While it may not boast the name recognition of the Harry Potter franchise, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy novels nevertheless enjoy a devoted following. In the 19 years since the original trilogy wrapped up with 2003’s The Amber Spyglass, Pullman has maintained fans’ interest with a series of spin-offs and prequels — but most exciting of all is next month’s big-budget adaptation of the books co-produced by HBO and the BBC.
Yet while anticipation for the TV series is high, this enthusiasm is tempered with a degree of understandable skepticism. After all, this isn’t the first attempt at reimagining His Dark Materials on-screen — that dubious honor goes to underwhelming 2007 effort The Golden Compass. Indeed, it’s with the memory of that much-maligned flick that we’ve pulled together this list of things the new adaptation needs to get right to succeed.
10 Lord Asriel’s Characterization
Part of His Dark Materials’ appeal lies in its richly drawn cast of characters. Uncommon for literature ostensibly aimed at children, the heroes and villains created by Pullman are three-dimensional people with conflicting or even inscrutable motivations. Think an entire story filled with enigmatic, Severus Snape-types and you’re pretty much bang on the money.
Of these puzzling players, Lord Asriel is — alongside recurring antagonist Mrs. Coulter — the most complex of all. He has admirable qualities and his overarching intentions are decidedly benign, but he’s also aloof, cruel and next-level Machiavellian. The 2007 film version reduced Asriel to a “stern yet secretly good-hearted” archetype — so here’s hoping series writer Jack Thorne and star James McAvoy restore the character’s more nuanced characterization.
9 Religion Has To Be Front And Center
To say that the His Dark Materials books are controversial is putting it mildly. Over the course of the trilogy, author Philip Pullman pulls no punches when it comes to criticizing religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Faced with the prospect of backlash from religious groups, The Golden Compass writer-director soft-pedaled this core component of Pullman’s novels, neutering them in the process.
That’s why we’ve got our fingers crossed that Jack Thorne and the team behind the BBC/HBO adaptation don’t make a similar mistake. Now, we’re not saying the His Dark Materials TV series should be an eight-hour attack on Catholicism, but the link between the totalitarian Magisterium and the Church needs to be explicit.
8 The Darker Moments
This sounds obvious, but the His Dark Materials TV show needs to include, well...dark material. 2007’s The Golden Compass shied away from adapting the bleaker scenes in Pullman’s first novel, Northern Lights, for fear of alienating younger viewers, resulting in fantasy adventure without bite.
So, we’re hoping that the BBC/HBO joint will reinsert haunting moments — like the encounter between protagonist Lyra and a child whose connection to his dæmon (his soul, basically) has been severed — need to make the cut. Otherwise, the stakes Lyra is fighting for aren’t as clear, undermining the overall narrative itself.
7 The Sense Of Mystery
Rather than diving straight into the story of His Dark Materials and relying on audiences to bring themselves up to speed as they go along, The Golden Compass kicks off with a stage-setting prologue that sucks the wonder out of proceedings. Crucially, a boatload of information regarding mysterious substance Dust is divulged up front, in contrast to the ongoing mystery presented on the page.
Admittedly, moviegoers tend to need more hand-holding than their book-reading counterparts when presented with a wealth of information. But the serialized storytelling of TV provides a happy middle-ground between keeping viewers guessing and giving them a general sense of what the heck is going on — HBO’s other major release, Watchmen, is a perfect example of this.
6 All The Sex And Violence
Thanks to its fantasy trappings and pre-teen protagonist, His Dark Materials is generally categorized as children’s literature — but that’s selling the series a bit short. Yes, Philip Pullman was clearly aiming to entertain readers of all ages, but the scribe also doesn’t shy away from including decidedly mature content.
If the BBC/HBO TV adaptation intends to do the source material justice, it follows that these edgier elements mustn’t be downplayed. This means the story’s many violent moments need to be suitably bloody, while the sexual liaisons alluded to — especially those by LGBT characters — need to be present and accounted for, too.
5 Northern Lights’ Downer Ending
In case you can’t tell by now, the first His Dark Materials screen adaptation, The Golden Compass was a real disaster. Perhaps the most frustrating change writer-director Chris Weitz made to the text was his decision to scrap the original, bittersweet ending to the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights.
Bolting a similarly upbeat conclusion onto the end of the BBC/HBO series’ first season would be a monumental error in judgment — one we hope writer Jack Thorne won’t fall prey to. Season 1 needs to conclude the way Pullman intended, if for no other reason than it’ll provide a brilliant cliffhanger that teases Season 2.
4 Panserbjørne Culture
A huge advantage that the His Dark Materials TV show has over its big screen counterpart is the amount of time at its disposal. With roughly eight hours to play with — in comparison with a meager two — series writer Jack Thorne should be able to incorporate character moments from the book that were jettisoned from the film.
For example, Thorne should be able to properly establish that the Panserbjørne can’t be tricked like humans, setting the stage for a major twist during the showdown between Iorek Byrnison and villainous rival Iofur Raknison. Doing so elevates their brawl above the level of just “armored bears fighting” portrayed in the film, which, insanely cool as that high concept is, comes across a bit one-dimensional.
3 Lyra’s Alternate Earth
At this stage, it might be worth taking a break from bashing The Golden Compass to say something positive about it. Here goes: the production design team nailed the look and feel of His Dark Materials’ alternate world. Even so, we’d like to see the BBC/HBO TV series dive even deeper into the differences between our reality and the universe occupied by protagonist Lyra.
However, comments by one of the show’s directors, Otto Bathurst, have us a little worried on this front. According to Bathurst, the books’ vaguely steampunk, quasi-Victorian milieu has been modernized for TV — so here’s hoping the creative team hasn’t lost sight of what makes Lyra’s world so special.
2 The Lingering Ambiguity
By the time readers have turned the last page on The Amber Spyglass, they’re pretty clued in on the true nature and history of the His Dark Materials universe (or rather, multiverse). What’s more, author Philip Pullman has filled in even more blanks in subsequent volumes like Lyra’s Oxford, Once Upon A Time in the North and the in-progress Book of Dust trilogy.
That said, not everything that takes place is 100% explained — and that’s the way we like it. Whether it's Lord Asriel’s ability to seemingly influence fate itself or Mrs Coulter’s near-supernatural “impersonation” of Will Parry’s mother, these are plot points we’d like to see retain some of their enigmatic charm in the BBC/HBO series.
1 The More Cerebral Elements
His Dark Materials may have all the ingredients for a cracking fantasy/sci-fi outing — Witches! Cowboys! Armored bears! —but it’s more than just a modern fairytale. On the contrary, creator Philip Pullman has crafted a richly layered story filled with allusions to literary classics like Paradise Lost, as well as intelligent arguments on topics ranging from theology to physics.
For the BBC/HBO series to really work, these more cerebral elements have to be included. If all the show does is trade on the books’ superficial qualities, the finished product will rate as little more than yet another forgettable YA fiction adaptation.