along and cover everything, which makes plot progression fell unnatural. The Lord of the Rings aspirations are noticeable in the wide, tracking shots of the exterior locations (a staple of the Rings trilogy), and towards the end the film leaves a lot unresolved while spending time baiting for a sequel.
It’s the age-old problem of trying to please everyone – people young and old, fans and non-fans – and ends up just becoming a mess as a result.
Despite a questionable film, devotion of the source material and the power of its message and themes were strong enough to shine through the flaws. Reviews of the film were mediocre (though it found some fans, like Roger Ebert), but the film still went on to take over $370 million worldwide.
After seeing success with The Golden Compass, a film version of its follow-up, The Subtle Knife, seemed inevitable. Hossein Amini (Drive, The Two Faces of January) was initially hired to adapt The Subtle Knife, but outside influences were at play, and were about to call time on the second instalment.
“We are all subject to the fates.”
The world of the His Dark Materials books is one ruled by an oppressive Catholic Church. While the anti-Christian sentiments were toned down in the film version, they couldn’t be hidden or avoided. Religious leaders, evangelicals and church groups called for boycotts of the film. While the effect of these calls can’t be known for sure, it put the brakes on the studio moving forward with the series, as they were supposedly not prepared to raise the ire of such an influential group again.
“It did incredible at the box office,” one of the film’s stars, Sam Elliott (who plays Lee Scoresby), later told The Guardian. “The Catholic church … lambasted them, and I think it scared New Line off.“
At the same time, New Line began facing financial troubles – lawsuits claiming the studio was withholding due payments began piling up. With legal fees and settlements having to be paid, the studio no longer had a viable financial future. In early 2008, New Line shut down as a studio, becoming a production arm of Warner Bros. Plans for any future adaptations of Pullman’s works were effectively brought to an end – at least from them.
A joint-BBC and HBO production of the books was announced in 2018, and would star Logan‘s Dafne Keen as Lyra with James McAvoy and Lin Manuel Miranda among those in supporting roles. News that no doubt rang in the ears of the books’ many fans – that there will be another chance to give the series the filmic treatment it deserves.