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Friday 15 November 2019

His Dark Materials preview: There's far more than just a big budget riding on this adaptation

Lyra with her daemon Pantalaimon in the forthcoming BBC series His Dark Materials
Lyra with her daemon Pantalaimon in the forthcoming BBC series His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials is about to air on BBC One (Bad Wolf/HBO – Photographer: Alex Bailey/Marco Grob)

Pat Stacey

Adapting a beloved literary work for television or film is fraught with peril. Some of us still break out in a cold sweat at the mention of Brian De Palma’s disastrous film of Tom Wolfe’s stinging Eighties satire The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Misbegotten as it was, though, at least it elicited some kind of emotional response from the audience, even if it was just hatred. All David Lynch’s impenetrable film of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic Dune drew from cinemagoers were snores.

And people have done jail time for lesser crimes than the act of horrific vandalism Baz Luhrmann perpetrated against F Scott Fitzgerald’s exquisite The Great Gatsby.

Even when the source material is diamond-studded, TV and films have an unfortunate record of screwing things up mightily.

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The pressure is even greater when it comes to bringing a much-loved fantasy saga to the screen. Hell hath no fury like a fantasy fan wronged. And as we all know, fantasy fans are very easily wronged.

The gold standard for fantasy adaptations is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Not only did Jackson please Tolkien obsessives, he also seduced a completely new audience who’d never read the books and didn’t know Frodo Baggins from Christopher Biggins.

It’s just a pity he frittered away all that goodwill and Oscars glory on the ludicrously bloated three-film adaptation of The Hobbit.

If LOTR kicked open the door for fantasy as viable (not to mention enormously profitable) entertainment with mainstream appeal, Game of Thrones stormed through it to become the most popular TV series in the world.

The fact that it lost its way once it overtook George RR Martin’s books, and failed to stick the landing with a limp finale that pleased few viewers and enraged many, doesn’t detract from the huge impact it had on television culture.

The success of Game of Thrones has undoubtedly made it easier to get large-scale fantasy series made. Ironically, however, it’s probably increased the pressure on the BBC and HBO’s big-budget His Dark Materials, based on the trilogy by Philip Pullman, to come up with the goods.

The trilogy — Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass), Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass — follows the adventures of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, across a multiverse with many parallel worlds.

The world in Northern Lights, which is the basis of the first eight-part season, starting on BBC1 on Sunday, is very much like our own, but with some significant differences.

Every human has a “daemon”, the physical manifestation of a person’s inner-self (call it a soul or spirit if you wish), which takes the form of an animal. There are also witches and, most famously, intelligent armoured bears that can talk.

Pullman’s bestsellers, though frequently marketed as young-adult fiction, were written with no specific readership in mind and are enormously popular with adults of all ages. They’ve also proved to be contentious for the Catholic Church, the more extreme elements of which have called for them to be denied to young readers, removed from library shelves and even thrown on a bonfire.

Pullman is an atheist and the novels explicitly attack the use of religion to oppress. The dominant, malignant religion has parallels with Christianity and its church is called the Magisterium — the same name as the Catholic Church’s authority.

There’s more than just a lot of money riding on His Dark Materials, whose starry cast includes James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Clark Peters and, as Lyra, Dafne Keen. Following the failure of the 2007 Hollywood movie The Golden Compass, which denuded the story of anything remotely anti-religion for fear of upsetting American Christians (they got upset anyway), this is the last chance to do justice to Pullman’s unique books on screen.

The first episode of His Dark Materials is on BBC1 on Sunday at 8pm.

Read more: The Secret Commonwealth: Philip Pullman's new novel treads into more grown-up, uncomfortable territory

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