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How HBO's His Dark Materials Stays True To The Source Material

"It's not an easily comprehensible piece, and I think [HBO] felt that was very much for them."


HBO debuted the latest trailer for His Dark Materials during the show's Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2019--a panel that included executive producer Jane Tranter, writer Jack Thorne, Dafne Keen (Lyra Belacqua), Ruth Wilson (Marisa Coulter), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Lee Scoresby), and James McAvoy (Lord Asriel).

The His Dark Materials books, beginning with The Golden Compass (Northern Lights outside of North America) in 1995 and concluding with book 3, 2000's The Amber Spyglass, are a fantasy series set in a world in which humans' souls are embodied in companion animals that live outside their bodies. The series follows Lyra Belacqua, a young girl whose journey goes to some very surprising places by the end.

Tranter discussed why she chose to tackle this adaptation--one that's been attempted more than once in the past. "I thought it was time for the books to be liberated in a space which could do them justice," she said. "I think that all of those different adaptations have all been brilliant in their own ways, but the real estate of contemporary television--being able to stretch those books out and sound every note that Philip Pullman sounded in the novels--I just thought it was time."

She said the show starts the same way as the Philip Pullman books on which they're based--with the attempted murder of Lord Asriel, which Lyra thwarts.

Thorne, who handled writing the adaptation itself, said when he starts an adaptation (he wrote the stage play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child previously), he learns as much as possible about the original work's author first. "I think that's what we've tried to do, is just try and capture the important notes, and tell them to the best of our ability," the writer said.

Thorne revealed that he and Tranter worked on 46 drafts of the first episode. Getting the daemons--an integral part of the series' lore--right was particularly important. "You do sometimes get lost in other stuff, but the thing about the daemons is that they are characters," Thorne said. "Everything that Philip built is for a reason."

Keen and Wilson discussed shooting with their "daemons," revealing that they used puppeteers to represent the CG creatures during filming. The puppeteers were later edited out as the CG daemons were added, but the actresses said it helped them to have physical representations in the room.

Miranda, famous for his musical Hamilton, said the His Dark Materials book are particularly important to him. "When my wife and I started dating we read these books together," Miranda said. "They're in a really special place in my heart." He was thrilled when he was offered the part of Lee Scoresby, and he revealed how his character will enter the show: Lee's first scene is set on his hot air balloon, where he sings a duet with his daemon.

Keen, on the other hand, revealed she wasn't a fan of the books when she auditioned for the part, and had only read about halfway through the first novel, The Golden Compass, because she didn't believe she'd be cast. When she got the part, though, she dove in again, and found she couldn't put them down.

"Literally until I finished the three books, I did not close the book," Keen, who X-Men fans know as X-23 in Logan, said. "They're just so fun, they're so entertaining, they're so good, because Philip's amazing." She repeatedly raised her hands to her head to mime her mind being blown.

Part of the reason the books are so popular is they're far more than they appear. "That's why these books are so fascinating," Wilson said--they're not just a coming-of-age story, but deal with religion, philosophy, and more. Fans no doubt are hoping this adaptation won't shy away from those aspects the way some previous ones--particularly the 2007 movie--have.

Tranter took the opportunity of the panel to clarify what she believes the source material's stance on religion is.

"Philip Pullman, in these books, is not attacking belief, not attacking faith, not attacking religion or the church per se," Tranter said. "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."

She said that although that authoritarian force is represented by the Magisterium in His Dark Materials, it doesn't equate directly with any real-world churches or religions. Fans might have different ideas, but Tranter seemed firm in this position.

The executive producer also said it took a while to get HBO on board. "It was a long process," she said. "It took us a couple of years to really begin to put the pieces together in a way that people other than myself and Jack...and a small group of people could see." Eventually, HBO got it, and they came on board as a partner to the BBC. "It's not an easily comprehensible piece, and I think [HBO] felt that was very much for them," Tranter said.

Hopefully, fans will believe it's very much for them, as well, when His Dark Materials arrives on HBO this fall.

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