Like any YA-novel heroine worth the name, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has repeatedly been tasked with filling the shoes of bigger heroes in order to save the world – scratch that: worlds – from peril. First came the world of bookselling, as Pullman’s novels were used to fill the lulls between releases of the Harry Potter books and, eventually, help bookstores in their attempts to stave off Amazon.com, which entered the book-selling business the same week The Golden Compass was published in July 1995. Then came the world of film, when New Line was looking for its next big hit after The Lord of the Rings wrapped in 2003, and so gave The Golden Compass the biggest budget in its history (which was still ~70 million less than what Amazon later paid for just the rights to LOTR’s backstory). Finally, in 2019, began the finale of this trilogy: the Great Streaming Wars. HBO, in trying to ward off spectres like Amazon, partnered with the BBC to adapt Pullman for TV, part of its search for new materials to follow up Game of Thrones.
Matching the success of the Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings films, and Game of Thrones show would have been daunting enough even if His Dark Materials was a comparable product. But, although perhaps equivalent in terms of quality, it does not possess the immense quantity of those other series. The full His Dark Materials series clocks in at 390,000 words, compared to more than half a million for Lord of the Rings, over a million for Harry Potter, and soon-to-be two million for Thrones. Pullman’s first two books combined are shorter than the shortest of George RR Martin’s – the book off of which GOT’s Season 1 was based. In trying to create a similar hit, HBO had to stretch the material in His Dark Materials dangerously, even hobbitishly thin:
Pullman’s brevity might have actually been an advantage in terms of making a film adaptation without having to cut key scenes or characters, as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies and later seasons of Game of Thrones all had to do. The Golden Compass movie, however, was forced to carry out this same type of cinematic intercision anyway, only for completely different reasons.
Fearing that advocacy groups like the Catholic League, and also the Vatican, would suppress the film’s ticket sales, New Line decided to cut any scenes that might broadly offend the Catholic Church. This was way back in the 2000s, a time when even the inoffensive and pro-Christian Harry Potter was still criticized from certain religious corners as being too pro-witchcraft, Baruch and Balthamos couldn’t yet have legally married even in Los Angeles, and New Line itself had just produced a prequel of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ the year before releasing Compass. So, it was no surprise that there would be serious pushback against a series of children’s books in which (spoiler alert) sexual awakening between young teenagers is the fruit of original sin and can save the world, and the heroine of the entire story is, in effect, the antichrist.
But New Line’s decision meant bungling the adaptation, despite an excellent casting job that included Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot, and Derek Jacobi. The movie was forced to remove the entirety of the book’s final chapters, including the book’s devastating climax which mingles and twists a number of Genesis myths (the tempting of Eve, binding of Isaac, and ladder of Jacob). The result was akin to ending Empire Strikes Back before the Luke, I am Your Father scene.
An essay in The Atlantic in 2007, How Hollywood Saved God, describes how this came to pass:
…[Director Chris] Weitz told me he tried to keep in a line where Asriel says, “Dust is sin,” but “that didn’t make it. What can I say?” Hollywood “is just terrified that anything that brings up religion or anything controversial will be disastrous.” But after three years of working on the movie, he’d come up with a solid explanation for why he’s not selling out: In the ’80s and ’90s, Hollywood was “scornful in a very intellectually unsound way about religion. Any priest or nun was a dogmatic idiot. So I think there’s something valid in the way the Christian community has responded.” There will be some religious imagery in the movie, Weitz said, but it will be blended so unobtrusively into the production design that it will take a “DVD player and working knowledge of Latin to decipher the symbols.”
That was then. Thirteen impressively sacrilegious years later, the idea that entertainment should have to bend the knee to the likes of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League seems quaint. And so, HBO, in partnership with the BBC, had the chance to adapt things faithfully – that is, without faith getting in the way – this time. Yet the pressure to replicate Game of Thrones’ success may have been too strong, forcing producers towards the opposite extreme instead. Whereas the 2007 adaptation had a runtime of 1 hr 45 minutes, for a book that probably needed 2 or 3 hours to do justice to – maybe 4, at a stretch – the 2019 version expanded the story into 7 and a half hours of TV.
The result of this was a too-drawn-out storytelling pace, and so much new material being written for side characters that Lyra, whose point of view dominates the book, is off-screen for much of the show. The show also had to move key parts of the story forward from the second book into the first season, and then from the third book to the second, in the process diluting the power of both books’ revelatory final chapters. (This book-shuffling also spoiled perhaps the best minor twist in the books, but in that case there was the silver lining of getting to watch more of Ariyon Bakare). The need to fill the extended runtime also led to quite a lot of thematic exposition, with characters discussing philosophical aspects of the narrative which might otherwise have unfolded gradually. All of this undermined what, in the books, is one of the series’ most coveted qualities: subtlety.
There is another even deeper danger lurking, which could be glimpsed in the very first scene of Materials’ first season: spinoff creep. Rather than begin with the books’ iconic decanter of tokay opening scene, the show instead starts with events pulled from Pullman’s The Book of Dust, the prequel/sequel trilogy Pullman began publishing in 2017 and is currently still writing the finale of. Obviously — as can also be seen in HBO’s move to set a handful of new shows in Westeros — there is pressure on producers to engage in extended world-building in order to compete with the megadeals that have landed Amazon Middle Earth, Netflix Narnia, and Disney galaxies near and far.
(As an example of just how crowded this competition is, His Dark Materials was not even the only beloved ‘90s fantasy book with the antichrist as its hero to debut on streaming services in 2019. There was also Amazon Studio’s adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens. Like Materials, it too was co-produced with the BBC and featured a star-studded cast. It too may return for a second and third season, despite having been adapted from a single book).
In the end, the attempts to adapt and market Pullman’s fantasy series may serve to illustrate how, like a teenager’s daemon, the more things change the more they stay the same. Books become movies, which later beget television shows. Standalones become trilogies and then grow into cinematic multiverses. Popes and Catholic Leagues wax and wane; Hollywood’s religious mores can swing like the needle of a compass. But throughout all of these transformations, film and television studios can always be relied upon to try to duplicate their past hits. They worship a different God, and fear different devils, than the ones who will do battle at the end of His Dark Materials.