We Deserve a Great Adaptation of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' Trilogy, and Maybe HBO and the BBC Will Give it to Us?
“What’s going to be HBO’s next Game of Thrones?” is a question that seems to get tossed around a lot in pop culture conversation. Westworld had a mega-budget to rival Game of Thrones, but second season viewership plateaued a bit, and I often think The Good Place does a better job investigating philosophy and the nature of human existence and self-actualization than the increasingly convoluted Westworld. George R. R. Martin’s novels were being combed through for spinoff series options, and we’ve definitively learned that there will be one prequel series that will air in 2020; Pajiba alum Joanna Robinson broke down what to expect over at Vanity Fair. (FINISH THE DAMN BOOKS, GEORGE.) But what I’m most excited for is the announcement yesterday over at Vulture that HBO is getting into the Philip Pullman business, co-producing the British author’s His Dark Materials adaptation alongside the BBC.
THIS IS THE. BEST. NEWS. Because Pullman’s trilogy is f—king delightful, a menagerie of parallel worlds, exquisitely rendered fantastic elements (witches, armored polar bears, and external representations of souls called dæmons that can shape-shift into various animals until you reach puberty), and a pointed criticism of organized religion, culminating in a conclusion that sees beings of dozens of worlds facing off against the oppressive nature of the Church. Pullman’s original trilogy consisted of the novels The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, and then spawned the companion novellas Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, and he returned to that universe with the 2017 novel The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, which is the beginning of a separate trilogy.
Fortunately, it seems like HBO and the BBC are going all-in: As the Vulture piece states, Tom Hooper (of The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl, and LOL Cats) is directing the first few episodes, Jack Thorne (who wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and also adapted a stage version of the vampire story Let the Right One In) is adapting the novels for the screen, and the cast includes Dafne Keen (FROM LOGAN!!!) as Lyra, which is perfect fucking casting, as well as Ruth Wilson as the duplicitous Marisa Coulter, James McAvoy as the intimidating Lord Asriel, Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon!) as Dr. Carne, the Master of Jordan College who raises Lyra, Ariyon Bakare is the villainous Lord Boreal, and LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA as aeronaut Lee Scoresby.
If you are a true Pullman fan, perhaps you recall the last failed attempt to adapt his work: the 2007 feature film version of The Golden Compass, which whewww boy, was a disappointment. On paper, this thing seemed great: Directed and written by Chris Weitz, who has gone on to Disney’s live-action Cinderella and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, cinematography from Henry Braham, who has since worked on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and the upcoming Maleficent II, and a cast that included Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. The film adapted (read: made some major changes to) the plot of the first book, in which the orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), who has grown up in Jordan College, Oxford, is swept up with her dæmon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore) into an uprising against the Church, who are waging deadly experiments on children in the pursuit of religious purity.
The film felt … off. Strangely listless; too bogged down in CGI that didn’t really merge the novel’s fantastical and steampunk elements very well; and lacking danger and righteous anger against the Church, both which made Pullman’s book so impossible to put down.
Nevertheless, there are some elements that Weitz got right in his adaptation, and I think it will be hard as hell to top them, no matter what the BBC and HBO do. Now that The Golden Compass is on Netflix (added Aug. 1), you can watch the movie and see for yourself. These are the components of the film that I think were done right the first time around — and I’m curious how this series will compare.
WITCH QUEEN SERAFINA PEKKALA, AS PLAYED BY EVA GREEN
Look, it’s Eva Green, OK?
She’s basically perfect in everything, from underrated stuff like Penny Dreadful to crap like that 300 sequel, and she has that sort of mysterious edge that works quite well when she’s playing uncanny characters, and the witches in Pullman’s work are hella uncanny.
They don’t feel the weather, they live for centuries, they don’t age, they can make themselves invisible, they cast spells, they fly, and while the human characters have to keep their dæmon souls closeby, witches can separate from those beings. Serafina Pekkala is a witch queen who forms a bond with Lyra, pledging to protect her, and her whole aura syncs up perfectly with Green’s energy as an actress.
I’m not sure how you top this casting, and if you check out the IMDb cast page for the show, it doesn’t look like the actress has been announced yet. That one’s going to take a lot of rounds of auditions, I think. Unless … Gemma Chan? Maybe? Or Golshifteh Farahani?
TEXAN SHARPSHOOTER LEE SCORESBY, AS PLAYED BY SAM ELLIOTT
I recently sobbed my way through the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version of A Star is Born, and allow me to exclusively tell you duh, Sam Elliott is great in it, because he’s great in everything, and hearing his gravelly voice makes something in my heart automatically hurt. I don’t know what it is! But I love this man and his damn mustache, and he was the exact right choice to play Texan sharpshooter Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut (yes! he has a huge hot air balloon!) who fought alongside the armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen!) and who befriends Lyra, eventually considering her like a daughter.
There’s this moment later in the series in The Subtle Knife when Lee is faced with a memory from his childhood — a turquoise ring that his mother used to wear — and the emotional significance of that scene in Pullman’s second novel is staggering and gut-wrenching. I wish we could have seen Elliott play that moment because he nailed the vibe of the character so well, and I’m honestly surprised it will be Miranda stepping into these shoes.
Um, was Garrett Hedlund not available? One of my husbands?
He DOES have an effectively deep voice, and by that I mean, I’m into it sexually.
I must admit that I think the panserbjørn were only kind of right; I can’t endorse them as fully as I do Green or Elliott.
But I think the panserbjørn are a tricky thing to present anyway: In Pullman’s novels, the armored bears are their own enclosed community, a kingdom of bears living in the Arctic on an island named Svalbard who created their own souls, their armor, from Sky-iron. They are presented as savage and wise and ruthless, and I think in some ways, the movies captured how they should look — the intricacy of the armor, their ferociousness.
But I also think the CGI at the time wasn’t up to rendering their complex emotions, especially the bond between exiled noble Iorek and Lyra, and the film rearranges some key moments in the end of the book that then lack impact when presented onscreen. There is so much potential with the armored bears, but it will take some finesse to really convey their majesty and violence.
I guess we’ll see how this all shakes out when the show premieres; I’m hoping 2019? HBO will distribute outside the United Kingdom, and Deadline reports that a second season of the show has already been ordered by BBC. Each season will be eight episodes.
Have you read Pullman’s novels? Are you pumped? Apprehensive? Curious about the possibility of Sam Elliott and Lin-Manuel Miranda playing the same characters? Meet me in the comments.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube, IMDb, IMDb, IMDb