COSTING £50million, His Dark Materials is the most expensive drama series the BBC has ever screened.
Its complex plot is likely to be clear only to fans of the Philip Pullman novels that it is based on, and it is shrouded in religious controversy.
ROD McPHEE looks at a huge gamble for the Beeb that could be a spectacular success . . . or a real disaster.
THE often confusing and peculiar fantasy adventure takes place in a parallel universe, in a world which isn’t Earth, but looks and sounds a lot like it. Oxford and London are home to most of the action, while everyone’s souls are manifested in talking animals called daemons, which mirror their characters and follow them everywhere.
Her friend is kidnapped by an evil group called the Gobblers, and she goes to the Arctic to find him, accompanied for protection by Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear.
It is a world in which everything is shrouded in magic, so viewers who are hoping for a gritty slice of real life will be disappointed. But those hoping for some escapism will certainly find it – though they may struggle to fathom it out.
TOPPING the bill is X-Men star James McAvoy, who plays Lyra’s heroic uncle, Lord Asriel. But he wasn’t the actor the producers originally wanted for the role.
James, 40, said: “It was actually very last-minute – I happened to be chatting to the casting director, who’s a friend of mine, waxing lyrical about how much I love the books, and then they got let down by whoever else was doing it originally. So she called me and said, ‘Do you think you can start on Monday?’ That was on the Friday.”
The huge commitment
THE BBC has made the project with US TV giant HBO, which made the smash-hit fantasy drama Game Of Thrones. As well as pumping an eight-figure sum into the new drama, the collaborators have already started filming a second series before the first has even aired.
The director is Tom Hooper, who made 2010 film The King’s Speech, and the scripts come from Jack Thorne, who worked with JK Rowling adapting her Harry Potter stories for the West End stage. But even he admits transferring Pullman’s vision on to a TV screen proved difficult.
Jack said: “Philip’s been the person who has created Lyra’s story and I’m trying to be as faithful to her as he was. I’m trying to treasure the good stuff. All of it is beautiful but there are some demands of the medium that mean that sometimes you have to step away.”
It has been a huge commitment for the Beeb, with cast and crew spending months filming in and around Cardiff, even constructing a whole town in Crickhowell, Powys. But faith in a project has not always borne fruit for the corporation. In 2000 it ploughed what was then a whopping £6million into another fantasy drama, Gormenghast, which was a complete flop.
WITH a big US backer such as HBO, the success of His Dark Materials rests on it going down well on both sides of the Atlantic. But in the US, where church attendance is much higher than in Britain, the adaptation of books which appear to question conventional faiths is likely to kick up controversy.
The books are particularly scathing about Catholicism. For example, the evil organisation that runs the world in Pullman’s books is called the Magisterium, the same name as the ultimate authority in the Catholic Church.
It’s no accident either. When the Vatican was embroiled in a scandal in 2000, Pullman said: “I hope the wretched organisation will vanish entirely. So I’m looking on with a degree of dispassionate interest.”
With 1.2billion Catholics in the world – five million of them in Britain – any plans to sell the series further overseas may prove problematic if it causes a big stink on first showing.
The demanding fans
THIS series is based on the first Dark Materials novel, 1995’s Northern Lights, while the second series will be based on 1997’s The Subtle Knife. Any third series will be drawn from The Amber Spyglass, published in 2000.
That will depend on the books’ small army of devotees around the globe. The trilogy has sold 18 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages.
But His Dark Materials doesn’t inspire quite the same devoted following as other fantasy novels, such as JR Tolkein’s The Lord Of The Rings, which has spawned a string of hit movies and an upcoming TV version on Amazon Prime Video, or even JK Rowling’s Harry Potter tales.
Though fans have long wanted a TV adaptation of Pullman’s saga, they also demand that it remains faithful to his original vision.
Previous attempts to bring the books to life have failed partly because the fans have dismissed them as second rate – and if the Beeb drama is to succeed, it will need to attract an audience who are unfamiliar with the trilogy.
The previous flops
AS previous adaptations of this story have shown, even a big name is no guarantee of delivering a hit. A stellar cast was assembled for the 2007 film The Golden Compass, which was inspired by the first of the novels in the trilogy,
She said: “I’m not a huge fantasy fan. I’ve always been drawn to more psychological dramas in terms of film-making. I think that what drew me to this was that I felt the intricacies of the characters might allow for strong performances.”
That never happened. The Golden Compass bombed at the box office and was slated by critics. The finished product was overburdened with CGI and audiences were often left baffled and bored by the convoluted storyline.
In fact it was such a stinker that any hopes of a sequel were abandoned. It was a lesson that had been learned by other producers and directors, some of whom had tried and failed to adapt the books for the theatre.
The new drama may be just the latest in a long line of painful attempts to bring the novels to life on screen.
Daemon tale is wicked
By Jamie East, Sun film critic
TO say fans of the books were excited about HBO and the BBC bringing Lyra and Pantalaimon to life is a massive understatement.
But there was also trepidation, as the 2007 film adaptation fell far short of people’s expectations, shying away from much of the book’s criticism of organised religion in order to appease the American Bible Belt. No such qualms here.
People’s dæmons were a worry too – how would each human have their animal- formed soul CGI’d next to them without it looking messy? I’m delighted to say, if the first episode is anything to go by, there’s nothing to worry about – it’s really, really good.
One of the difficulties in adapting such a beloved story is how to transfer readers’ imagination on to the screen – the tone, the costumes, the faces, the locations.
The “almost-our” world has been painstakingly created to make it simultaneously old fashioned and futuristic. No expense has been spared here. The cast is also top-notch. Dafne Keen is a feisty Lyra and Ruth Wilson plays the wicked Mrs Coulter as the cesspit of moral filth she deserves – her viciousness will keep a few younger ones peering from behind their cushions.
I cannot wait to see how they’ve brought the infamous armoured polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, to life!
It’s sumptuous looking, exciting, a little bit scary – pretty much perfect winter family viewing.
- His Dark Materials starts at 8pm on Sunday on BBC1