The His Dark Materials trilogy is one of my favorite series of novels – a fantasy that sprawls multiple worlds and focuses on a war for reality itself. It is being turned into a TV series for the BBC and HBO and the first full trailer was recently released. It already shows a lot of promise and could be a big-budget fantasy show for years to come. There is plenty of reasons why audiences should be excited.
The novels were the creation of Phillip Pullman, an Oxford-educated writer. He started his writing career as a children’s author. His most popular series before His Dark Materials was the Sally Lockhart novels which were adapted by the BBC and PBS. His Dark Materials was Pullman’s magnum opus. The series was well-received, it earned awards like the Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Book of the Year in 2001 and the British public voted it the third-best novel in the BBC’s Big Read in 2003.
Pullman had numerous influences when writing His Dark Materials. The biggest was Paradise Lost by John Milton. Paradise Lost was a 17th-century poem about the original sin and the fall of man and His Dark Materials acted as a retelling for modern audiences. Pullman was also influenced by the writing and art of William Blake, German writer Heinrich von Kleist and Renaissance artists. And Pullman used the novels as a way to express his atheist views.
Being a trilogy, His Dark Materials is comprised of three novels: The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The Golden Compass is set in a steampunk world and follows a 12-year-old girl, Lyra Belacqua In this world everyone has a dæmon, a physical representation of someone’s soul. A dæmon can turn into any animal up until the age of 13 where it settles into its permanent form. A human and dæmon are the same person. In Britain children across have been disappearing, leading to Lyra and a group of water faring people to travel to the Arctic Circle to find them.
It’s a fantasy story that features witches, armored bears, prophecy, and technology like airships. It was also a dark story that had children being experimented on, losing their souls, and even dying.
The second novel sees Lyra enter our world and meets Will Parry, a boy on the run after accidentally killing a man. They end up in the possession of a knife that can cut open holes to other universes. Because of this many factions want this item: it is a weapon that could turn the tide of the upcoming war for reality. The final novel was the epic war story that was as long the previous two books combined. This was where the war between the forces of The Authority and Lord Asriel’s rebellion and the two Lyra and Will could play an important to defeat the forces of evil.
His Dark Materials has been adapted a few times already. BBC Radio 4 adapted as a three-part radio part with each episode lasting 2.5 hours and starred Terrance Stamp. The Royal National Theatre produced a two-part play in 2003/2004 which starred Timothy Dalton. The play was met with critical acclaim and won awards for its set design and lighting.
The most famous adaptation was the 2007 film adaptation. It was made after the success of Lord of the Rings where every studio was looking for the next fantasy franchise. The Golden Compass was made by New Line Cinema, the same studio that made Lord of the Rings and there were some good signs. It had a great cast, having actors like Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, and Eva Green in major roles. But it was a troubled production – it changed director numerous times, with Chris Weitz leaving and coming back. Weitz threw out a screenplay written by the acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard and wrote it himself.
The biggest mistake the producers made with the film adaptation was straying too far from the source material. The books are known for being critical organized religion and the third even had the death of God. New Line Cinema was fearful of the reaction of the backlash from fundamentalist Christians so toned down the religious themes. This was the worst decision the producers could have made because they were trying to appease an audience that wouldn’t be interested in the film and upset fans of books. The decision was even more illogical because figures like Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, defended the books and I personally have known people of faith who have enjoyed the trilogy as a fantasy story.
The film adaptation toned down darker and important moments from the novel. The biggest example was the ending where the film cut off early. It made the characters look like they’re going onwards to a whimsical adventure instead of there being a dark betrayal. It was made even worst because Chris Weitz did shoot an ending closer to the novel’s and even released it for the Director’s Cut. The film also ruined what happened to Tony Makarios – a child who was experimented on and lost his dæmon. The event was so traumatic that it killed him and adults feared him because a child literally lost his soul. The film changed the character to be someone who lived and his mother gives him hope by saying they will get his dæmon back. This undercut an important moment where that set up the stakes and it was incredibly tragic.
Due to The Golden Compass being a critical and commercial flop the proposed sequels were never commissioned and New Line Cinema was brought under direct Warner Brothers control.
At the tail end of 2015 the BBC announced they were going to adapt the novels with New Line and Bad Wolf Productions. Whilst there was a risk that being adapted by the BBC would mean the series would lack the funding it needed the involvement of Bad Wolf gave fans hope. Bad Wolf is a new company, formed by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner. Tranter was a former controller of fiction at the BBC and head of BBC Worldwide. During her time at the BBC, the corporation made popular shows like Spooks and Waking the Dead and critically acclaimed miniseries such as Bleak House and State of Play. One of the most notable shows under reign was the revival of Doctor Who which Gardner produced. Bad Wolf is a reference to the story arc in the first season of the new-Doctor Who. Bad Wolf’s first TV show was A Discovery of Witches for Sky One in the UK which was met with positive reviews and nominated at the National Television Awards for the Best New Drama. These are people who know how to make entertaining genre television.
The production of the show moved forward quickly. Jack Thorne was hired to write. Thorne has worked as a screenwriter for film and TV and a playwright. His most famous work is probably the play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child and has won BAFTAs for his work on The Fades and This is England ’88. Most of Thorne’s work is critically acclaimed and he is an in-demand writer. Tom Hooper, the director of films like The King Speech and Les Misérables was brought in to act as a producer and has directed the first two episodes. Some of the cream of British film/TV industry is working on the show.
HBO had a first option deal with Bad Wolf which they used. HBO’s reputation is unassailable and their involvement means the show has money, expertise and prestige. The BBC and HBO are unafraid at tackling controversial subjects so should keep the anti-religious themes of the novel. The BBC and HBO have a good track working together, making shows like Rome, Years and Years, and Gentleman Jack.
The cast also shows a great deal of ambition. Dafne Keen was cast as the Lyra. This is a huge coup for the show because this is her first role since appearing in Logan. The show has James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter and Lee Scoresby – three major characters in the novel. As a fan I did have my own casting choices for those roles but I am not going to complain about them. Plus some casting choices are utterly inspired – Anne-Marie Duff is an inspired choice as Ma Costa and Will Keen (Dafne’s father), has been cast as Hugh MacPhail who seems a lot more accurate to the books than Christopher Lee in the film. Even rising stars like Georgina Campbell (Black Mirror‘s “Hang the DJ,” Krypton) have been cast in relatively minor roles.
A teaser and a trailer have been released so far and the show already looks promising. The show is going for a darker, gothic look that is more in line with the novels and seemingly a faithful to the story. The CGI for the dæmons, Iorek Byrnison, and the airships was impressive in the trailer, so the signs are positive. As a fan of the novels there would have been some things I would have changed – I would have made Lyra blonde and there are some casting choices I would have done differently, but this is me just being a book purest – it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. If the series is loyal to the tone and the story I will be happy.
The BBC and HBO already have high hopes for His Dark Materials because they have already renewed a second season before the first season has even aired. Young actor Amir Wilson has already been cast as Will Parry and it will only be a matter of time before more actors will be cast. HBO should be able to avoid the trouble they had making Game of Thrones because the His Dark Materials series has an ending, so the show only need three or four seasons.
On a final note, the show is being filmed at Pinewood Studios Wales. It is the biggest production to be filmed there and hopefully, the show could do for Wales what Game of Thrones did for Northern Ireland – build up the talent and facility which could benefit the whole film/TV industry.