For anglophiles of most stripes, the title His Dark Materials will be a familiar one. The first book in the Philip Pullman trilogy, The Northern Lights, was released in the U.K. in 1995. It was then retitled The Golden Compass for American audiences before arriving over here, not unlike the opening Harry Potter book was two years later. Harry Potter is a good comparison to bring up when speaking about these books, as is the A Song of Ice & Fire series that Game of Thrones was based on. All three arrived within two years of each other. Northern Lights published in July of '95, the first ASoI&F novel, A Game of Thrones, in August of '96, and Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone in June of '97. Of the three, only the latter two have caught on in America. But in the U.K., all three series are wildly popular, with His Dark Materials considered the gold standard for modern coming-of-age fantasy.
His Dark Materials hasn't broken big in the U.S. because the first adaptation, the big-screen The Golden Compass, was a flop. Unlike his compatriots in fantasy, Pullman's novels are critical of religious organizations, especially those who would suppress science and knowledge. Producers flinched at releasing something like that in Evangelical America. Now, the BBC and HBO have teamed up to bring a small-screen adaptation to the prestige TV landscape starting in the fall of 2019.
HBO brought the cast of the new series to San Diego Comic-Con last weekend. Actress Ruth Wilson, a PBS favorite, talked about why she was thrilled to be part of the series. Wilson plays the beautiful-but-evil Mrs. Coulter, who becomes a mother figure to the orphaned Lyra (Daphne Keen) after her Uncle Asriel (James McAvoy) takes off for the Arctic.
Wilson said she'd heard of the books when the offer first came in, but knew nothing about the character. "When my agent phoned me up and said 'They want to offer you Mrs. Coulter...' I said 'Who?'" Wilson admitted. "And it was like 'C'mon; she's only the most iconic character in all of kid's fiction.'"
I started reading the books and the description of her, and it says 'She's the cesspit of moral filth and the Mother of All Evil.' And I was like, okay, well I have to play this role. I can't turn this down. And it's really fun to play "bad characters," but what I find so fascinating with her is she's so comp[licated and she's unknowable. She's frightening for that reason, but what we've done and Philip Pullman gave us license to dig a bit deeper into her, sort of see her on her own, with her monkey, to see who she is without Lyra, and why she might do the things she does.
Speaking of the monkey, this is a series set on an alternative Earth, one of the many multiverses, if you will. This Earth is a lot like the one we know today. They have different words for modern discoveries, and things like "electricity" because they were discovered slightly differently there than here. There's just one difference: Every person's soul lives outside the body.
So, all the same except this one huge difference. No one has ever debated whether or not people have souls. Everyone can see them. These souls, called "daemons" are right there, hanging out, looking at you, or most times looking at your soul, sitting next to you. As a child, these souls shapeshift as needed, but as a person reaches puberty and their personality settles, so does one's daemon into their final form. In the case of Wilson's Mrs. Coulter, her daemon is a beautiful golden monkey, who silently watches from her shoulder. But give that monkey an inch, and your daemon will be under him howling for mercy and screaming in pain.
The confirmation of humans having souls has been a boon for religion, who grabbed onto power sometime back a few thousand years ago and never let go. It's this totalitarian church that runs the entire world, which has been His Dark Materials' Achilles heel. You think people got upset over Harry Potter and a little bit of hocus pocus bibbity bobbity boo? Though the novels never call this world's church Catholic, they don't have to. People ready to see offense have quickly picked up on the parallels.
The show's producer, Jane Tranter, promises this adaptation of His Dark Materials won't shy away from this fact. Writer Jack Thorne (who wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) says he gave himself a Ph.D. in the world of the novels to get the adaptation right. But Tranter wanted to make clear that the show is not aiming at a specific religion.
Philip Pullman, in these books, is not attacking belief. He’s not attacking faith. He’s not attacking religion, or the church per se. He’s attacking a particular form of control—where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark, and not allow ideas and thinking to be free. And at times that can be personified by an autocratic kind of form of government or church or whatever it is, and in His Dark Materials, it’s personified by the Magisterium. But it doesn’t equate to any particular church or form of religion in our world. So we should be clear on that.
His Dark Materials does not yet have a release date but is slated for Autumn of 2019 on HBO.