SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the entirety of His Dark Materials, and not just the contents of the BBC/HBO series.
If you were an avid reader in the late nineties/early aughts, you were fairly blessed by way of fantasy. During those two decades a second renaissance for the genre was born, one that carried the torch originally lit by the likes of Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis. The rebirth began with Robert Jordan’s first novel in The Wheel of Time series: The Eye of the World, being published in 1990, and the hits just kept on coming. Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, was published in ‘95, and George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones in ‘96, all three authors began building worlds that would evolve to live rent-free in the minds of multiple generations, all thirsting for the Rain Wilds and the Iron Islands.
But while those series were intended for adult audiences, the bibliophilic children who were pre-teens at the end of the 90’s (such as myself) were also rewarded for their curiosity. Lois Lowry’s The Giver was published in ‘93, Garth Nix’s Sabriel kicked off his Old Kingdom series in ‘95, Tamora Pierce published Sandry’s Book in ‘97, which marked the beginning of her Circle of Magic series...and then a little series about a boy wizard and his magical friends was published in ‘97. (Sadly, the importance of the Harry Potter series is waning by the day, but it will forever be remembered as the saga that got a generation excited about reading - that is, if reading just wasn’t your bag to begin with.)
And nestled right in the middle of that epic decade, Philip Pullman published Northern Lights (launching the trilogy known as His Dark Materials). Northern Lights, published in North America as The Golden Compass, was released in 1995, and it was quickly followed by ‘97’s The Subtle Knife, and 2000’s The Amber Spyglass.
What truly marked this specific renaissance of fiction, however, was the parental reaction to this sudden treasure-trove of witchy fantasy. Harry Potter seemed to take the brunt of the heretical criticism due to its overwhelming popularity. Sure, there are witches, wizards, and spells in the Harry Potter franchise, but it rose to such success because you can dismiss the magic to see the true story lies in good vs. evil, and how that battle functions in that world. His Dark Materials, on the other hand, uses folklore and physics to question beyond good vs. evil and goes straight to the source from which good and evil come. In Harry Potter, the end goal is killing Voldemort: in His Dark Materials, they kill God.
Many organizations, mostly religious, challenged Pullman’s work upon its release, but if you weren’t invested in the publishing world, it was easy to miss the criticism under the Harry Potter cloud. Even though Compass was released a few years prior to Sorcerer's Stone, it managed to pierce the global review stratosphere as a challenging and insightful piece of fiction for both adults and children alike. Pullman didn’t intend the novels to be for children, rather he wrote a theological piece of fiction with no audience in mind that just so happened to feature children, and his work benefited from it. It also helped that, comparatively, His Dark Materials was nowhere near as prevalent in the States as Harry Potter. By the time The Amber Spyglass was published in 2000, the first Harry Potter film hadn’t even premiered yet. His Dark Materials managed to get in and get out without much ado, despite William A. Donohue of the Catholic League describing it as “atheism for kids.”
But that all changed with the advent of fantasy adaptations in the early aughts. In 2001, both The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring AND Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone saw cinematic releases, and it became clear that the general public was finally ready for fantasy. New Line Cinema wasted no time in announcing in February of 2002 that they were adding to their LOTR collection by adapting Pullman’s The Golden Compass. It took four years of pre-production hell before filming would begin in 2006 for that film’s 2007 release. New Line struggled for years with scripts and directors (three in total if you count Chris Weitz twice - the first and third director - who initially left and made way for a second director and then agreed to return when the film seemed more manageable). The bulk of the conversation in the making of this film was the one concerning good vs. evil (or in most purists’ eyes, true adaptation vs. marketable adaptation). New Line feared, despite choosing to adapt the film, that the work’s subject matter was too controversial for a commercial audience, and constantly fought to diminish the novels’ intensely theological conversations. So why adapt it at all? That’s a very good question.
At this point, if you’re unfamiliar with His Dark Materials, you must be wondering just what the controversy is all about. The story follows two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, who are prophesied to be the second incarnation of Eve and Adam. The prophecy calls for them to participate in, essentially, the second fall from grace. Pullman wrote it as a spiritual successor to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but while the first Eve’s fall in PL is seen as a tragedy, Pullman’s intended prophecy is to free the human race from the fate intended by "The Authority" (the series’ version of God) and return free will to the public. The series is set in the present day, but that’s not properly revealed until the second novel, The Subtle Knife, because the story takes place in multiple parallel worlds. The entirety of The Golden Compass takes place in Lyra’s world, which appears to be a retro-futuristic version of Oxford that is intentionally time-ambiguous. In The Subtle Knife, we realize Will Parry is from our world’s Oxford, and this revelation ties the fantastic elements of Lyra’s world much more closely to the very real theological arguments of ours. In all the parallel worlds, of which there are infinitely many, the characters are studying what Lyra calls "Dust," what Dr. Mary Malone of The Subtle Knife calls "Shadow Particles of Dark Matter," and what the Mulefa in The Amber Spyglass call "Sraf." Regardless of name, these sentient particles are attracted to intelligent and sentient beings, and the concentration of a group of particles constitute angels.
One more integral piece of information in His Dark Materials is that in Lyra’s world, each human is accompanied by an outward animal manifestation of their soul called a "dæmon" (pronounced demon). The dæmon and their human must always remain in close proximity to one another, and their animal can change into any form as the child ages, but once the child reaches puberty, the dæmon settles into its final form. In Lyra’s world, the ruling government ("The Magisterium") has deemed Dust to be the presence of "Original Sin," as it is only attracted to those whose dæmons have settled. Now, The Magisterium is where the controversy comes in (aside from all that Authority and angels mumbo jumbo). The Magisterium are an unnamed religious sect that govern the rules of Lyra’s world, but it is difficult to distinguish The Magisterium from the Catholic Church. As The Magisterium are trying to eliminate Original Sin, they postulate that, perhaps, separating the unsettled dæmon from the human before the Dust can settle will eradicate the presence of Dust entirely. So, they begin to kidnap children to run experiments on them in a remote facility, all with the intent of becoming heroes for vanquishing Original Sin. But cutting the children off from their souls only silences them and leaves them as zombies. Yeah, not a great look for the Catholic Church.
The beauty of adapting The Golden Compass, is that the first novel in His Dark Materials can function as a standalone story. With that knowledge, New Line’s 2007 film starring Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, didn’t have a whole lot to lose. If the film did well, they could continue further into the trilogy; if the film did well enough as a story, but not well enough financially, they could at least pat themselves on the pack for making a good movie; and if the film bombed, well, they weren’t really leaving anyone hanging because if you wanted to know more, you have the original source material to guide you the rest of the way. But New Line Cinema didn’t know what to do with that original source material.
This bed is too soft.
Chris Weitz originally left the project when New Line let him accompany fellow filmmaker, Peter Jackson, as he was helming King Kong. Jackson wanted to give Weitz insight into the production of a big-budget blockbuster and pointers on how to work with New Line, after having started his Lord of the Rings franchise. Weitz became intimidated by the enormity of the project, and he was already beginning to feel the tug-of-war between Pullman purists and New Line execs who both had different expectations for the film. Anand Tucker stepped in when Weitz left the project, but Tucker also decided the conflict facing the script was too much work for his liking and he left. At that point, a lot of the technical aspects of production had begun to fall into place, allowing the overall project to appear more manageable. So when New Line asked Weitz to come back to direct, Weitz felt much more equipped to handle the pressure. During pre-production he maintained a positive attitude in the press, but after the film’s release, Weitz stated that by “being faithful to the book I was working at odds with the studio.”
The film adaptation lacks in depth due to its willful ignorance of the subject matter. By trying to appeal to a larger audience, and appease those who threatened a boycott, they shied away from the deeper context and consequence of religious transparency in the text. And they lost both ways because of it. It was still far too heretical for the religious groups concerned with the film’s subject matter, and that religious backlash consumed the marketing for its early December release in 2007. Every news story featuring the film focused on yet another picketing party calling for its cancellation. But while the religious zealots were up in arms, the Pullman purists were also displeased for the film’s lack of conviction. Losing the urgency from what The Magisterium stands for, those looking for a proper adaptation argued that the soul of the story was missing. Nobody was held accountable, and nobody was pleased. The Golden Compass was a commercial flop in the US market, and while it performed well overseas, it didn’t do well enough for New Line to back the second in the series. The film did walk away with an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and was mostly well-received by top critics, but as a consequence for its disappointing domestic ROI, and the continued conflict with the Catholic Church, a feature adaptation for The Subtle Knife, just wasn’t in the cards.
(One of my favorite memories from 2007 is witnessing my devout, Catholic mother react to the controversy surrounding the film. Appalled by the subject matter, she asked me if I was aware of the story. To her dismay, I had to inform her that “Santa” had brought me the boxed set back in 2001, the year after Shaggy’s 2000 album, “Hot Shot” found its way under the tree...so it seems that Santa didn’t do a lot of research in the early aughts. My mother has softened since rearing her children to adulthood...but, ah, memories.)
So when news surfaced in 2015 of a new adaptation for the beloved series, I was skeptical; doubly so because the now-legally named New Line Productions, Inc. was involved yet again. The overseas rights to the film adaptation had been sold to fund its $180 million dollar production budget, and this course of action directly influenced Time Warner’s decision to merge New Line Cinema into Warner Bros. Pictures to recoup the loss. (New Line Cinema’s last independently produced film was 2008’s basketball/Will Ferrell comedy, Semi-Pro.) But while New Line Cinema had botched the film, the series, however, was to be co-produced by Bad Wolf, a successful British production company based out of Cardiff, Wales. It was then announced the series was going to be distributed primarily through BBC, and was receiving international distribution through HBO. And thus, His Dark Materials was reborn.
This bed is too hard.
Where the film adaptation shied away from confronting the religious material head on, the first series of His Dark Materials leaned into the theological conversation pretty much from the get-go, which was greatly appreciated and applauded. Impeccably cast (with Logan’s breakout Dafne Keen at the helm as Lyra), the first series covered the contents of The Golden Compass and then some, no doubt in order to secure a renewal as to continue the trilogy. In doing so, they introduce Will Parry (a character reserved for The Subtle Knife) midway through the first series, instead of introducing him in what should have been the start of their coverage of the second novel in the second series. With only eight episodes in that first series run, that’s a LOT of content to squeeze in.
I worried, while watching those first eight episodes, over what was keeping me from enjoying the show. I was enjoying the cast (although it took me a while to warm to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby - I know, I KNOW) and the production value, but I slowly realized that the pacing was really keeping me from becoming fully immersed in the story. Those first eight episodes move at the speed of light, and the traveling between Lyra and Will’s different Oxfords (using a character named Carlo Boreal aka Sir Charles Latrom as our voyager), really diminished the intrigue and tension that comes from wondering what, when, and where Lyra’s world is. And although I do think series one of the show suffers from it (sooooo many characters with such little time), I can ultimately understand their choices because it led us to -
This bed is just right.
Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and I’ll be the first to admit, this was the case with me in the beginning of His Dark Materials. I can’t be certain if there was an intentional story and character overload in series one in order to set up an evolved and established series two, but I can definitely appreciate the results regardless. At the beginning of The Subtle Knife, when we are initially introduced to Will Parry and his mother and troubles, we spend a lot of time getting to know them and their world (our world). This is when the other half of the puzzle starts to come together, and it’s an exhilarating journey when you begin to realize the significance of Will as a character, and it makes you long to return to Lyra’s story in a way that the film and the first series of the show doesn’t allow you to feel. Distance makes the heart grow...well, you know the rest.
The pacing of the novels also tricks you into believing that The Golden Compass is a moral dilemma for another world and allows you to question your own moral and religious standing without really applying it in reality...until you get to The Subtle Knife, and realize you should have been taking this “fantasy” more seriously than you thought. His Dark Materials is an incredibly intelligent meditation of the self more than anything, and I’d find it nearly impossible to replicate that meditation in any medium other than the written word...but I’m starting to trust the series can come darn close.
My faith in the series is also growing due to its representation of my favorite character from the series (who’s introduced in The Subtle Knife): Dr. Mary Malone. Where series two thrives is the introduction of new characters and locations, while allowing their previously introduced characters more breathing room to become even stronger representations of their written counterparts. By nature of the stories (and the nature of storytelling) you’d expect characters to learn and grow, but I cannot stress the difference between series one and two any more. The near-deserted city of Cittàgazze (a very important location introduced in the second series) doubles as a metaphor for the space in which the now much smaller cast are allowed to roam. If only Ma Costa could have been granted the grace to breathe in such manor. Ah well; at least Lee Scoresby and Hot Priest (I mean, Stanislaus Grumman) got a chance to really flex this series. (I’m serious, the casting is very, VERY good.)
For the first time, in a long time, I’m really allowing myself to trust in the power of adaptation. I am somewhat of a purist (who am I kidding? A Song of Ice and Fire ‘till I die - I couldn’t even make it through season two of Game of Thrones), who rarely enjoys adaptations on the whole, especially when they deviate from the subject material (The Shining and the film, High Fidelity, are a few of the rare exceptions). But I’m glad the second series of His Dark Materials has rewarded me for sticking through the whiplash of series one. I’m also continuously impressed by the set, costume, and music design, and gosh darn it, I think I’m starting to like this show.
So, this winter season, if you’re feeling like something’s missing in your heart or you’re questioning, “What does it all mean?” I’d recommend turning to His Dark Materials. Question, meditate, and conjure yourself up a dæmon. We have, what’s turning out to be, a very exciting series three to look forward to. I’d love for you to tune in with me to see if they can stick the landing.
Coach McGuirk: Bernadette's Dæmon and Writing Buddy.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.