New BBC 'His Dark Materials' Adaptation Announces an All-Star Cast

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

The BBC is creating a new adaptation of His Dark Materials with a few familiar faces.

In the wake of the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the ongoing success of the Harry Potter film franchise, there was a rush in Hollywood during the mid-aughts to option any fantasy works they could get their hands on. One of those chosen for adaptation at the time by Warner Brothers was the Philip Pullman trilogy known as His Dark Materials, which is comprised of three novels: The Golden Compass*, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Only the first film, The Golden Compass, came out. Starring Nicole Kidman as the frighting mother figure Mrs. Coulter and the bizarrely cast Daniel Craig as a James Bondian version of an academic Lord Asriel, it was a flop.

(*In the UK, the first novel was entitled The Northern Lights, but the movie took its title from the Americanized version.)

It took several years of inactive development before the rights finally reverted back to Pullman, but in that time small screen adaptations of fantasy novels have become the new hottest thing, thanks to shows like Game of Thrones and Outlander. The BBC picked up the rights to do a series based on Pullman's trilogy in 2015, in hopes of being able to do the story more justice with a longer yet more intimate format. Their original tentative premiere date was 2017, but work on the script took longer than anticipated, due to a desire by playwright Jack Thorne to "try to tell the books as best as we possibly can." (Thorne's been a little busy too, considering he is best known for his work on the Harry Potter & The Cursed Child script.)

But, just because a show is coming to television instead of the big screen does not guarantee it hit status. First, they have to cast it properly. That's where the good news comes in.

Over the weekend, the BBC confirmed several castings for major roles. James McAvoy, most recently seen as Charles Xavier in the X-Men franchise, has been cast as Lord Asriel. There's also Clarke Peters, who is best known for his role on The Wire, but PBS fans will recognize from Death in Paradise and Midsomer Murders, playing the Master of Jordan College. And PBS fan favorite Ruth Wilson, aka Alice Morgan on Luther  and star of upcoming biographical drama Mrs. Wilson, is going to play the terrifying Mrs. Coulter. They join Dafne Keen (Logan), who plays main character Lyra, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) as adventurer Lee Scoresby. The series is being directed by Tom Hooper, who helmed Oscar winning film The King's Speech.  I believe the only appropriate reaction here is "Squee." 

Credit: Courtesy of Scholastic Corporation

Here's the synopsis, according to Deadline:

It is based on Pullman’s trilogy of books: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, a complex tale of physics, philosophy and theology featuring witches and armored polar bears. It tells the story of two children, Lyra and Will, who wander through a series of parallel universes.

So far so good right? But here's the bad news. The BBC is pouring money into this adaptation, which is expected to be one of the most expensive BBC series ever produced. Why is this bad news? It means when it comes to international distribution, BBC Worldwide will most likely not consider PBS a candidate for US first-run rights on Masterpiece. Instead, they'll be looking for the highest bidder to come forward. The deepest pockets in the industry right now outside of HBO are streaming services.

HBO, for the record, is in the middle of trying to develop their own Game of Thrones spin-off, so at least we don't have to worry about the show being scooped up by them and then relegated to Cinemax or anything. And Amazon has two super expensive series already in development, Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time, so they're not trying to add yet another fantasy series to the stable. (Probably, anyway.) That leaves Netflix and new upstart Apple TV to battle it out.

We'll continue to keep an eye on this production and where it ends up. The His Dark Materials series does not yet have a release date.