"The Golden Compass," the first book in British author Philip Pullman's award-winning young adult trilogy, sets in motion a story that so smartly merges theology with quantum physics and Nietzschean pondering with fairy tale characters that it has inspired scores of scholarly essays, serious academic study, blockbuster book sales, a National Theatre play, a radio show and an international society of die-hard fans.
Now -- Dec. 7, to be exact -- comes New Line Cinema's long-awaited $180-million movie "The Golden Compass," a fantasy-adventure directed by "About a Boy's" Chris Weitz, starring Nicole Kidman as the malevolent beauty Marisa Coulter, Daniel Craig as the mysterious Lord Asriel, Sam Elliott as cowboy adventurer Lee Scoresby and 12-year-old newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as the film's young protagonist, the wily urchin Lyra Belacqua.
It is an epic story set in a parallel universe similar to Oxford, England, populated by flying witches, talking animals and warrior polar bears -- all locked in a battle with the authoritarian governing body the Magisterium over mystical particles known as Dust.
Last May, New Line released a 10-minute preview that offered a glimpse of the breathtaking scope of the story and the ambitious use of special effects. A half-dozen companies assembled 1,100 special-effects shots for the film. Every character is accompanied by his or her "daemon," an animal manifestation of the soul, which meant the cast spent a lot of time acting opposite "green cushions on a stick," Weitz said. Kidman told the director she drew heavily on her mime training in acting school.
Weitz first became a fan of the series in 2000 while filming "About a Boy." Even before he was hired, the director said he "sheepishly" e-mailed Pullman out of the blue to discuss a film adaptation. But after observing Peter Jackson on the set of "The Lord of the Rings," Weitz got cold feet and quit the production in 2004. He returned after New Line fired his replacement director, Anand Tucker, over those pesky "creative differences." And Pullman and Weitz picked up where they left off, working closely on the adaptation throughout filming.
This month, controversy surfaced on his handling of Pullman's religious themes, with the Catholic League saying a watered-down movie adaptation will "seduce" parents to buy the "pro-atheist" books for their kids.
But fans revere the books and don't want to see their beloved series dramatically altered for the screen. At the same time, said Chi San Howard, a spokesperson for HisDarkMaterials.org fan site, Pullman devotees resent the early criticism of the film. "Most of the fans are grasping at every piece of information that is heard and are analyzing it from top to bottom," Howard wrote in an e-mail. "However, there is a lot of anger towards the critics of the film as many find it extremely patronizing that there are those who feel that we do not have the brains or capacity to make our own decisions about our beliefs and draw our own conclusions."
Weitz recognizes the responsibility he has in adapting Pullman's heady trilogy.
"I have an internal monitor in terms of keeping this thematically and spiritually on the right track," Weitz said by phone during a break at London's Abbey Road music studios, where the film's score was being recorded. "If you properly adapt a book, you should do a miniseries of it. But that's financially impossible. So you're working in the movie form. You are reducing it to its essentials without making it feel rushed. That's the tough thing. You lose stuff that you love. But in the process, you hope to keep the flavor of it so that it's a beautiful experience."