Lyra’s World: Adapting His Dark Materials

This article was co-written by Gracie Beswick

Philip Pullman’s epic fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials was a huge sensation following its publication. Following twelve-year-old Lyra and her daemon Pan through her journey between the many parallel worlds and her subsequent coming of age, the books tackle big concepts of theology, philosophy and physics within a high fantasy framework. While seemingly a natural choice for adaptation, with a story that encompasses such breadth, reworking it to make it commercially viable was always going to be a challenge. The first screen adaption, The Golden Compass, was successful at the box office but poorly received critically, with most stating that it was unable to capture the rich and complex world of the books. Less than ten years later, the BBC commissioned the television series His Dark Materials (hereafter referred to as His Dark Materials(TV)) which was first released in 2019 and has just completed its second season. The two adaptations took very different approaches to Lyra’s story but neither have managed to capture what makes the original books so popular.  

Inspired by the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which proved that epic, special effects driven fantasy could be extremely profitable, New Line Cinema looked to adapting His Dark Materials for its next big hit. The Golden Compass, an adaptation of the first book in the series, Northern Lights, was released in 2007 to a media landscape where Harry Potter films dominated. Films like Bridge to TerabithiaChronicles of Narnia, and Eragon all tried to recapture the fans and box office success of Harry Potter with their family orientated, special effect laden fantasy films adapted from successful children’s literature.

The Golden Compass’ attempt to ride this trend is obvious in its constructionThe film is incredibly fast paced, with an emphasis of getting through as much of the plot as quickly as possible, celebrating CGI spectacle over character or theme. There is little time for Lyra, and by extension the audience, to reflect or breathe, nor to consider the wider thematic or political implications of the text. The film ends happily, cutting out the bittersweet ending of Northern Lights. It is a film for all the family, and which, according to the studio, did not allow time to feel sad and meant absolutely no references to Christian theology. 

His Dark Materials is extremely critical of organised religion, particularly Catholicism and is therefore notoriously controversial. Pullman’s books were widely boycotted and banned from many religious schools.Throughout production, the studio was afraid of the potential backlash from Christian audiences and fought with the director Chris Weitz to try and remove direct references to Christian theology. In an interview from 2007, Weitz stated that Hollywood was “just terrified that anything that brings up religion or anything controversial [would] be disastrous”. Despite scrubbing all references to Christian theology from the film, Catholic organisations called for boycotts, stating fears that the film would encourage children to read the books. 

It took only eight years after The Golden Compass failed to create a successful blockbuster franchise for Hollywood to try again to bring His Dark Materials to the screen. However, the media landscape had changed drastically since 2007. It was the rise of prestige television, rather than Lord of the Rings, that influenced the commissioning and development of the television adaptation. In a 2015 press release announcing the BBC’s commission of His Dark Materials(TV), Pullman stated that “in recent years we’ve seen the way that long stories on television, whether adaptations (Game Of Thrones) or original (The Sopranos, The Wire), can reach depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel.”. 

The implication seemed that it was time to do the series ‘right’, and offer a serious, mature adaption of the books. With inspiration from gritty, adult television such as Game of Thrones and The Wire, (the production was even a co-production between BBC and HBO) it was clear that His Dark Materials(TV) would try to be far more sophisticated than the family friendly and child orientated fantasy of The Golden Compass. If the film was too afraid of tackling the adult themes and complex politics of the books, the television show would be brave enough to deliver. 

The first series of His Dark Materials(TV) deviates from its source material Northern Lights by expanding beyond Lyra’s (Dafne Keen) point of view and incorporating storylines from the latter two books in the series, as well as from Pullman’s other work The Book of Dust. Throughout, the audience is privy to the internal machinations and politics of the Magisterium, made aware of the nature of Dust and the possibility of multiple worlds whereas Lyra is largely oblivious. Her screen time is diminished to expand the characters of her antagonists, Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). By taking the focus away from Lyra’s journey from childhood to adolescence, and focusing on the wider politics of the Magisterium, she is no longer the protagonist of her own story. His Dark Materials appears frightened that without politics, and adults talking about serious things, Lyra’s coming of age would be insufficient to hold audiences’ attention.

On the other hand, The Golden Compass’ places greater emphasis on Lyra and her journey than His Dark Materials(TV), but at a cost to her emotional journey. Lyra in The Golden Compass is played by Dakota Blue Richards, an unknown eleven-year-old selected following an open audition. The Golden Compass’ Lyra is rebellious and scrappy. She is introduced fighting with other children, teasing the scholars and telling lies, closely resembling Lyra as she appears at the beginning of Northern Lights. The film is predominantly from Lyra’s perspective, thereby limiting how much of the politics of the wider world needs to be included and avoiding potential controversies that could arise from the depiction of the Magisterium.

However, by cutting out so much of the other storylines from the books, there is no respite from the constant action. Lyra jumps from crisis to crisis with no time to process or reflect on what has happened. For example, Lyra finds her childhood friend , kitchen boy Roger Parslow (Ben Walker), mutilated and severed from his Daemon and is almost instantly kidnapped and taken to the bear king Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen), combining two disparate storylines to cover the huge plot. Lyra has no time to process her emotions and the audience never gets to learn more about her than a surface level understanding. 

A challenge of adapting Lyra as a character is the importance placed on her age. Dafne Keene was fourteen years old at the time of filming His Dark Materials(TV), and Lyra is aged up from twelve in the books. Filming with rapidly aging children is notoriously difficult at the best of times but even more so when much of the plot rides on the characters being at a particular stage of development. The moment Lyra ‘grows up’ and her Daemon settles is the climax of the entire series. 

Neither adaptations can quite pull off Lyra the way she is presented in the books. Both young actors do brilliant performances with what they are given but neither are able to capture Lyra’s transition from a scrappy, feral child to an introspective and passionate adolescent from the books. Lyra in The Golden Compass only portrays her younger and most innocent stage while Lyra in His Dark Materials(TV) is far more mature. Neither adaptation seems to understand why it is so important that Lyra is in a transitional stage. 

The adolescent female body is not often welcome in fantasy worlds and growing up often strips girls of their magic abilities and forces them to return permanently to their own world. Wendy in Peter Pan choses to grow up, and consequently forgets how to fly, Susan is no longer welcome in Narnia after she develops an interest in makeup and parties. In literature, girls are punished for growing up, recalling the biblical story of Adam and Eve, where Eve eats the apple and is cast out of the garden of Eden. 

However, Lyra is different. Pullman explicitly wrote His Dark Materials as a rewrite of the story of Adam and Eve, casting Lyra as Eve and the eating of the apple of knowledge not as a dangerous and punishable act, but as something to be celebrated. In His Dark Materials Lyra’s adolescence gives her advantages rather than taking them away. It is her state of in-between that enables her to intuitively read the alethiometer and her budding sexuality is treated as natural human development rather than a loss of innocence. His Dark Materials is significant because it chooses to depict growing up as something powerful and beautiful, rather than as something shameful. 

It took His Dark Materials(TV) its first series to find its feet but the second series, adapting The Subtle Knife, appears more confident and comfortable now the source material has shifted from a child-friendly adventure to a world-crossing philosophical epic. The Subtle Knife makes explicit many concepts and themes that were only hinted at in Northern Lights, and the television show seems to relish the opportunity to tackle these mature themes. However, in the books the epic plots and deep philosophical and theological questions are secondary to the relatively lower-stakes story of Lyra finding joy in growing up. If His Dark Materials(TV) continues to de-centre Lyra’s emotional journey how will it successfully adapt the final instalmentThe Amber Spyglass, where the true climax is not the epic battle between Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and his forces and the Magisterium but two children finding love in a quiet forest? 

If The Golden Compass was too childish and apolitical, His Dark Materials(TV) swung too far the other way, uncomfortable with appearing anything other than serious and mature. One of the challenges in adapting His Dark Materials is determining who the target audience is. The Golden Compass was billed as a family film, but the television series is clearly aiming to appeal to an older audience. Like Lyra, the books are liminal, appealing to children and adults, which neither the television show nor the film are able to capture or understand. 

Header image courtesy of Bad Wolf Production