Yes, of course. But it’s a bit more complicated than you might think.
It’d be hard for any movie adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy to be as good as, let alone better than, the original books. Pullman’s revisioning of Paradise Lost as a universe-traveling adventure with armored bears, soul-stealing churches, tragic young love, and a Heaven gone mad stole my heart and blew my mind when I first picked it up as an 11-year-old. This was something smart, subversive, and better than anything else in the Young Adult section of the bookstore, or most of the Adult section for that matter. I’ve ready plenty of great books since but His Dark Materials remains my personal favorite.
Naturally, it would take an adaptation on par with the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy to possibly live up to the images in my head. This must have been what New Line was hoping for when they bought the rights to adapt His Dark Materials. With Tom Stoppard writing the script for the first installment, The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK), and Sam Mendes in talks to direct, the studio was preparing for another mature fantasy blockbuster and Oscar juggernaut.
Stoppard was replaced by Chris Weitz, who was also hired to ultimately direct the movie. The director of American Pie and About a Boy didn’t seem like the obvious choice for directing an epic, but neither was the director of Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles, and that turned out well, didn’t it? From the time he was hired, Weitz was clear he was going to have change certain elements of the book, mainly toning down the overt anti-organized religion themes to more generalized anti-authoritarian ones, but considering the first book was the least theologically-oriented of the three, this was doable; simply don’t use the word “church” to describe the organization and you’re pretty much good in that regard. Weitz’s first draft of the script surfaced online four years after the movie’s release, and it’s quite good.
Unfortunately the final product didn’t turn out so strong. Somewhere along the line New Line decided that it would be better to sell the movie as a kids’ film than as an LOTR-style epic and in came the editing scissors and reshoots. The original script would measure out to a three hour movie, so a bit of editing would be expected, but given the huge runtimes of the LOTR and Harry Potter movies, not to mention other blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies which don’t even have any reason to run so long, cutting The Golden Compass to under two hours doesn’t make sense and just creates a very rushed story. Most egregiously, the ending was cut out due to family test audiences declaring it “too dark”, with the studio claiming they’d use it as the opening scene for the sequel which never got made. An action scene meant for the middle of the movie was reshuffled to be the new “ending.” To make the reshuffling work, last-minute reshoots ballooned the budget from $150 million to somewhere over $200 million. Realizing they could no longer compare the movie to LOTR on grounds of quality, New Line forced the original unknown voice actor of the bear Iorek to be replaced by Ian McKellen for a different sort of LOTR comparison; Christopher Lee got shoehorned into the reshoots as well to play “First High Counselor”.
The resulting movie is an underwhelming whole with amazing parts, a clear case of a caring director thwarted by executives into making a frustratingly incomplete film. All the actors are great. Dakota Blue-Richards was perfectly cast as Lyra, as were Nicole Kidman as Ms. Coulter and Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby. Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel might have made a similarly positive impression if only his most dramatic scenes (the ending) weren’t cut out. Everything in the movie looks great; its Oscar win for Special Effects and nomination for Art Direction were well-deserved. The bear fight, while not as awesomely gruesome as in the book, is still a great action scene, one the finale of which caused the audience I saw it with to erupt in applause. The scary parts of the book stayed scary, and the subversive parts, while toned down, weren’t entirely absent. But the movie went too fast and without any real destination, which considering everything they were working with is a true shame.
Mixed reviews turned away adults, while protests from the religious right scared away families, and the movie ended up bombing in America. Internationally, in countries where the religious right holds less influence, the movie was a hit, but New Line, having sold the international rights, didn’t see any money from it. New Line went bankrupt because of it and folded into Warner Bros. No sequel came, despite a script being ready by Drive writer Hossein Amini, and no director’s cut DVD either. On the scale of unreleased films, I’d fairly estimate the Golden Compass director’s cut is probably universes better than The Day the Clown Cried but not as amazing as the complete Magnificent Andersons, yet if I had to pick one lost film to see for myself, as a fan of the book it’s probably the one I’m most inclined to want to see. I still hold out hope that Warner Brothers will release it, even if it’s with unfinished effects, but even if that’s unlikely, I still want someone to adapt this series right. Maybe in a reverse of Lord of the Rings‘ fate, where a disappointing and incomplete cartoon adaptation was followed by an all-time classic live-action one, an animated series is the way to go? Get Studio Ghibli on the line and get this going!