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the take

Where Did ‘The Golden Compass’ Go Astray? And Was Tom Stoppard's Original Script a Masterpiece?

Tom Stoppard, The Golden Compass, and Chris Weitz.Photos: Getty Images (Stoppard, Weitz), New Line (Lyra)

Starting tomorrow, the theater lobbies, message boards, and high-school hallways of America will be filled with angry shouts from His Dark Materials fans pissed off about how incoherent and lame the film of The Golden Compass turned out.

So how did the movie go so wrong? How did a film with such smart people behind it end up looking spectacular but completely failing to capture the magic — or even to deliver effectively the plot — of the novel? We'll never know who made the fateful decisions, but we at Vulture have gotten our hands on two previous drafts of the screenplay, both of which represent important moments in the life of the project at New Line: Tom Stoppard's 2003 draft, and a 2004 Chris Weitz screenplay, an early crack at the material before he filmed his final version last year.

So how do the three versions — Stoppard's, Weitz's first draft, and Weitz's final product — differ? Was Stoppard's a masterpiece? Was Weitz's awful?

Like many fans, we'd always assumed that Stoppard's draft must have been a work of genius, and that his replacement by Weitz surely doomed the project. Much to our surprise, upon reading the screenplays, we're wrong. Had Stoppard's screenplay been filmed, the movie would have been ponderous, a bit dull, and far too long. Weitz's original script was actually great and makes us sad about the movie that could have been.

Stoppard's script clocks in at a whopping 178 pages. It isn't particularly Stoppardian; it's not that witty and feels very invested in replicating Pullman's voice onscreen, not Stoppard's. It's clear that Pullman's explanation to Hanna Rosin at The Atlantic that he felt Stoppard was too interested in "the discussions between old men with beards" is accurate; in addition to almost every major and minor plot point from the book, Stoppard has added a number of scenes of — yes — bearded men talking philosophy. He also throws in some half-baked illustrations of multiple worlds and a few choice moments of foreshadowing of the second book, The Subtle Knife — including an appearance from Will.

Mostly, though, the screenplay is an extensive cataloging of the book's plot points, and in that respect would have made a better movie than the one that was eventually filmed. Unlike the movie, it remains true to Lyra's impertinent nature and to Asriel's cold-hearted one; it makes vividly clear the charged relationship between a person and her daemon in Pullman's world, something the movie fails utterly to do; and it establishes the stakes of the story. Stoppard had already begun the process of soft-pedaling the books' anti-religious elements, but his script does contain long speeches from Asriel and a Magisterium official about the Fall. And it makes clear that Asriel plans to make war on "The Authority" — God.

Weitz's early draft, though still long — 156 pages and likely three hours of running time — is sharper, funnier, and more streamlined than Stoppard's. It's also more exciting, more coherent, and significantly better than the final product. It vividly and more clearly creates the various world Lyra inhabits: Jordan College, London society, the Gyptians' boats, the ice bears' palace. It includes wonderful scenes left out of the final film: Mrs. Coulter's great London party; the Gyptian spy Jacob's last words, spoken by his daemon; Lyra's meeting with the witch's consul in Trollesund; Lyra's talk with Iorek about loneliness; Lyra's discovery that the nurses at Bolvangar have gone through the intercision process; the ice bears, all so nervous about acting human.

Why was this all cut? Presumably, to keep the film to two hours. But why did The Golden Compass need to be held to two hours? Surely the Lord of the Rings movies have proved that great epics can be epic length and remain successful? New Line had already spent $180 million on this movie; few of the new scenes would be expensive ones, as the big pricey set pieces from the book — the bear fight, the battle scenes — are already there onscreen. In the end it was that decision more than any other that doomed The Golden Compass to mediocrity.

Most notably, of course, both early screenplays contain the end of the book, the crucial sequence cut from the movie entirely so that its ending would remain uplifting. Lyra's great betrayal and sacrifice are left out of the film but are there in Stoppard's and Weitz's scripts. Where did they go? “The aim is to put in the elements we need to make this movie a hit, so that we can be much less compromising in how the second and third books are shot," Weitz told the New York Times. Here's hoping that despite The Golden Compass's failure as an adaptation, Weitz's plan works — and that New Line allows him to make The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass the way he wants to.