Tom Stoppard dumped as 'gross-out' director takes over 'Dark Materials'

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The Independent Culture

He is widely acknowledged as one of Britain's finest playwrights, and his film scripts have won him one Oscar and another nomination. But yesterday Sir Tom Stoppard told The Independent on Sunday that his eagerly awaited film adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy had been quietly shelved by the Hollywood director brought in to make the movie.

He is widely acknowledged as one of Britain's finest playwrights, and his film scripts have won him one Oscar and another nomination. But yesterday Sir Tom Stoppard told The Independent on Sunday that his eagerly awaited film adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy had been quietly shelved by the Hollywood director brought in to make the movie.

Stoppard, who won an Oscar in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love, was hired to script the fantasy epic, and completed his draft screenplay for the first installment, The Golden Compass, several months ago.

But yesterday, Stoppard admitted he had heard nothing since its submission and the appointment of one of Hollywood's rising stars, Chris Weitz, as director. Stoppard said he assumes his services are no longer required.

"As far as I was made aware, New Line Cinema and Philip Pullman all liked it. Then Chris Weitz got the job. And he likes to write his own scripts," said Stoppard.

While he refused to be drawn on how he felt, the news may well dismay legions of Pullman fans who have voiced concerns that Weitz is taking over scripting. Weitz's previous work includes the hugely successful - albeit "gross out" - American teen comedy American Pie.

The Dark Materials project, which has already been turned into a hugely successful stage play - it began a revival yesterday at the National Theatre - is expected to be even more of a visual spectacle than the ground-breaking Lord Of The Rings movies, which have become three of the biggest box office hits of all time, and whose DVD sales have been phenomenal.

New Line Cinema, which was responsible for the screen adaptation of J R R Tolkien's masterpiece, is also overseeing the Pullman series.

It will be the biggest and most keenly anticipated project ever undertaken by Weitz, who rose to prominence with films such as About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant, for which he wrote his own screenplay and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination in 2002.

However, his involvement with raunchy teen hit American Pie has caused alarm bells to ring among movie buffs who feel he does not have the gravitas to tackle something as dark and philosophical as Pullman's fantasy trilogy. Many movie fans taking part in internet discussion forums have voiced their unease.

Weitz, an American-born Cambridge graduate, tried to address their concerns in an interview in September this year. "It will require me to sound a tad defensive and to toot my own horn a little," he said, "but I hope it will illustrate that I am not the very last person who might bring an appreciative eye to these books.

"I try to make every film I make as the best possible film of that sort.

"I regard HDM [His Dark Materials] as the most important work of my life, in part because it is one of the few books to have changed my life, and in part because ... I think it is a great work of the imagination," he told website bridgetothestars.net.

"It is full of profound meanings, wisdom and intellect. It requires an approach at every point cognisant of those strengths."

There was huge interest when Stoppard's name was attached to the project. He has had a prolific career as a playwright, with award-winning stage productions which include Jumpers, Arcadia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He has also won many plaudits for his screen work, including an Oscar nomination in 1985 for his screenplay to Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Stoppard also adapted J G Ballard's Empire of the Sun for Steven Spielberg, as well as John le Carré's spy thriller The Russia House.

Stoppard remains philosophical about the parting of ways. He said: "It is not a completely unprecedented situation where people say that this is all fine, well done, and thank you and then a great silence descends."

Pullman, who has chosen not to get involved in the production, said he is still to receive any official notice that the playwright had been removed. "Perhaps some of his script will survive," said Pullman. "I imagine this happens in the film world all the time." Pullman met the new director in summer and said he has confidence in his abilities.

"He won't make my film into another American Pie."

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