Sequels and reboots are all the rage right now in Hollywood — from Mad Max to Ghostbusters, xXx to The Craft, remakes of old franchises for new fans are where it's at. This approach makes sense for a lot of reasons, but the motivation is primarily financial. Starting a new franchise from scratch takes a lot more time and money, and has a lower chance of success at the box office. Breathing new life into an existing franchise gives studios a ready-made fanbase who are almost guaranteed to go see a new installment of their favorite characters, and doesn't require the creation of an entirely new world and characters to live in it.
There are two main approaches that a studio can take. The first is a complete reboot — re-casting the same characters, starting the storyline from scratch, and creating a new timeline, a-la Star Trek. The second option is to continue an existing franchise, Star Wars-style. This can be tougher, especially when it comes to getting the original cast back together, but it often has a greater appeal to existing fans. For franchises that failed to launch, a reboot is usually the way forward. Starting all over again effectively erases all the issues that went before, rather than attempting to work them into a new movie. In some cases, where a first attempt went so wrong that it is completely unsalvageable (*cough* Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine *cough*) a reboot is the only way forward.
The Golden Compass, 2007's botched adaptation of Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass, if you're in America), would seem like a perfect candidate for a reboot...or a reset in the form of The Golden Compass 2 but is it really?
The Golden Compass was intended to be the first in a series of films based on the His Dark Materials trilogy. With a big budget and a star-studded cast, it seemed like this would be a sure-fire hit. The actors were incredible. The landscapes were breathtaking. The source material was (is!) hugely popular. Sadly, though, the film fell short in one key area: the storytelling.
From the opening monologue, the film gave it all away up front. The mystery that kept readers hooked was nowhere to be found in the film, where Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) figured everything out almost instantly. Huge, and very important, scenes and concepts were simply dropped for the sake of not offending the Catholic Church, while others were shown out of order and pared down to a shadow of their former selves. Of course, any adaptation of a novel is going to have to lose some details along the way. Even Harry Potter, the most successful YA book-to-film franchise ever, was criticized by fans for missing out favorite scenes. The difference between the two is that Harry Potter still made sense, and captured the heart and soul of the books. The Golden Compass, meanwhile, ended up a confused (but gorgeous) mess. The suspense and adventure of the books is missing, and the movie rings hollow.
A Bad First Chapter Isn't Enough Of A Reason To Start From Scratch.
Rather than a reboot, this is an opportunity to dust itself off and bring us a bigger, better, Golden Compass 2.
One of the best things about The Golden Compass is the cast. Nicole Kidman is perfect as the gorgeous ice queen Mrs. Coulter. Daniel Craig perfectly embodies Lord Asriel. Nobody could top Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala. Every single character is brought to life by the perfect person, and the cast list reads like a who's who of Hollywood. A reboot would mean re-casting the entire production, which would inevitably lead to unfavorable comparisons as it would be impossible to top the original choices.
The only real issue with a continuation after almost a decade is that the original Lyra would be too old to pick up where she left off. The difference between a thirteen-year-old and a twenty-three year old is huge, and the character of Lyra needs to be approaching puberty. Even this might not be insurmountable, though, as Dakota Blue Richards still has some of the wide-eyed innocence that Lyra needs — and a decade's worth of acting experience to bring to a sequel. Hollywood makeup magic is also more than up to the task of making her appear younger than she is. It wouldn't be the first time that actors in their twenties or thirties have played teenagers.
Although the story ended up muddled, all the important elements and key players were successfully introduced in The Golden Compass. So many major twists (the panserbjørne, Lyra's relationship to Asriel and Coulter, the basics of Dust, the witches' prophecy) should have received more delicate treatment — but now that they have been covered, it's too late to change that.
A reboot, even a perfect reboot, would be re-treading old ground. Going over the same world-building and basic plot points would risk boring audiences. His Dark Materials is all about the mystery of what will happen — given that we already know that from the first attempt, it would be nearly-impossible to really surprise viewers with a reboot. Instead, it makes sense to simply move forward. One of the biggest mistakes that The Golden Compass made, telling the audience things rather than letting them be discovered, actually works in favor of moving straight into a Golden Compass 2 sequel — and it already has a ready story in the form of the second novel in the trilogy:
The Subtle Knife Is Out There, Just Waiting To Be Adapted
Both the Golden Compass movie and novel end with Lyra headed into the open sky. (Not in exactly the same way, but we'll get to that in a moment.) The next book in the series, The Subtle Knife, opens in an entirely different world, with a new main character, Will. Although Will eventually encounters Lyra, the opening of the second novel is almost jarringly different to the end of the first — which would be a perfect way to shake up the franchise without starting over.
A new focus on Will and his adventure is a perfect way to differentiate a Subtle Knife movie from The Golden Compass, showing audiences that this is not going to be the same kind of film. As Lyra explains to Will where she has come from, and how, the audience can be reminded of the most important parts of The Golden Compass, but in a less jumbled fashion than the original film presented them. It's a perfect approach to recap the first film without the need to repeat it.
What Needs To Change?
From there, a Subtle Knife movie (or Golden Compass 2, if that makes it easier) could go on to fix all the mistakes made by The Golden Compass without losing the incredible cast attached to the original. A sequel would have to follow the source material much more accurately, and refrain from attempting to explain the mysteries in the books before it is time to understand them. Luckily, the way the trilogy is written means that while characters and overarching concepts are carried forward from one book to the next, many of the smaller details of the plot aren't. The biggest mysteries and the commentary on faith, fear and coming-of-age are still waiting to be discovered. Most importantly, the film would have to avoid talking down to the audience, and embrace the darker and more philosophical elements in the books.
The Golden Compass is missing only one key plot point: Lord Asriel's bridge and Lyra's crossing. Its absence from the original is puzzling, as everything else was crammed into the film, and it's unclear how the franchise was going to move on to the events of The Subtle Knife from where they left off in The Golden Compass 2. However, this wouldn't be difficult to add to a sequel. As Lyra tells Will her story so far, she would simply need to include the tale of how she got from her world to the world where the two meet. Accompanied by flashback, the missing piece could be included, and the story could move on without needing to return to exactly where The Golden Compass left off.
Four Great Films Are Still Possible
Although the book series is a trilogy, we can assume that the original plans for a franchise would have included four films: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass split into two parts. This is a common occurrence when it comes to adapting YA series in which the final book is particularly dense. What might work better for His Dark Materials, however, would be to split both remaining books into two films. Although not particularly long, the books are absolutely packed with detail, and with multiple concurrent storylines. Trying to pack too much into two hours was a major flaw with The Golden Compass, so moving forward it would be a smart move to spread out the sequels over several films.
This would also give audiences more time to become truly invested in the franchise. Although The Golden Compass 2 would be a sequel, it would also be a fresh start with The Subtle Knife. Treating it like an initial offering for the franchise would be a great way to draw fans back in after more than a decade's gap between films (and considering how poorly the first film did, of course). It would also give the studio a neat franchise of four successful films and a forgivable flop - much more appealing than attempting a four-film reboot with less detail, or an abandoned franchise.
As of right now, there are no official plans for a Golden Compass 2 movie, but that doesn't mean that it won't happen.
New Line Cinema, the studio that put out The Golden Compass, was merged with Warner Bros. in 2008: a much bigger studio which is currently enjoying huge success with the DC Extended Universe, and has recently cashed in with several other trilogies including The Hobbit and The Hangover. Warner Bros. could easily afford to take the risk on a Subtle Knife movie, especially as a success would lead to another lucrative franchise under their belt. In fact, it's something of a surprise that the film has been languishing as long as it has, given its potential. From here, we can only hope that that means that a Golden Compass 2 project is in the works somewhere, and that a sequel to the original is on the horizon.