“His Dark Materials,” the multi-universe fantasy trilogy by British author Philip Pullman, has historically proved to be a bit of daemon to adapt for the screen.
Chris Weitz, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig gave it a crack back in 2007, and the result was a critically-panned, middling box office-performing feature film which, many felt, leant too heavily on the CGI and strayed too far from the source material. But now there is another attempt: the HBO-BBC co-production which brings the feisty young Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) and the icy Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) to the small screen for the first time. Executive producer Jane Tranter tells Variety that the intention from the moment she began circling the rights in 2015 was to produce a more faithful retelling which brought out “the depth, breadth and layers” of Pullman’s books.
“I read the novels as Philip Pullman first published them in the ’90s and thought, ‘This is amazing, this is a book about our times,’” she says. “In the years where the books were being made into a film or the rights weren’t available, I felt they were almost like Sleeping Beauty surrounded by wild briar and all I had to do was fight my way through the thickets and waken them up.”
The branches eventually parted for Tranter and after three-and-half years of working closely with writer Jack Thorne (of “Shameless” and “Harry Potter and the Curse Child” fame) and her creative team, the novels’ themes are still as pertinent as ever in her mind.
Back in 2007, the film was denounced by religious organizations including the Catholic League, which called for a boycott on account of the depiction of the Magisterium, the sinister central body in Pullman’s world which suppresses information and tries to stop Lyra from discovering the truth about her family. However, when asked if accusations of being anti-Catholic Church would be accurate for her series, Tranter is as bullish in her response as Pullman was over a decade ago.
“The Magisterium does not equal any one particular thing at any moment in time,” she says. “It could be many — as Philip would say, his Magisterium is as relevant to the Communist State as it is to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and now it’s very relevant to the way our governments are behaving on both sides of the Atlantic where they can simply say whatever they like, even if it’s not true, and they will not be questioned or held to account.”
Tranter says the protests that surrounded the film were “an act of the Magisterium itself,” and that the protesters’ take was “almost a deliberate misreading of the books.”
“His Dark Materials” is a world full of witches, armored bears and daemons (animals which are tethered to individual humans and represent an external manifestation of a person’s inner self), but is also rife with child abductions and deals with difficult themes such as anti-authoritarianism.
Finding a balance between the two took a long time (Thorne went through 47 drafts of the first episode), partly because of the innate complexity and layers of the book.
“We had to put our finger on how do to take these amazing concepts, these themes, and make them feel real in the way that Philip does with his omniscient narrator’s voice in the novels,” Tranter says. “We always said this is grounded fantasy: If an element is fantastical, we have to tackle it in a very real way, and if it’s real, we have to remember what genre we’re in and tackle it in a slightly heightened way.”
Tranter says the nature of television as a medium meant they could stretch Lyra’s story over eight hour-long episodes in the first season, which allowed for a less frenetic pacing than in the 2007 film. This elongated time spent also allowed for deeper character construction, particularly when it came to Lyra.
Working with the 14-year-old Keen, who is best known for bringing a quiet ferocity to the mutant Laura Kinney in “Logan,” meant plenty of short, sharp filming sessions due to labor laws for children — but despite the time sensitivity, Tranter believes Keen carries the series with “the talent and grace” of someone far beyond her years.
Rather than have Keen and the other child actors play with a tennis ball on the end of a coat hanger to represent their daemons, executive producer Dan McCulloch came up with the idea of bringing puppeteers to the set and have the young actors interact with puppet versions of their daemons. Tranter says that playing opposite a puppet recreation of Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor) helped Keen bring the necessary combination of fighting spirit and idealism to the role.
Tranter hopes that in Lyra, viewers will see an inspirational young, female figure akin to climate change activist Greta Thunberg.
“We all love Lyra and felt that one of the most important takes we had was to bring her from the page to the screen for a modern audience,” Tranter says. “She’s a child who has belief and wants to do the right thing in a landscape surrounded by grown-ups who are positioning themselves, who are after greatness and legacy. Lyra believes in goodness rather than greatness, and I think that’s the main theme that Jack, myself and the cast wanted to bring out in the show.”
While some sort of online, public reaction to the new series from religious groups seems almost inevitable, it’s clear that HBO has little concern given that “His Dark Materials” has already been picked up for a second season before a single episode has aired. This commitment to bringing to life more of Pullman’s world means fans of the novel may finally get the comprehensive, complete “His Dark Materials” adaptation for which they’ve been waiting.
“The novel exists on many different heights: On one level it’s a linear rollercoaster of an adventure that Lyra goes on, but then underneath that it’s the story of a girl who is horrendously betrayed by her parents and who in turn unwittingly performs her own betrayal. It’s the story of an authoritarian regime, a story of humanity and mortality, and an adaptation of ‘Paradise Lost,’” Tranter says. “All of that is present on every page of the book, and it’s our task to take our time with it so we can ensure the layers are understood and communicated to the audience, and make it suitable to all ages so some will take it on its top level only, and others will derive the deeper meaning from it.”