Is His Dark Materials Unfilmable? – Episode 1

“In fantasy, world building is important to the believability of the world you are reading or watching, it is what the whole story hangs on. Tolkien managed it perfectly in The Lord of the Rings as did Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials. To adapt these books to other mediums care needs to be taken to ensure the world building is there, along with the spirit of the story.”

We all get very precious about something we love, any adaptations of loved works need to tread the line between being faithful to the source and taking account the medium they are working in. I recommend you read my recent Intermission post for an example of myself approaching a loved work with trepidation. There are many cases of this being done fantastically, The Lord of the Rings is a great example of an adaptation being done well, where as The Hobbit is an example of it being done poorly in my opinion. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings manages to tread the line between being faithful and managing to tell the story in a different way appropriate to film.

As much as the issues I raised above need to be taken into account, a film or television series needs to stand on it’s own. If you do not know the source material it needs to make sense to you, if someone needs to explain the plot to you the adaptation has failed. I try to judge an adaptation on  it’s own merit and accept that things will need to change from the source material.

To me there was always this sense that His Dark Materials was un-filmable, it is a set of books in a world that I love and as much as I wanted to see it on screen I felt it would be almost impossible. There is a 2003 adaptation for Radio with a full cast produced by the BBC, it is a masterful telling of the three original books with a talented voice cast including the likes of Terrance Stamp and Bill Paterson. It manages to condense each book into a two and half hour dramatisation, whilst retaining the sense and feeling of the books. The changes made from the source work well and don’t make fans of the book feel out of the place, while enabling those with no knowledge of the story get pulled in. My wife and I actually heard this dramatisation before we read the books, its what got us into them (I actually bought the audiobooks on CD for my wife for her birthday, she had no idea what they were and in reality I bought them for myself hoping she would like them….thankfully she loves them!).

In 2007 we had The Golden Compass, the film Directed by Chris Weitz and Produced by Deborah Forte with a Stellar cast. In an interview in 2007 Deborah Forte explained that she had been involved with the project before the books had been published as she had read the Manuscript of Northern Lights, at that time she mentioned to Philip Pullman about the idea of a film. What is interesting is that even at that time they discussed that they both thought Nicole Kidman was their ideal pick for Mrs Coulter. 10 years later for them to have their first pick was a great feat for the vision of the film. Although the character of Mrs Coulter has black hair in the novel when asked about this in an interview Philip Pullman said “I was clearly wrong. You sometimes are wrong about your characters. She’s blonde. She has to be.”


This film was not received well by some the watering down of the religious elements offended many secularist organisations, with many religious groups still calling for a boycott. In reality watering the religious themes down did nothing but offend another group and the issues did affect the box office and future sequels.

I was clearly wrong. You sometimes are wrong about your characters. She’s blonde. She has to be.

Philip Pullman on Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter

So now fast forward to now and both of us have been excitably waiting for the BBC produced series of His Dark Materials. To clarify it is not produced by HBO but by BBC studios with Newline Cinema and Bad Wolf. Bad Wolf is the producer Julie Trantor, who was responsible for some of the classic Doctor Who of the Tennant era. HBO came on-board at a later date to handle international distribution, it’s important to clarify these things because with modern programing and distribution it’s sometimes difficult to understand what company did what in the chain of production. Newline cinema were responsible for the Golden Compass so as I understand it they still held the rights, which is why they were still involved as was Deborah Forte as a producer for the BBC production.

His Dark Materials premiered here in the U.K on Sunday 27th October and from what I can see overall the reception has been positive. It’s very hard to Judge something after just three episodes but my wife and I agree if we didn’t love the source material so much we would have bailed already. There are however inklings of something good towards the back end of episode 3

In episode 2 I discuss so far my positives and negatives from the series (well the episodes I’ve seen) and why so far I believe The Golden Compass despite it’s faults is the better adaptation. There will be Spoilers for the new series and The Golden Compass in the next episode.

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