Adaptations are hard. A poisoned chalice/holy grail for filmmakers that will have passionate fans wary of you, destroying something they love more than their own mothers. For remember, the “law” states the book shall always be better than its cinematic adaptation. One adaptation people are always quick to point out as a clear example of this is Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass. So why is this classified here? The film was made, and was duly disappointing. However, there was another more truthful version in the wings that never saw the light of day.
Weitz was on odd choice to direct having just come from About a Boy and, before that, American Pie. There was confusion and frustration: “How is this comedy director meant to bring to life a fantasy epic?”, fans wondered. Weitz knew it would be an uphill battle to convince people that he was suited to the role, and allegedly approached a fansite of the series, Bridge to the Stars, to offer an interview. Although Weitz admitted that ‘I would be terrified if I read that I was going to adapt [Northern Lights]’, he pointed out that his adapted screenplay for About a Boy was nominated for an Oscar, and that he had studied the works of William Blake and John Milton, the series’ source material, as part of his degree at Cambridge; something most other fans would be unable to claim. Most important of all, and strangely neglected in the narrative of this film, Weitz is/was a fan of the books, describing them as ‘one of the great works of imagination of the twentieth century’, and stating that Philip Pullman ‘left Tolkien in the dust.’ But, given the end product, Weitz’s words appear to be hot air; how could a fan have made what we know to be Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass?
Recently, Weitz described making The Golden Compass as a terrible experience, and that he hadn’t got to make the film he wanted. The Golden Compass Weitz wanted to make apparently surfaced on Scribd a couple of years ago. Although it needs editing, it did not require the butchery it received. At 185 pages and two lines, this draft would have been well over the 110 minutes the released version was permitted. So aside from length, what’s it like? The first thing that stands out is the maturity and patience within. Whilst the final edit felt like a 100-metre sprint, the first draft affords time for ‘non-essential’ plot points such as a witch burning, and the death of the Gyptian spy.
These intricate details already identify the key qualities missing in the final film: context, texture and the true world of Lyra. Take the dialogue in the witch-burning scene. When Lyra asks why the witch is being burned she is answered with the line, ‘She flew. And we can’t fly. She’s free like we ain’t. Plus, it’s Sunday.’ Poignant, funny, and thoughtful. It alludes to so many things about people and the world in which the story is set; atmosphere, context and character are all established as well as hinting towards the religious criticism Pullman bled into the books. The death of the spy follows this as it gives context to understanding the force Lyra is fighting, how important she is, and how lives are being lost for her.
Watching The Golden Compass and reading the draft brings the story of The Godfather to mind. The first edit was famously described as a “trailer” for the film and its full version was restored in all its glorious three hours. The Weitz draft has much more impact than the film because Weitz uses these ‘non-essential’ scenes to develop the characters and thus evoke more sympathy and compassion in the audience. One scene that remained in the film, but would have benefited from more time, is when Lyra finds a playmate of hers in a hut in the middle of the Arctic, clutching a dead fish because his soul has been ‘cut’ from him. Without the context the draft has built up, it loses its heart-wrenching quality and is just sad. Time is also a necessary part of building tension. The final edit leaps from scene to scene and the audience doesn’t have time to feel and be affected by the story. In the draft, tension builds; it actually feels like Lyra is under threat. The stakes are simply higher in the draft, because the world is alive, vivid and heartfelt. The focus upon the bare bones removes the very purpose and soul of Pullman’s books. Worse still, Weitz knew this but was powerless to have his voice heard.
For fans, the most important aspect of the draft is that it preserves the ending and the original sequence of events leading up to that ending. Allegedly, this was kept up until the first trial screenings of the film, when it was decided that the end should be kept for the start of the next film. Hollywood’s desire for a Happy Ending took priority over the true ending where Lyra’s best friend, Roger, who is Lyra’s motivation for her whole journey, is killed by her father to open a bridge to a parallel universe. However, as we know, the film saves Roger’s death for later thus producing an awkwardly abrupt ending, and the final nail in this adaptation’s coffin. Roger’s death is not happy. Its purpose is not to bring joy but purpose. From here, in the books at least, Lyra continues her quest spurred on by this sadness. In fact, the mind boggles at New Line’s complete mishandling on a pre-made cliffhanger. However, Weitz’s draft had it all there. The three-act plot structure with the two climactic battles. The removal of Roger’s death led to even more scene shuffling as producers copied and pasted footage to fill in the gaps.
In the DVD extras, Weitz states that he edited his 185 pages down to 156 pages of shooting script. Some people somewhere have seen this, and maybe sometime a director’s cut will surface. Sadly what was released had Weitz’s name on it both as writer and director, and thus he will be forever be the man who failed. Yet it wasn’t his vision, and it wasn’t his fault. Reading the draft, it is clear that Weitz was capable of making the film fans wanted; a film that was blockbuster in style, but with more depth, flair and complexity; a Northern Lights adaptation we had all hoped for.