The film version flopped. How a harrowing flight revived ‘His Dark Materials’ for TV

From left, "His Dark Materials" stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson at the Beverly Hilton.
Stars of HBO’s “His Dark Materials” Lin-Manuel Miranda, left, Dafne Keen, center, and Ruth Wilson at the Beverly Hilton.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

One day about five years ago, Jane Tranter was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. The plane suddenly began to lose altitude and the pilots prepared to make an emergency landing in Chicago.

“There was this terrible silence,” Tranter recalled recently. “I was so frightened I couldn’t even bring myself to take out photographs of the children to look at or finish the emails I was writing.”

The only thing she could think of doing to comfort herself was to pull out her Kindle and read the end of “The Amber Spyglass,” the final novel in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” bestselling fantasy trilogy.

“The books are so spiritual and they have got so much to say about our human mortality and what death means and separation. It took me to another world,” said Tranter.

Once she was safely back on the ground, Tranter made a mental note: find out what was going on with the rights to Pullman’s books. A planned film trilogy was scrapped after the disappointing domestic performance of “The Golden Compass,” which was based on the first book in the series and released by New Line Cinema in 2007.


Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) shares a moment with her spirit animal, Pan (Kit Connor), in HBO's adaptation of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials."

The $180-million movie, starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Chris Weitz, managed to alienate Pullman’s fans by watering down the iconoclastic source material, which follows a preteen girl named Lyra Belacqua as she battles a tyrannical ruling body known as the Magisterium, which is opposed to free inquiry. But “The Golden Compass” also provoked anger from Catholics and religious conservatives by supposedly using the guise of a family-friendly fantasy film — complete with talking animals — to sell children on atheism.

After her fateful emergency landing, Tranter approached executives at New Line about the rights to the books, convincing them that the small screen would provide an ideal home for Pullman’s intricate fantasy. (“‘Game of Thrones’ really did that job for me,” said the executive producer.)

This week, HBO is attempting a do-over of sorts with “His Dark Materials,” a series co-produced with the BBC and starring Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda and James McAvoy. Adapted by “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” playwright Jack Thorne, the eight-episode first season is based on Pullman’s first novel, published in the U.S. as “The Golden Compass.” (Production on the second season, primarily based on “The Subtle Knife,” the second book in the trilogy, is already underway. Should the TV series be renewed, a third season will follow the events of “The Amber Spyglass.”)

Pullman, who is considered one of England’s most prominent atheists, is on board as an executive producer and the project is, by all accounts, more faithful to its source material. Reviews have been positive and ratings in the U.K., where the series premiered Sunday, were strong.

Yet “His Dark Materials” has invited virtually none of the controversy of the 2007 film, which was the target of a boycott campaign by the Catholic League, an advocacy group, and was denounced as “cold and inhumane” in an editorial in the Vatican newspaper.

The 2007 film "The Golden Compass" came under fire from the Catholic League and the Vatican for being antireligious.
(Laurie Sparham / New Line Cinema)

According to the cast and creative team of the HBO series, it’s a mistake to view “His Dark Materials” as simply an attack on the church — or organized religion more broadly.

During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Keen, the 14-year-old actress who plays Lyra, likened the Magisterium not to the Catholic Church, but to Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.” “It’s the same criticism of oppression,” she said.

Wilson sees it as the conflict of “small ideas versus massive, grand ideas. Oppression is limiting the imagination, limiting beliefs and thoughts and ideas.”

“Sometimes that oppressive force is religions, sometimes it’s government,” added Miranda. “It’s about institutions, and the history of the world is the history of institutions instituting morality to suppress free will and free will fighting back. And that’s very much bound up in the destiny of Lyra, this lonely girl on her journey.”

The 2007 film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” flopped. HBO’s carefully crafted, often terrifying “His Dark Materials” revives it.

Miranda plays aeronaut Lee Scoresby — a character he likens to “a mix between Han Solo, Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon,’ and Bugs Bunny.” The actor-composer-playwright calls himself a “superfan” of the books, which he and his wife read together in their 20s. “People talk about the songs they were listening to when they were dating. These are the books we were reading when we were dating.” (The ending of the third book in the series, “The Amber Spyglass,” inspired a song in his first musical, “In the Heights.”)

By contrast, Wilson had not read Pullman’s books before signing onto the project. But she was intrigued by her character, the glamorous villain Mrs. Coulter. “She’s described as the mother of all evil or the cesspit of moral filth, so that interested me,” said the actress.

The actors were less concerned with the controversial themes in Pullman’s books than with the mechanics of starring opposite an animated “daemon” — the animal accompanying the humans in “His Dark Materials” and representing the manifestation of their soul.

“It adds this weird 3-D chess to our performances,” said Miranda, whose daemon is a scrappy arctic hare.

Tranter suggests the controversy over “The Golden Compass” — released at a time when “The Passion of The Christ” and “The DaVinci Code” had ignited debate about Hollywood’s handling of religious subject matter — was rooted in a misreading of Pullman’s work.

“What is unquestionable and unequivocal is that Pullman, through ‘His Dark Materials,’ takes a big swipe at oppressive regimes,” she said by phone from Cardiff, Wales, where her production company, Bad Wolf, is based. “He is completely anti any form of authority that will not allow itself to be questioned and will not open itself up to any form of transparency or accountability.”

The Magisterium bears some obvious similarities to the Catholic Church — leaders are known as “cardinals” and wear priestly garments — but “it doesn’t just stand for the church,” Tranter continued. “Anyone who’s read the books will know that Philip has a much bigger mind than that — ‘this in our fantasy world equals this in the real world.’”

Dafne Keen
Dafne Keen plays heroine Lyra Belacqua in the HBO series “His Dark Materials.”
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“Whilst I’m not saying there are all sorts of things about ‘His Dark Materials’ that are not controversial, I do not think that there should be any controversy around thinking Philip was really writing around one particular aspect of the church, because he wasn’t,” Tranter said. “It’s so much more than that.”

Tranter sees irony in the controversy that surrounded “The Golden Compass.”

“I think it would have made Phillip laugh. The very act of saying, ‘Look what the books are doing’ is sort of an act of the Magisterium itself,” she said. “What was good, in a way, was that the controversy provoked an awful lot of discussion and maybe it led to a greater understanding of what he had actually written.”

Pullman was also involved in the series adaptation as an executive producer — reading scripts, signing off on key design elements and generally making himself available to answer questions about the world he’d created, if not physically on set.

Though he calls himself “a big fantasy nerd” (his son is named Elliott, after the character in “E.T.”), Thorne, months away from the opening of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” in London’s West End, at first “didn’t want to go near another beautiful fantasy world. But I thought about it and I just love those books so much and I said, ‘Yes, please.’”

Thorne, whose TV credits in the U.K. include “Skins” and “Shameless,” says he didn’t have the church — or organized religion in general — in mind as he adapted the books, beginning in late 2015.

“I don’t live in an age where I’m frightened of the church. But I am petrified of the way that Trump and [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson are behaving. So when I was sitting in my room writing, those are the characters that loomed largest in my head. And I am really, really frightened about how we treat the vulnerable in this world. We are living in an age where those people are just dismissed and that thing of ‘truth doesn’t matter’ is terrifying.”

Thorne adds that no one involved in the project felt they had to soft-pedal or dilute Pullman’s work. “We are backed by HBO and the BBC. They are brave broadcasters. They are not interested in half-telling something. We always set out to be true to what Philip did and that’s what we have tried to write,” he said.

Tranter and Thorne have also discussed parallels between Lyra and 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg — who is, as Tranter puts it, “a child doing what she does because she believes it’s the right thing to do no matter how many people booming above her head or trying to make political capital out of what she’s doing.”