When Philip Pullman’s novel series “His Dark Materials” was at the height of its popularity in the early 2000s, Jane Tranter — then an executive at the BBC in London — bought and read the books as a fan. “This would be something perfect for the BBC,” she recalls thinking, “but the rights had already gone.” The franchise became a 2007 big-screen misfire for New Line, a planned trilogy that elided key details and stalled out at one feature, “The Golden Compass.” “A film format is too skinny for novels with the breadth and depth of ‘His Dark Materials,’” Tranter says. I just waited.” In pitching New Line executives on a TV revamp in 2015, Tranter had one key advantage she couldn’t have foreseen when the books first came out: “Critically, they had seen the success of ‘Game of Thrones.’”
The HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel series “A Song of Ice and Fire” set a new standard for how TV could depict fantasy action, convincing skittish rights holders that the medium had the capacity to express action that had previously seemed too massive for anything but a multiplex screen. The show, whose run wrapped this summer, taught its sizable audience a lesson as potent as anything it taught the industry: Escaping into faraway worlds, with mythologies far more internecine than could ever be depicted in a feature film, was no longer solely the province of the geek. Shows like “His Dark Materials” might, before “Thrones,” have seemed both wildly expensive and so inherently limited in their appeal that the money would be wasted.
Now, though, “His Dark Materials,” arriving stateside on HBO Nov. 4, strides onto a TV landscape dominated by shows that plunge viewers into complex worlds adapted from forbiddingly detailed intellectual property. HBO will also air “Watchmen,” a dark drama from “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof that extrapolates contemporary stories from the world of Alan Moore’s graphic novel series and launches Oct. 20. Elsewhere, Amazon’s chase to find a breakthrough hit of its own has yielded buzzed-about genre shows “Carnival Row” and “The Boys.” And Tolkien is next: The streamer spent some $250 million to acquire the television rights to “Lord of the Rings,” a series version of which is in pre-production. Netflix, the biggest-spending of all streamers, in August debuted “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” a follow-up to the 1982 cult film and a series shot almost entirely with Jim Henson Co. puppets. Later this year, Netflix will launch “The Witcher,” based on the fantasy writings of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.
Taken together, these shows call to mind the attempts to clone the success of “Lost” with puzzle-box dramas at that show’s peak, or the boom in period soaps after “Mad Men.” But those copycat moments yielded no hits, in part because the imitators were so brazenly borrowing from the respective “Lost” and “Mad Men” toolkits. Those following in the footsteps of “Thrones” in the months ahead share a visual ambition, or at least a capacity to visually dazzle, with their Emmy-winning forerunner. But they’re granted distinction from one another by their source material. No two shows assay quite the same world, or depict quite the same battle.
That is, in theory: The movie industry is littered with promising franchises whose individual qualities were melted down; “His Dark Materials” was one of them. The challenge for each of the TV industry’s new bids for “Thrones”-level success will be stepping away from the temptation to reach for the acclaim that show enjoyed by staging it all over again. After all, what made “Thrones” pop as a generational hit was the fact that it had no precedent. No new effects-heavy genre series has that advantage, but each can find popularity on a medium that rewards innovation by pursuing its own oddball vision.
Damon Lindelof followed up “Lost,” a mainstream smash and among the most-imitated shows in TV history, with “The Leftovers,” a copycat-proof HBO show that followed its own strange vision of the end of the world. “Watchmen” falls somewhere in between. “There was certainly awareness on my part that this thing is scaled much larger than ‘The Leftovers,’” Lindelof says, “and that the expectations are scaled much larger as well.” “Leftovers” dealt with the most outsize of human emotions, but — well, these are superheroes.
On a grander canvas, Lindelof is able to tell a story that, from its earliest moments, sets its own path, depicting in its pilot a world in which caped crusaders have gone underground and a white supremacist cult is amassing power. Unlike the tepidly received “Watchmen” film from 2009, which faithfully transcribed stories from the comic book and smeared a “Dark Knight” patina of grimness over it all, the series remixes ideas and some characters from the source material, promising to use the scope and sweep of a season of television to mete out its revelations carefully. “In order to call something ‘Watchmen,’ it has to take a deep psychological dive on people who wear masks,” Lindelof says. “And it has to take place in a world that is simultaneously unfamiliar and very familiar to us. All of that went into a blender, and I pressed puree, and the pilot’s what came out.” In that pilot, we’re gradually introduced to certain strangenesses — a fictionalized Robert Redford is the president, and Regina King’s character dodges sea creatures falling from the sky — but much about the world, from its prejudices to its aching desire for a savior, feels familiar. It owes much more to “Leftovers” than to “Thrones,” even if it could only exist in a world where “Thrones” introduced high genre to television.
Lindelof, working from the template of his well-loved critical success that was perhaps too brutal and too strange for many audience members, might not seem the obvious fit for a show with market potential this large. And yet he sees possible “Watchmen” viewers as ready for a challenge. “The audience has become so much more sophisticated in the way that they process these things but also the way that they define them. It’s not just a superhero thing anymore — they expect a much richer palette.”
Within a superhero show, big ideas about race and revenge can be accommodated; similarly, within “The Witcher,” showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich dug out a human story from the saga of a monster hunter in a world of witchcraft. Schmidt Hissrich, who began her television career on “The West Wing,” was a relative newcomer to the genre space, and sought to depict “what I thought I could tell well, which is the story of a family coming together.”
“If I were going to approach this from a storytelling perspective and not just as a fantasy fan, what are the stories I would be interested in?” she posits. “‘The West Wing’ would talk about such heady concepts, but would do so in a way that you would be emotionally invested even if you didn’t understand absolutely everything. And that’s how we have approached writing ‘The Witcher’ too.” Likewise, on Netflix’s “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” the use of puppets in a fantasy landscape allows a resonant human story to play out. “Sometimes we can be a little more straightforward with metaphors in fantasy,” says Lisa Henson, executive producer of the series (and daughter of the late puppeteer). On the show, “the whole world is being threatened with the darkening, [just as] our environment is being threatened in a really clear way today. We want people to find their own meaning in the show when they watch it.” The unfamiliarity of the universe only emphasizes classical themes and story points, ones that existed in genre long before “Thrones” opened up TV.
But for those themes to land on a grand scale, the series need to find their audience — even the uninitiated — and convince them that the story will be comprehensible. A superhero only gets “super” when millions thrill to his or her exploits; a fantasy derives its power from the millions who share it. And as punishing and expensive as it is to create a fantasy series that looks real, it’s worthwhile only when it reaches people. Director Louis Leterrier, who helmed every episode of “The Dark Crystal,” recalls that each puppet took a year to construct. Describing his decision to take on the whole series, he recalls thinking, “I’ll just toughen up and shoot it all, and I’ll see my family a year later.”
“There was certainly awareness on my part that this thing is scaled much larger than ‘The Leftovers,’ and that the expectations are scaled much larger as well.”
Damon Lindelof on his HBO series “Watchmen”
Today’s high-expectation, resource-intensive genre-TV game is more demanding than even the work of TV veterans. “This is definitely the most challenging thing that I have ever done professionally,” Lindelof says. “I feel like I learned a lot. I’m not entirely sure what I learned, but I did learn a lot.”
For her part, Schmidt Hissrich has faith that the audience will climb aboard. “I get asked a lot if this is going to be the next ‘Game of Thrones.’ My response is always the same: No, this is ‘The Witcher,’ and I think ‘The Witcher’ is going to stand on its own. But what ‘Game of Thrones’ did is open the door for all audiences to realize that fantasy could be for them too. It’s not just for kids who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
Nor is genre just for moviegoers anymore. “The Witcher” was pitched first as a feature film; Lisa Henson announced a cinematic follow-up to “The Dark Crystal” years before “Age of Resistance” hit Netflix; both “His Dark Materials” and “Watchmen” stalled out in theaters. “Lord of the Rings,” in the 2000s, won Oscars; soon it may win Emmys. For all their scope, none of these TV projects has the triumphant, easy appeal of the tentpoles that define moviegoing in 2019 — “Star Wars,” Marvel, Disney adaptations of animated classics. All originate from a place that is spiky and odd, seeding big and often complicated ideas or story points in appealing shells. (“We need to put the dog’s antibiotic in a treat to get him to swallow it,” as Lindelof puts it.) The challenge ahead is ensuring that, as these shows scrap with one another to get their piece of the fantasy audience, they don’t sand down their edges. What fans loved most about “Thrones” was less that it was big and fantastical and more that, for better or worse, it was itself.
Finding the way to that confidence is a work in progress. “We really didn’t have a clue about how we were going to do Episodes 7 and 8 when we were doing Episodes 1 and 2,” Tranter says of “His Dark Materials.” Describing her protagonist’s journey deeper and deeper into an Arctic wasteland the show constructed in an industrial shed in Wales, she notes, “We got more and more and more pushed beyond our production comfort zone as we went through.” The scene she describes sounds a bit like the footage north of the Wall from “Game of Thrones,” where Jon Snow trudges through cold and dark toward his destiny. But if “His Dark Materials” is to be a success, it will also need to ultimately resemble nothing more than itself.