Until recently, I didn’t have a clue as to what to write my dissertation on. I made several panicked trips down the English Department corridor in Queens, scrawling my name on sign-up sheets as I went. I then received a valuable piece of advice: “pick a text you’re so passionate about, you’ll still be willing to trek to the library on a cold February morning to write about it.” I decided then and there that I had to write about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Parallel universes? Talking animals? Pre-pubescent angst? It sounds like Steven Spielberg’s dreams have all come true
I first read the books when I was around twelve or thirteen. Although marketed as children’s books, they’re no easy read. The trilogy is big and bold and wordy; it’s Pullman’s ambitious attempt to rewrite Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, whilst challenging – scrap that – ripping apart the modern Catholic Church. But don’t let that put you off. Pullman is a master storyteller, in every sense of the word, and his magical worlds (that’s right, plural) are staggeringly inventive. There are subplots to the subplots, and yet somehow Pullman weaves them together so tightly, and with such ease, that you’re still left wanting more.
The main plot focuses on Lyra, an orphaned girl living in a parallel universe where your soul takes an animal form, a daemon. When children start to disappear, Lyra sets out on a quest to find her kidnapped friend, and discover the truth about a mysterious phenomenon called Dust. By the end of the first book, her world is torn apart, quite literally, when she walks through an opening in the sky and into another world, our world, where (in the second book) she meets Will: a boy, and a murderer.
Parallel universes? Talking animals? Pre-pubescent angst? It sounds like Steven Spielberg’s dreams have all come true at once, so it was no surprise when the movie rights to the first book, Northern Lights, were snapped up, and it was made into the film The Golden Compass in 2007. It would have been a crime not to utilise modern digital wizardry and bring Pullman’s creations to life on screen, right? Actually, wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. The film took the books and made them glossy and cutesy and soulless. It diluted everything that made them so gripping and controversial – for adults, as well as kids. And for fans of Lyra “Silvertongue”, a driven, mercurial, loveable liar, Dakota Blue Richard’s random, phoney cockney accent (Lyra lives in Oxford) and wooden drama-school acting were never going to make the cut.
Then again, much of what irked me about the 2007 film was the brutal editing and cutting of Pullman’s books. The stage adaptation, which has been praised highly by theatre critics, is a lot more faithful. So when I discovered that BBC One plan to adapt the books into a mini-series, I allowed myself a volley of fan-girl squeaks.
If the phenomenon of Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that epic book series require an equally epic TV event, the longer episode format allowing as much wriggle room as possible. It also felt like the universe rewarding me for sticking to the dissertation topic that my thirteen-year-old self would have picked, rather than one which will actually look good on my CV.
The factor that will make or break the BBC adaptation is the same one that broke – no, stole the life from – the 2007 film: casting. With such ambitious and complex storytelling, you need rock-solid leads to carry the plot. It’s the characterisation of Lyra, and later her relationship with Will, which is the focal point of the trilogy; and by the end, that relationship needs to have engrossed you so completely that you’d be willing to go on a pilgrimage to Oxford just to take a picture of the ‘Lyra and Will bench’ in the Botanic Gardens. (Guilty). If the BBC gets that right, it will inspire a whole new generation to read Pullman’s trilogy. And this can only ever be a good thing.