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‘His Dark Materials’ Takes Aim at Themes of Control, Not Religion, According to Producers

Is this big idea YA fantasy adaptation the next "Game of Thrones"? Producers have one big advantage at the outset.

"His Dark Materials"

“His Dark Materials” Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

There was an atmosphere of cautious reverence throughout the Television Critics Association press tour for HBO’s upcoming fantasy adaptation “His Dark Materials,” in large part due to executive producers Jane Tranter and Jack Thorne.

Reverence, for the author of the young adult series Philip Pullman, and cautious, because the messaging throughout the books’ narrative that any institution worth reverence is also worthy of suspicion.

Specifically, both the books and the 2007 film adaptation they spawned sparked intense backlash in the United Kingdom from those who perceived Pullman’s work functioning as a wholesale attack on organized religion.

“We’re adapting the books across the broad expense of television, [and] one of the things that can happen when you adapt a book for film is the that you have to cut down the middle for the story,” Tranter explained, digging into why the books lend themselves more naturally to a TV adaptation.

“The religious controversy that was around the film was not relevant to the books themselves,” she continued, adding that what Pullman was interested in exploring in his novels is about the suppression, control, and falsification of information. Despite the first book in the series – “The Golden Compass” – being published in 1995, Pullman’s themes remain more timely than ever.

Tranter’s words echoed her similar comments made last week at San Diego Comic-Con where she again defended Pullman’s intentions in the series.

“One of the great things about ‘His Dark Materials’ is the conversations about religion. Philip Pullman in these books is not attacking belief, he’s not attacking faith, he’s not attacking the Church per se, he’s attacking control. And the idea that control can be twisted and used to [oppress people]. At any time it can be personified by an authoritarian church or organization, and in our series it’s personified by the Magisterium, but it’s not the equivalent of any church in our world,” she remarked.

With the series drawing from a finished trilogy for its source material, it distinguishes itself from that other HBO fantasy adaptation “Game of Thrones,” where showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff ran into issues when the show passed up author George R.R. Martin’s book series and were forced to conclude the series based only on an outline from the scribe, much to the dismay of fans.

Thorne, who also served as writer on “His Dark Materials”, spoke extensively about his admiration for the author and his texts and the care that went into trying to massage the narrative for its television debut.

“We wrote papers to ourselves about all the different ideas in the show. We wanted to do a PhD in Philip Pullman and we tried to do a PhD in ‘His Dark Materials’. I wrote 46 drafts of episode one in order to find a way to tell this story as elegantly as possible,” Thorne admitted. “[Pullman’s] denseness is a blessing and a curse; it’s so exciting. Sometimes when you’re doing an adaptation of something there’s a moment when you know everything there is to know. With Philip you never can. It’s a very challenging show to write, but also glorious to write.”

The BBC/HBO co-production includes Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and James McAvoy, all of whom were in attendance at Wednesday’s panel – though McAvoy participated via satellite – and were anxious to share their experiences on the series, with Wilson remarking on her mysterious character: “It’s fun to play a bad character, but she’s unknowable and frightening for that reason.”

“His Dark Materials” has already been picked up for two eight-episode seasons, with producers hoping for a third, in order to adapt the last book in the series, “The Amber Spyglass.” The series is scheduled for debut in fall 2019.

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