Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall. . .  

So begins The Golden Compass, the first of three books in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which has attracted millions of avid fans around the world. Lyra's extraordinary story comes to theaters Dec. 7, the latest children's fantasy series to make it to theaters in a big-budget, multi-part adaptation.

Though the movie's themes have attracted controversy, the all-star cast and lavish special effects make it one of the most anticipated films of the holiday season. Writer/director Chris Weitz has created a thrilling fantastical world of Gobblers, armored bears and icy wastelands, a darkly enthralling visual treat likely to appeal to adults as well as children. When Lyra leaves her freewheeling life in Oxford behind to launch an epic quest into a parallel universe, the audience is pulled along on her unforgettable journey.

The film has been in the works for five years, enduring changes in scripts and directors before finally reaching completion this fall. Heading the cast is Nicole Kidman, reportedly Pullman's own first choice for the part of the mysterious Mrs. Coulter. Filling the role of the heroine, the feisty young Lyra Belacqua, proved more difficult, as thousands of English girls turned out for auditions around the country. Ultimately, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, a 12-year-old acting student from Brighton, landed the part, bringing an ethereal innocence to her role.

Also starring are Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond, as Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel, and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, a Texas balloonist played with appropriate Wild West flair.

Though the cast shines, what's most likely to dazzle viewers are the incredible special effects created by the Rhythm & Hues studio, particularly the daemons, or talking animal spirits, that accompany each figure and provide an outward representation of a character's soul. Lyra's daemon is Pan, a ferret that sometimes morphs into other forms, while Mrs. Coulter's is a more devious golden monkey; like the other daemons in the film they come alive with special effects that lend the creatures a startling reality.

All of these creations originated in the mind of Pullman, formerly a middle school English teacher in Oxford. Though he published his first adult book in 1978 and had been writing children's books since 1982, Pullman was still a relative unknown when The Golden Compass (titled Northern Lights in the U.K.) was published in 1995. The Subtle Knife followed in 1997, and The Amber Spyglass, the first children's book to win England's Whitbread Book of the Year award, was released in 2000. Producers New Line Cinema and Scholastic Media say all three books will eventually appear in film adaptations. Devoted readers were distressed when director Chris Weitz recently announced that the last three climactic chapters of The Golden Compass would not be included in the first film, but pushed forward into the next movie. Louder complaints have targeted Pullman's religious beliefs, arguing that the books, and the film, are an assault on Christianity, and more specifically, the Roman Catholic Church. Pullman, who says he's somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic, scoffs at the charges and says children will be more interested in his storytelling than any religious controversy the books have generated.

Readers who aren't familiar with Pullman's imaginative universe will want to start with the original books, while established fans will have several new choices. To coincide with the film's release, Scholastic is publishing seven Golden Compass titles, including a movie poster book, a movie quiz book and a movie storybook. The World of the Golden Compass uses movie stills to re-create the look of the people and daemons that inhabit this magical world, and includes a press-out golden compass and sticker sheet for further adventures. Golden Compass: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion offers storyboards and interviews with the cast and crew.

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