They may be some of the most popular fantasy novels of all time, but we’re still yet to see a definitive live-action adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga. Pullman’s books tell an epic and ambitious story which takes in fantastical new worlds and embraces inventive concepts and deep theological questions. In other words, it’s got gripping viewing written all over it.
The only previous adaptation attempt, however, was the big-screen version of The Golden Compass from 2007. That outing – adapted from the first book in the trilogy – was intended to launch the next big movie franchise, but instead proved to be a huge commercial failure. The film watered down the themes of the novel, removing and stripping back the criticisms of organised religion in order to placate outraged religious groups.
However, in late 2015 it was confirmed that the BBC was working on a fresh adaptation of Pullman’s novels in the form of a big budget new series. The initial announcement was understandably met with great excitement, but then for a long while everything went quiet.
In recent weeks however, things have whirred into gear and there has been a whole host of exciting developments.
Official press release
One casting announcement that has long been confirmed is that Dafne Keen will be playing the central role of Lyra. Keen shot to fame thanks to her memorable turn as Wolverine’s ferocious young protege in Logan. Recently though, this news was bolstered by the confirmations that James McAvoy was signed on as Lord Asriel and Ruth Wilson would appears as Mrs Coulter.
Late last week, the BBC released a further update rounding out the rest of the show’s cast and providing a brief plot summary for the uninitiated.
“Dafne Keen takes on the lead role of Lyra, the young protagonist of the story who lives in Jordan College, Oxford. Placed there at the request of her Uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) she lives a sheltered life amongst the scholars and college staff while under the watchful protection of The Master (Clarke Peters) and Librarian Scholar Charles (Ian Gelder).
When the glamorous and mesmeric Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) enters Lyra’s life she embarks upon a dangerous journey of discovery from Oxford to London. Here she meets Father MacPhail (Will Keen), Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) and journalist Adele Starminster (Georgina Campbell) at a glittering society party where she first hears about the sinister General Oblation Board.
Lyra is subsequently thrown into the nomadic world of the boat dwelling Gyptians – Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), Farder Coram (James Cosmo), John Faa (Lucien Msamati), Raymond Van Geritt (Mat Fraser), Jack Verhoeven (Geoff Bell) and Benjamin de Ruyter (Simon Manyonda) who take her North in her quest.
Once in the North she meets charismatic aeronaut and adventurer Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who joins them on their epic journey and who becomes one of Lyra’s closest allies.”
It’s a stellar cast across the board with the three headliners joined by a collection of talented actors, with Lin-Manual Miranda and James Cosmo standing out as particularly inspired choices.
An impressive crew
The cast is certainly cause for considerable excitement but the crew behind the camera is also ample reason for raised expectation levels.
Tom Hooper, Oscar winning director of The King’s Speech, will be behind the camera for the first two episodes of the series, with several other esteemed directors taking on the remaining six. Meanwhile, the task of writing the screenplay for the series has been handled by award winning playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne. Thorne worked on several of the acclaimed This Is England sequels and recently won an Olivier award for his work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
In an interview last year with The Radio Times, Thorne was questioned on how closely his story would be to the books.
“I mean, the most important thing is being loyal to the books, and trying to tell those books as well as we possibly can … The advantage of television is we can slow down. In the film and on stage they had so much plot to get through, so much plot to churn through, whereas we’ve got the luxury of having time to get to know [lead character] Lyra, and spend time in her world.”
The BBC’s recent press release also featured a quote from Pullman himself who gave the adaption his own seal of approval.
“I’m delighted that the production is under way, and I’m looking forward immensely to seeing how it looks. Bad Wolf has assembled a wonderful cast and I’m sure every HDM reader is as keen as I am to see it all coming together.”
The benefits of TV
It’s the final point highlighted by Thorne that should arguably give fans of the book cause for excitement when it comes to the BBC’s plans. The chance for a new medium to take a stab at adapting these cherished texts, and one which presents far greater flexibility, is just what the novels require.
An eight-part TV series will simply have far more time and space within which to fit the finer details of Pullman’s story. Long-form storytelling allows for greater world-building and characterisation, and for fans of His Dark Materials, a series that has both an elaborate setting and complex characters, this will be music to their ears.
The BBC also seems less concerned than New Line Cinema did over the more stinging themes of the books. With less consideration needed for box office sales and international audiences, the show’s creators can remain as loyal as they wish to the source material.
Naturally the TV format brings its own considerations. For example, the episodic structure will require several cliffhangers and nail-biters be factored into proceedings. However given the myriad of crucial events that exist in Pullman’s novels, this shouldn’t prove too difficult to achieve at all.
The long-awaited series has now officially started filming and while an exact air date is still unclear, fans can at least rest assured that production of this exciting new adaptation is now well and truly underway.