It was supposed to be the next big fantasy franchise, a rival to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. But The Golden Compass (2007) turned out to be a disaster that bankrupted its studio and left fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy disappointed and angry.
The film, based on the first book of the acclaimed series, starred Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua, a young girl who embarks on a perilous journey to rescue her friend from a sinister organization that experiments on children. Along the way, she encounters witches, armoured bears, and a mysterious device called an alethiometer that can reveal the truth.
The film also featured a controversial theme: the criticism of organized religion, especially Christianity. In Pullman’s books, the Church is portrayed as a tyrannical force that oppresses free thought and seeks to destroy a parallel world where humans are accompanied by animal companions called daemons. The film toned down this aspect, but still faced boycotts from religious groups who accused it of promoting atheism and anti-Christianity.
The film cost $180 million to produce, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time. But it only made $70 million in the US, where it was widely panned by critics and audiences alike. The film did better overseas, grossing $302 million worldwide, but it was not enough to cover its marketing and distribution costs.
The film’s poor performance led to the cancellation of the planned sequels, which would have adapted the remaining two books of the trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It also spelled doom for New Line Cinema, the studio that had previously produced the successful Lord of the Rings trilogy.
New Line Cinema was founded in 1967 by Robert Shaye as an independent film distribution company that specialized in foreign and art films. It later became a film studio after being acquired by Turner Broadcasting System in 1994, which later merged with Time Warner in 1996. New Line had a reputation for taking risks and giving creative freedom to filmmakers, such as John Waters, Wes Craven, and Peter Jackson.
But after The Golden Compass flopped, New Line faced a financial crisis that forced it to merge with Warner Bros. Pictures in 2008. Shaye and his co-chairman Michael Lynne were ousted from their positions, and many of their employees were laid off. New Line became a unit of Warner Bros., losing its autonomy and identity.
Shaye later blamed the failure of The Golden Compass on bad timing and bad luck. He said that he had hoped to replicate the success of Lord of the Rings, but admitted that he had underestimated the backlash from religious groups and the complexity of Pullman’s story. He also said that he had clashed with director Chris Weitz over creative decisions, such as cutting 30 minutes from the film’s original length.
Weitz also expressed his regret over the film’s outcome. He said that he had tried to make a faithful adaptation of Pullman’s book, but faced pressure from New Line and other stakeholders to make it more commercial and less controversial. He said that he had lost control over the final cut of the film, which he described as “a mutilated child.”
Pullman himself was more diplomatic about the film. He praised the cast and crew for their efforts, but said that he was disappointed that the film did not capture the spirit and depth of his book. He said that he hoped that one day his trilogy would be adapted again in a more faithful and satisfying way.
That hope was realized in 2019, when HBO and BBC One launched a TV series based on His Dark Materials, starring Dafne Keen as Lyra, Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. The series has received positive reviews from critics and fans alike, and has been renewed for a third and final season.
Meanwhile, The Golden Compass remains a cautionary tale of how a promising film project can go wrong and ruin a studio’s reputation and fortune.