clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

His Dark Materials is ripe for an onscreen do-over. Enter the BBC.

3 lessons the forthcoming miniseries can learn from the failed 2007 film.

New Line
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

His Dark Materials, the celebrated fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman, is getting a second chance to do a screen adaptation right.

Deadline reports that the BBC is producing a big-budget TV miniseries adaptation of the first volume of the trilogy, The Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in the US). The BBC has certainly poured some money into the talent pool, with boldface names galore already signed on to the project, according to Deadline: Tom Hooper, of Les Misérables and The King’s Speech, will direct, Logan breakout Dafne Keen will star as Lyra, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda will take a supporting role as Lee Scoresby.

But if we learned anything from the last big-budget adaptation of His Dark Materials — 2007’s The Golden Compass, which famously flopped at the box office — it’s that pouring in money and signing major names to the cast and crew isn’t enough to ensure a successful adaptation.

So this new miniseries will be a shot at redemption for a beloved series of books that had all the tools for a successful adaptation but failed to translate that to blockbuster success. The pressure is on. Here are three lessons His Dark Materials can take away from its last adaptation attempt.

1) Good casting helps, but it’s not enough to carry a movie

One of the tragedies of the 2007 Golden Compass film’s failure is that the cast was so, so good across the board. As 11-year-old Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards was clever and charismatic without approaching precocity or insufferable smarm. Eva Green as a witch queen was a no-brainer. Daniel Craig’s pre-James Bond combination of suavity and brutality was a perfect fit for Lord Asriel — Pullman’s answer to Milton’s Satan — and Nicole Kidman’s chilly glamour played beautifully for elegant, withholding Mrs. Coulter.

(Kidman was in fact so perfect for the role, which she played in her iciest and blondest mode, that she seems to have inspired Pullman to make the previously dark-haired Mrs. Coulter blonde in his recent Golden Compass prequel.)

If there was a single false note to the casting, it would be Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear. McKellen was added to the production late, reportedly after pressure from a studio looking to make another Lord of the Rings, and his plummy voice is an odd match for gruff, martial Iorek. You can feel the human and hedonistic pleasure McKellen takes in language — it’s one of the qualities that makes him such a great classical actor — and the way he seems to taste his words as he speaks contrasts bizarrely with Iorek’s blunt matter-of-factness.

But when the worst casting in your movie is Ian McKellen, who after all is still one of the greatest actors of our time, you’re surely way ahead of the game. The Golden Compass was working with a cast of immensely talented and charismatic actors, most of them perfectly equipped to do what they were asked to do.

And yet it still fell apart. Great casting can do a lot for a movie, but it’s not enough to carry everything.

2) The central idea of the book is not an optional add-on for the film

Pullman’s His Dark Materials is explicitly anti-Christian. Lyra lives in a world in which the Christian Church is the center of political and social power. Officers of the church routinely torture and maim children, in what is a clear reference to the child sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church.

As the series goes on, Pullman makes the argument that the Christian Church and its analogues in every world are anti-knowledge, anti-body, and anti-pleasure, and that the only reasonable and moral response is to destroy them: to rip apart the church and all its teachings, to conquer the Kingdom of Heaven and to establish a Republic of Heaven in its place.

Understandably, Hollywood was skittish about making a blockbuster movie for American audiences that was so anti-church. So the 2007 Golden Compass movie waters down the theological issues considerably. Characters stop murmuring about “the church” and begin to discuss the “Magisterium” alone. (In Pullman’s books, the Magisterium is explicitly the organizing and governing body of the Christian Church, but that connection is less clear in the movie.)

Conversations about God become conversations about “the Authority.” The idea that the Christian Church specifically is harmful became the idea that centralized authority can be dangerous; the idea that theocratic dictatorships are wicked became the idea that dictatorships in general are no good at all.

Practically, these changes made very little difference to The Golden Compass’s profit margin. The Catholic League still called for a boycott, and Bill O’Reilly still declared it to be part of the “war on Christmas.” It still ended up flopping at the box office.

Aesthetically, however, the changes were disastrous. The fight for a Republic of Heaven is not incidental to His Dark Materials: it’s the whole thing of it. The talking animal friends and the witches and the armored bears are all fun, but they’re incidental to the central idea, which is about the destructiveness of the Christian Church. Once you vague up that idea, the entire story loses its direction. It becomes fuzzy, amorphous, impossible to follow.

The issue here is not whether Pullman’s theological message is especially original or interesting or valuable or true. That’s a separate question, and one on which reasonable people may disagree. The issue here is that without Pullman’s theology, the story collapses in on itself.

It’s the same issue that’s plaguing this spring’s big-screen adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, which has in many ways the exact opposite theology of His Dark Materials. Madeleine L’Engle was a devoted Christian, and her Christianity was pro-knowledge and pro-pleasure — but her theology, too, was trimmed down and chopped up in the new movie adaptation, and that movie, too, suffers as a result.

As Alissa Wilkinson wrote in her review of A Wrinkle of Time for Vox:

It undercuts the story, preserving a more vague spirituality at the expense of any particulars in a tale that’s all about particularity. One wonders while watching the film if Disney underestimates young viewers’ ability to understand that there are different religions (something that L’Engle herself was clearly interested in), many of which are interested in the matters the film addresses, and whether the better choice for someone looking to make a religiously inclusive film might have been to preserve the film’s Christianity but add influences from other systems of belief, rather than smoothing them all out into a vague swirl of “love.”

If you want the fun of the armored bears and the daemons, you’ve got to include the theological argument in all its abrasive, Richard Dawkins-y fury. It is not optional.

Here’s where the planned BBC miniseries has a huge advantage over the 2007 movie: It will have many more hours at its disposal. Theoretically, that should leave it better equipped than the movie was to go into the nuances of the books’ theology and the impact of their deeper and more brutal elements. That will be vital when it comes to the third and final lesson on our list.

3) The ending is essential

Perhaps the most infamous misstep in 2007’s Golden Compass comes from its botched ending. In Pullman’s original, the book ends with Lyra being horrifically betrayed by Lord Asriel, who cold-bloodedly murders the boy Lyra believed Asriel would help her save and uses the resulting psychic energy to open a portal into another world.

It’s a shocking and upsetting scene, and it hammers home the idea that this is a universe where adults will use the bodies and souls of children for their own theological and political ends.

Asriel, far from being the gallant hero Lyra believed he was, is as fundamentally corrupt and wicked as anyone else in her world. And when Lyra decides to walk through the portal to another world herself, without waiting for Asriel or anyone else, we realize what kind of story we were reading this whole time. It’s one in which the little girl is not there to help the big, strong man save the world, but one in which the little girl herself will do the saving.

That scene did get shot for the 2007 Golden Compass, but it never made it to the theaters. Instead, the movie ends on a shot of Lyra and her soon-to-be-murdered friend floating serenely toward Lord Asriel in a hot air balloon, secure in their mutual certainty that Asriel will fix everything. The audience is given no indication that Asriel has much bloodier and darker intentions in mind.

Reports vary as to whether the original ending was cut for time, because test audiences didn’t get it, or just to give the movie a more upbeat ending. Either way, the movie ended up with a bizarre final scene that feels anticlimactic and unresolved if you’ve never read the book, and like a downright betrayal of the premise if you have. Lyra is still depending on Lord Asriel to save her. We are presented with a world in which there are adults you can count on, and in which children don’t need to take matters into their own hands and save themselves.

It is, to say the least, less than satisfying. Pullman’s bloody, brutal ending is not exactly uplifting, but it’s the only possible way for the story that The Golden Compass/Northern Lights is telling to end.

So as the new His Dark Materials series prepares for production, we can only hope that it and its exciting boldface name cast will continue to head toward Pullman’s inevitable tragic ending — and to preserve his angry, controversial theology. Because without that, we’ll be dealing with the second failed adaptation of a beloved children’s series.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.