June 30, 2006

Schoolgirl Lands Dark Materials Film Lead

LONDON (Reuters) - A 12-year-old schoolgirl has been cast as Lyra Belacqua, the central character in Philip Pullman's best-selling children's trilogy "His Dark Materials" which is being adapted into a big-budget film series.

The studio is banking on a similar success story to that of the Harry Potter movie adaptations, announcing on its Web site that it was spending $150 million (82 million pounds) on "The Golden Compass," the first of the three books.

New Line, which also made the hit "The Lord of the Rings" franchise, said it planned to release the film on November 16, 2007, with Oscar-nominated Chris Weitz directing.

Dakota Blue Richards was the eventual winner out of more than 10,000 young girls who auditioned for the role across Britain earlier this year.

She is on course to become a teenage millionaire if she matches the success of Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Harry Potter.

"As soon as I saw Dakota's screen test, I realized that the search was over," Pullman said on the New Line Web site.

The first installment of the trilogy, "The Golden Compass" -- known as "Northern Lights" outside the United States -- follows the protagonist Lyra who travels to the Arctic Circle to save a friend with the help of a bear and a witch.

The other two books are "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass."

Some groups have objected to the books because of their strong criticism of organized religion, and there has been speculation that the makers of the movie have come under pressure to tone down that aspect of the story.

There had been setbacks for the film before the latest announcement.

On his own Web site, Pullman said Weitz had been replaced by director Anand Tucker at one stage but was then re-installed.

He did not give any reasons for the changes, but said: "I'm sorry to say goodbye to Anand Tucker, whom I liked, but glad that the film will go forward in such good shape."

New Line's Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office while the four Harry Potter movies released have earned $3.5 billion.

New Line is a division of Time Warner Inc.