His Darker Materials

I had started out the morning writing a new short story and was two pages in, just getting my bearings, when I made a mistake no writer should ever make: I checked my email. I have railed about this to countless students over the years but here I was falling prey to the same curséd distraction responsible for myriad stalled writing ventures. Still, there was no way around it, I was hooked and too preoccupied to concentrate. The source of my excitement: the new BBC-HBO co-production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. There was a trailer and there went my morning. 

My list of favorite books gets reshuffled and added to and subtracted from all the time but every time, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy ranks near the top. And, on its own, the first book, The Golden Compass, stands in a class all by itself. Up there with the books that have changed my life: Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Milne’s The House at Pooh Corners. Heady company, indeed! Sadly, the 2007 movie version was dissatisfying, despite a great cast. Dakota Blue Richards seemed just about perfect as Lyra, the feisty central character, and Nicole Kidman was brilliant as her evil mother, Marisa Coulter. Watching the shoot, Pullman said that when Kidman came on set, the temperature dropped by ten degrees. Just what you’d want for one of the most malevolent female antagonists in all of fiction.  

Sadly, the movie fell far short of capturing the deep magic or the profound breadth of the first book in the trilogy. It was mostly filmed as middle to long shots, a directorial decision that drove Pullman mad. I’m no expert on film, but it’s pretty obvious that a lot of what a movie does to intimately connect with us is through manipulation of the psychic distance between the characters and the audience. The camera dollies out and dollies in. In an extreme close-up you become emotionally entangled with the character and what they are going through, not to mention those little bits of legerdemain one can only pick up if you’re up close and personal. The otherwise beautifully art-directed and well-acted movie of twelve years ago never connected on that level. In my memory it was shot in more daylight than was called for and fell flat, narratively, in its desperate attempt to stay PC and not ruffle the feathers of those who might not have approved the anti-religious sentiment of the story. 

Judging from the 43-second trailer, this version of the story is going to get up close and intimate and there will be dark. Good. These are dark times, after all, with truth on the ropes and intolerance on the rise. Battling the darkness means accepting that it’s there and not giving into it. And the truth at the core of His Dark Materials is a stunningly thought provoking one. It’s too rich and deep a story to bowdlerize: a long look at the nature of power and corruption. That said, it’s one of the truly great rollicking adventure stories ever written, with a remarkable central character in Lyra Belacqua, a child of sound instincts and a quick mind, caught right in the middle of a struggle for the ages. In this new version she is played by thirteen-year-old Dafne Keen who is memorable for her role as Laura, the mutant child, in Logan (2012). The director of that film, James Mangold has been quoted as saying, “If anyone could steal a movie from [Hugh Jackman] it would be Dafne Keen. There’s a quite remarkable video of Keen in an audition with Jackman. 

Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan

And in the role of the mother from hell, in the new series, is the brilliant Ruth Wilson, you may remember as the psychotic Alice Morgan in the TV series Luther– perhaps the most bizarre sidekick, a detective (Idris Elba) ever got stuck with. I say “might remember” although it seems impossible that anyone who has seen Luther will have forgotten her.

I’m not, typically, a fan-boy. Sure, I get excited at news of creations by favorite writers, composers and filmmakers, but I don’t usually drop everything and… well, write a blog when I see that a TV series is coming. I had known it was in the works and from what little I can gather, so far, it looks awfully good. Pullman deserves this. The trilogy of books, I’m sure, will last – outlast — any other medium in which it is produced and by this point in time, there has been a wonderful full-cast audiobook and a stage version produced at the National Theatre in London. It’s exciting, none the less, to think that in this burgeoning new age of extraordinary television, freed from the shackles of commercial breaks and the rating game, that a work of such imagination might just find a home on the small screen that it did not get on the big one.   

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