‘Golden Compass’ Director Chris Weitz Answers Your Questions: Part I

As previously mentioned, the director of the upcoming fantasy blockbuster “The Golden Compass, Chris Weitz, has agreed to participate in an exclusive weekly blog series for MTV in which he’ll be answering your questions. We’re thrilled to now roll out the first installment, in which Chris responds to the burgeoning religious controversy, discusses the reason behind tweaks the film makes to the beloved book, reveals the status of the sequels and more.

QUESTION #1 (from Simon):
Some changes were made in the adapting process — taking out talk of religion, original sin, beating death, etc. — to avoid controversy. And yet, some religious groups are still upset. If you can’t please everybody either way, if it’s not possible to avoid controversy by taking religion out, do you feel more or less emboldened to put it back in the rest of the films?

It’s very important that people understand that nobody just hands you a couple hundred million dollars and says “Go ahead, knock yourself out!” What you have is a dynamic — you could call it a debate — between me, the filmmaker, and them, the studio — that, one hopes, results in a good film. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. It is my job to fight, by hook or by crook, for the best adaptation of the book possible. It is their job to get the movie to pay back its investors. Even Peter Jackson had to deal with this dynamic, which is why there were shorter theater releases and longer DVD releases of the LOTR movies. But also consider that there was practically nothing that might be deemed controversial in LOTR (other than what you might consider some reflexive racism on Tolkien’s part).

So, how does one go about adapting a book that has controversial elements into a film that a very wide variety of people can enjoy, without betraying the original? One tries to be clever about it. I realized that the overt stating of some of the themes in “The Northern Lights”/”The Golden Compass” would never — this is important to make clear — never EVER get across the goal line. There isn’t a wide enough audience for that — yet. If I wanted to popularize this series of extraordinary books and open them to a wider reading public than ever before, I was going to have to make some compromises. But I also knew that as a filmmaker one has more means of expression than dialogue, and that dialogue is a more subtle business than characters saying exactly what the characters say in the book. Sometimes I transpose elements – for instance, the biblical ideas that Asriel addresses towards the end of the book are voiced in a different context (and at shorter length) by Mrs. Coulter at Bolvangar in the film. Sometimes I turn textual or narrative arguments into visual ideas.

What I would say to fans of the book who are worried about the fidelity of the film is – just see the film. Then we’ll have a good point of reference from which to talk. Or, of course, don’t see the film if you think that the book itself is harmed by departures from the text. Philip Pullman likes to quote James M. Cain on this issue. Once, when somebody asked him if he was worried what a movie adaptation would do to his book, he said, “What do you mean? The book is right over there, on the shelf.”

Now, one thing that some of the extremists who have attacked the film are right about is that I would be happy if it made more people read the books – not because I am pursuing any sort of atheist agenda (this is a ridiculous idea), but because they are great works of literature, beautiful, permanent, and unassailable. They’re not going anywhere. And as for those who are concerned that I have not used the word “Church” but only the word “Magisterium” for the bad guys, and that sort of thing, I would advise them to do a little research into the meaning of the word “Magisterium” for starters. Some people will only be satisfied if the film I’ve made is an outright attack on religion, which to me shows that they have misapprehended the meaning of Pullman’s books as much as the “other side.”

It’s true, though, that “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” tread in territory that is much more controversial than the first book. This is also addressed by a bunch of questions that I will lasso under the heading “what next?” Well, though I saw it as my duty to build the franchise of “His Dark Materials” on as solid a grounding as I could, it would all be in vain if the second and third films did not have the intellectual depth and the iconoclasm of the second and third books. The whole point, to me, of ensuring that “The Golden Compass” is a financial success is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful, more literal adaptation of the second and third books. This is important: whereas “The Golden Compass” had to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books. There is simply no way to adapt them without dealing with Lyra’s destined role, her secret name, and the war in the heavens. I will not be involved with any “watering down” of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third films. If I sense that this is not possible, there’s no point my continuing to work on them.

Let me also kind of round up some of the other questions in the same vein that I have received – let’s call them the “Religion” questions. First off, I would like to state what I think about Philip Pullman’s books and their view of religion. A lot of people — mostly those who haven’t read the books but are only repeating what they have read in some biased chain e-mails — are saying that Philip is “against religion” or “against Christianity.” These people don’t really want to engage with the very subtle philosophical and theological ideas in “His Dark Materials.” There are many grand ideas and themes in “His Dark Materials,” and Pullman asks us to question a lot of cherished and engrained beliefs; but if I had to boil it down, I would say that Pullman is against the abuse of religion for political power. He is against forcing people to believe what you believe, and against accepting something you are told without thinking about it. Which makes it ironic that none of the people who have attacked the film from a religious angle have seen the film!

QUESTION #2 (from Adam):
At what point do you start working on the next one? How far along is the script?

The first draft of the script for “The Subtle Knife” is completed. It was written by Hossein Amini, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter in whom I have a great deal of faith. There simply wasn’t time for me to finish “The Golden Compass” and get the script of “Subtle Knife” ready in time. In that sense, work has already begun. But in fact, the nuts-and-bolts part of the making of the films to follow is a question of capital flow. Films like this are huge machines, which take a lot to get rolling. The contracts are in place for the cast to come back, all it will take is a successful debut of “The Golden Compass” for preproduction to begin.

QUESTION #3 (from Jennifer):
You stepped off the film, then came back on. What prompted you to leave, and what prompted you to come back?

Two reasons I stepped off the film (about three years ago now!), and two reasons I came back…

(1) I had never made a film involving so much CGI and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I would be up to the logistical task. (2) I had a feeling that, one way or the other, I might get stuck between a rock and a hard place, with some people hating me for doing a work that they imagined offended their religious beliefs, and some people hating me for doing a work that they imagined did an injustice to the book that they loved. You have to imagine what it’s like to have people quoted in The Times of London saying I have to be “stopped” because of my “stunted imagination.” Eventually, though, I (1) began to feel confident that the screenplay I was writing could be achieved technically and (2) was in a position where, if I wasn’t going to direct the film, it was going to fall to pieces and never get made. I felt that would be a great shame, and in the meanwhile I had examined my conscience and realized that I would have to be crazy not to risk time, career, reputation, whatever to make a film of my favorite book.

QUESTION #4 (from Melliu):
First, I’m 23-year-old boy from Barcelona who loves the Pullman triology and Nicole Kidman. I have a lot of faith in this adaptation. My question is why did you have cut the ending of the first book? Why? Can you please give me a reasonable answer?

Yes, I’ll try to give you a reasonable answer, and an answer to a lot of other people who have asked the same sort of question. First, I haven’t “cut” the ending of the first book. I have only moved it to the beginning of the second movie. Some people are distressed by this, citing that the end of the novel is beautiful. Yes, that’s true. “And Lyra and Pan walked off into the sky.” But this ending was posing a problem for the (relatively few) audience-members who saw earlier cuts of the film. What is plangent and beautiful in the end of a novel can be confusing or off-putting in the end of a film.

For instance, people who hadn’t read the books (yes, these people exist! And they matter!) didn’t know if Lyra was in fact going to heaven. My job is to make sure that ALL of Pullman’s story will be told, not to flame out gloriously with one film. The juncture at which to leave audiences hoping for more was before Lyra sets off to find Asriel. She has fulfilled the intitial reason for her journey (to save her friend Roger), but there is a further tangible aim for her. Yes, I get that this means delaying some brilliant scenes from the book. But trust me, they would have been less brilliant if they had to meet the demands (as interpreted by the studio) of a movie-going audience for the end of the film. Whereas, difficult to handle/difficult to swallow material, which is to say dark material (no pun intended) can work perfectly well in the second film of a trilogy (cf. “Empire Strikes Back”). Trust me on this one, I was doing what I could to protect the integrity of these scenes and the overall story. Furthermore, I would not have done this without Pullman’s consent.

QUESTION #5 (from Aman):
Will the polar bears be as they are in the book? Did you keep in how Iofur wants to be human and wants a daemon? Does the ice palace appear in the film as it does in the book?

I think that people are going to be blown away by how great the polar bears are. They were done by a company called Framestore in the UK. They are extraordinary. And yes, they will be as they are in the book. Iorek is stoic, powerful, and most importantly of all very dangerous. The bear king still wants to be human and to have a daemon. The only differnce is that he is called Ragnar Sturlusson and not Iofur Raknison. Why? I didn’t want anyone to confuse his name with Iorek’s. Ragnar Sturlusson is a hybrid of names from the Icelandic sagas.

The bear palace is as it was described in the book, at least I think it is. It looks fantastic. And the bear fight is just…amazing.

QUESTION #6 (from Jerome):
How will you deal for the two other episodes with the fact that Dakota Blue Richards will grow up, whereas her character has the same age in the three books?

Well, as you know, things get very interesting for Lyra in books two and three, with regard to her relationship with Will. I think it’s all to the good that Dakota will look older than twelve by then.

QUESTION #7 (from Josh):
Do you think a newcomer to “His Dark Materials” will be able to get as much from your film as a devoted fan? How did you fashion the film to work on both audiences?

I hope that a newcomer will get a great deal from the movie, but I never tried to “dumb down” the script in a way that was annoying to readers of the book. It’s a fine balance.