I’m someone who really loves reading and often get asked for recommendations. One book that I consistently suggest to readers is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Of course, people don’t often know a series by its name and ask “what is that?” This is usually where I lose them as I tell them the first book is called The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights if you’re in the UK, with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass rounding out the trilogy). “You mean that awful Daniel Craig movie?” is usually the reply I’d get. And yeah, that movie is pretty awful for reasons we’ll get into in a few. But just because that movie is awful, doesn’t mean you should be sleeping on this franchise, especially with BBC and HBO delivering a new adaptation of the franchise in the near future.
His Dark Materials is a trilogy of books published in the 90s for young readers. But just because it’s targeted towards young adults does not mean you should be ignoring the books. They are actually some of the more advanced books I’ve ever read in the fantasy genre. There are plenty of complex themes that run through the books, including commentary on theology, physics and philosophy. The term “His Dark Materials” stems from John Milton, with Pullman’s trilogy being seen as an inversion and commentary on Paradise Lost. The writing is also of a higher calibre, with less focus on exposition and more an assumption that the reader is following along. Those books did not hold your hand, which is actually refreshing considering fantasy books tend to over-explain their world.
His Dark Materials takes place across a multiverse. The series opens up in an alternate version of our world, set at Jordan College, a fictitious extension of Oxford University. We follow Lyra, the adoptive daughter of her mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel, and her quest to find him after he goes missing. This is a world full of magic and wonder. Each person has something called a Dæmon (pronounced “demon”), which is essentially their soul manifested into animal form. During childhood, the dæmons can change form but once puberty hits, the animals get locked into a specific form forever. Lord Asriel, an explorer, undertakes an expedition to the North Pole in search of Dust, an elementary particle that is attached to adults more than children and that is essentially Original Sin. Because of this, The Church naturally wants to destroy it and anyone trying to expose it. See what I mean about it being advanced?
Lyra’s quest sees her come in contact with witches, gypsies, armoured polar bears and bounty hunters hot on her trail. She forms a ragtag team on her quest to the North Pole to find Lord Asriel and to stop The Magisterium from completing their mission. Simultaneously, she’s keeping an eye out for her friend, who was also taken by the Church’s minions. Aiding her on her quest is a magical device known as an Alethiometer, or a Golden Compass, a rare and powerful magical device that uses Dust to answer any question with the help of predetermined symbols.
The books were extremely popular in the 90s and early 2000s so naturally, film studios wanted to capitalize on the success of the franchise. However, problems immediately arose when the film was entered pre-production at New Line Cinema. The Catholic Church hates this franchise of books due to its commentary and criticism of religion, specifically the Catholic faith. Talks of God (known as “The Authority” in the books) and any direct allusions to the Catholic Church were wiped from the film for fear of alienating audiences and seeing diminishing returns. The Magisterium, the fictional church in the novels, instead was written to represent many different faiths without actually referencing any of them. Talk about bland.
Despite the blatant censorship, the Church was still pretty vexed about the film and groups such as The Catholic League called for the films boycott, adding more fire to a film that was already in hot water, despite the impressive cast which included Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. Other religious groups denounced the film, including the Catholic Church of England and Wales and the Vatican’s own newspaper, which called the film “Godless“. The main fear was that the film would act as a gateway to the much-beloved books and more young readers would abandon their faith upon reaching such heretic slander.
Even though the studio took all precautions to not anger anyone, the film tanked as the major themes of the novel were stripped away in favour of a generic and simple approach to the story. The sequels were canned and everyone seemed to forget about the series. That is until the BBC decided to take another crack at it by announcing they would adapt the series to television. The main appeal to this adaptation of the books is that the producers don’t seem to care about the controversy around the books and the 2007 film and are instead making a series for the fans, promising that the soul of what made the books so special will remain intact.
The series boasts an impressive cast, including Logan’s Dafne Keene as Lyra, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby and Blade Runner 2049’s Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter. The King’s Speech and Les Miserables director Tom Hooper will helm all eight episodes of the series, which will premiere on BBC One and HBO internationally. The fact that the series will slow down and adapt the books over eight episodes as opposed to rushing everything in around two hours is already a promising start, with a talented cast and crew working on the show, including Dr. Who revival producer Julie Gardner and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playwriter Jack Thorne.
Fans of the books will be happy to see that a network as talented as BBC, who have produced shows like Sherlock and The Bodyguard, is tasked with bringing the world of His Dark Materials to life. There is a rich world here and if you’ve never read the series, you’re seriously missing out. Will the BBC version be good? Who knows, it may bomb and completely miss the point of the novels. But don’t let your memories of the movie stir you away from the show, especially with the talent involved in making it. With a series, we can get a much more faithful adaptation of the series that doesn’t have to censor itself to appease religious groups. I’d say keep this on your radar, whether you’ve been a fan of the books since you were a kid or if you know nothing at all about the books or the movie. The books really are some of the best reads out there and bearing that in mind, I hope that this series can do them justice.
Will you be checking out His Dark Materials when it premieres later this year? Let us know and be sure to check out our spoiler-free review of Captain Marvel and our review of Netflix’s Triple Frontier.