Anand Tucker, director of the Oscar-nominated low-budget movie Hilary and Jackie, about the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and a yet-to-be-released Steve Martin film, Shopgirl, beat 50 others for the chance to bring Pullman's epic to the big screen.
New Line Cinema, which was rewarded handsomely for having the imagination to back Peter Jackson in making Lord of the Rings, bought the rights to Pullman's highly acclaimed books three years ago.
But turning the complex narrative of a girl's struggle against the church into a film has not run smoothly. Tom Stoppard, the playwright, was commissioned to write a script but that was quietly shelved when Chris Weitz, best known for the gross-out teen comedy American Pie, was named director. Weitz writes his own screenplays.
But he quit the project at Christmas, blaming the "technical challenges", and Pullman fans vented their anger over reported changes to the storyline designed to avoid upsetting American Christians.
More than 50 film-makers were interviewed about taking over. Anand Tucker, who worked on BBC arts programmes, impressed with a presentation that included conceptual art, demonstrations of visual effects and a 20-page director's manifesto.
"The opportunity to turn Philip Pullman's extraordinary story into a film is literally a dream come true," Tucker said yesterday.
"I instantly fell in love with His Dark Materials when it was published. I was entranced by the way the books reminded me of those first magical experiences of reading books when I was a kid.
"Phillip has created an incredibly universal story about a reluctant hero whose destiny is nothing less than to save mankind."
He admitted toVariety magazine that he had waged "a long campaign" to get the job and had "quietly cursed" when Weitz was appointed. But now The Golden Compass is his. "It is a huge picture and it is, perhaps, easy to be overwhelmed by the logistics, but at its heart, this is a cracking good story about a reluctant hero. All the effects and scale only work if they're marshalled in service of the story."
Although the appointment of a small indie director to such a high-profile venture will raise eyebrows, the New Line chairmen, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, said they were convinced that Tucker was "the ideal craftsman" to deliver. The plans are for The Golden Compass to be shot as a stand-alone movie but the second and third instalments, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, will follow if it works.
Tucker has twice been nominated for Bafta awards and won the British Independent Film Award for best director with his 1998 film debut, Hilary and Jackie, which also received two Oscars nominations. He was also a producer on Girl with a Pearl Earring.