When I was visiting the set of The Golden Compass, I sat down for lunch with producer Mark Ordesky and talked about the His Dark Materials series as a trilogy (Compass is the first book in the series by Philip Pullman). The first and third books would obviously work as movies, I said, but the second, The Subtle Knife, is a whole lot of nothing. That film would be a real challenge to adapt, I thought, because it’s a lot of philosophy and yapping and bullshit with a couple of cool moments thrown in there. I offered Ordesky my input – for free! – take the beginning of the last book, The Amber Spyglass, which includes a rock-em sock-em battle, and attach it to the end of Subtle Knife.
I tend to think that Ordesky and director Chris Weitz didn’t take my advice and went another way. According to a message to His Dark Materials fans, Weitz has cut The Golden Compass off early, ending the story three chapters before the book’s climax. This does two things: it gives The Golden Compass an ending (the book ends on a pretty excellent cliffhanger that blows the hinges off the story’s previous scope) and it gives The Subtle Knife some razzmatazz up front including a tragic death and a major betrayal. Who knows, they may still take the opening of The Amber Spyglass and use that in The Subtle Knife.
If they make The Subtle Knife. Part of the reasoning for the truncated ending must be worrying that a cliffhanger will be frustrating if this film fails to light the box office on fire and a sequel is never made. Peter Jackson could end The Fellowship of the Ring the way he did because he was making the other two films at the same time (and he did shift around elements between books when it came to The Two Towers). New Line and Weitz may be feeling that a cliffhanger leads to audiences being less than satisfied*, leading to bad word of mouth and thus hurting the box office of the film in the end. If the first film does well enough, they can actually ignore my advice on the second one and end it with the cliffhanger from the book, since they’ll be moving forward on a third movie anyway.
Weirdly, the trailer that was just released shows scenes from the very last moments of the book, which means Weitz shot the final three chapters (which is what I was assuming anyway, after seeing concept art and the storyboards while visiting the set). This decision was one made in editing, and may have been made very, very recently. Did the tanking of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising put some fear into New Line?
Read Chris Weitz’ full message to the fans, including his claims that Philip Pullman approved of the change, right here.
And a note to my colleague Jeremy: this announcement means you won’t be seeing Hypno-Bond in the film!
* At the end of one of my first viewings of The Fellowship of the Ring (I think I saw it five times in theaters. Those were the days), someone cried out ‘That’s it?!?!’ when the credits started up.