How HBO's His Dark Materials dives deeper into Philip Pullman's fantasy novels
Jane Tranter, the champion of HBO and BBC’s His Dark Materials, admits how “perpetually anxious” she is about what everyone thinks. As the lead executive producer who spent years getting this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s book trilogy made, the pressure is understandable.
In December 2007, director Chris Weitz adapted The Golden Compass, the first book in Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, as a feature film that didn’t connect with critics or audiences. There’s also been a British radio play version and a staged theater production. But now Tranter is attempting to reintroduce the multiverse-spanning saga to TV audiences as a serialized adventure. And there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Lyra (14-year-old Logan star Dafne Keen) lives in a world parallel to our own where clans of witches own the sky, armored polar bears dwell in the arctic north, and human souls exist outside their bodies in the form of talking animals known as daemons. This streetwise and rebellious orphan (along with her daemon, Pan, voiced by Rocketman’s Kit Connor) leaves the walls of her Jordan College home and begins a global quest to find her missing friend, the latest victim in a string of kidnappings plaguing her city.
“The most amazing thing about Lyra is that she is a modern heroine,” says Keen, already acutely aware of harmful tropes for female roles. “In films and shows, it’s usually the sexual power they have. [Lyra’s] power is her personality and her strength and her determination and her braveness. It’s just all her. It has nothing to do with her gender.”
“In our first season, every episode takes place with Lyra in a different location as she goes on her journey further and further north,” Tranter says of the series, which completes its world with a menagerie of fantastical characters, creatures, and concepts. There’s Lyra’s explorer uncle Lord Asriel (IT Chapter Two’s James McAvoy), whom she saves from an assassination plot in the premiere; the Magisterium, this world’s reigning authoritarian religious institution; Mrs. Coulter (The Affair‘s Ruth Wilson), a mesmerizing and nefarious figure who enters Lyra’s life as these events transpire; Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the Texan aeronaut aiding Lyra’s mission; and the existence of Dust, a mysterious particle that holds vast secrets to their universe.
All this is to say Tranter understands why the movie adaptation never took off. “Philip’s books are as deep as they are wide,” she explains. “They exist on many levels and they have a terrific breadth of location stories. That’s very hard for a film to capture.”
It helps having so much love for Pullman’s work between the cast and crew. Miranda—perpetually busy with any number of projects, including next summer’s In the Heights movie—considers this show his “vacation.” McAvoy, “a humongous fan” of the books, says he feels “more protective over Asriel than any other role” he’s played. Wilson didn’t come into this world knowing her “alethiometer” from her “spy-fly,” but she wanted to “create something new” with her next role, and “there’s so much mystery” to Mrs. Coulter. “You’re always confused by what her motives are and who she really is,” she says.
It’s this passion, channeled by Tranter, that ultimately sold HBO and the BBC in 2018 on granting an initial 16-episode order: eight for season 1 to tackle The Golden Compass and eight for season 2 (already in production) for the parallel-world plots of The Subtle Knife, the second book. The idea is to produce a third season for the trilogy’s capper, The Amber Spyglass, next.
The serialized format also grants leeway to expand on Pullman’s saga. Part of that has to do with Keen. Given her age, the teen star can work only so much per day. So, the producers have found other threads to follow.
For one, McAvoy teases he “might have a minute of extra material that comes from The Book of Dust,” Pullman’s new book trilogy that begins before the events in The Golden Compass. For another, Wilson worked with writer Jack Thorne to dive deeper into Mrs. Coulter. “Why was she able to separate from her daemon? How does she do that? What does she really believe in? What does she really want?” Wilson asks. “Philip Pullman has given us license to dig more into her and to examine why she is who she is and why she does the awful things she does.”
At a time when viewers are on the hunt for the next Game of Thrones, Tranter admits His Dark Materials owes a lot to the HBO ratings juggernaut. It set the tone for an age of “heavily realized serialized pieces of television,” and now she’s able to have the budget she needs to give this universe life on screen. That includes its inhabitants, like Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg), one of those giant polar bears Lyra meets along her travels. “Originally the biggest challenge for me on set was working with Iorek, but then I got used to that,” Keen recalls. “Those scenes are quite hard because you’re not talking to anyone. It’s an object you have to look at. It’s weird, it’s strange, but it’s really fun to do.”
At the same time, Tranter’s show is very different from Thrones. “I can say that I am very, very, very glad I’m making His Dark Materials and not an adult, X-rated, male-orientated piece of fantasy,” she says. “Philip Pullman always said His Dark Materials is a series of adult novels that children could and should read. And we tried to place our television adaptation in exactly that place.”
His Dark Materials premieres on HBO Nov. 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.