‘His Dark Materials’: How the Show Fills In Gaps From Philip Pullman’s Books

Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy have been waiting to see those books on screen, especially after The Golden Compass movie left them hanging. HBO and BBC have collaborated to make His Dark Materials a TV series. Dafne Keen play Lyra, the protagonist of Pullman’s world.

Philip Pullman | Massimiliano Donati/Awakening/Getty Images

Pullman had three books in which to explain the rules of his fantasy world. That was perhaps too much for a film to encapsulate. On the other hand, the series may have to elaborate on some of Pullman’s concepts to connect the episodes into a series. His Dark Materials executive director Jane Tranter was on a Television Critics Association panel for the show where she explained how they adapted Pullman’s material. His Dark Materials airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.

‘His Dark Materials’ kept all the fantastic elements of Philip Pullman

Fans of His Dark Materials will not be disappointed. They’ll see Lyra, Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, Iorek Byrnison, Lee Scorseby and all the daemons from the book.

“It’s a challenging show, but it’s also a great, fun show. It’s got children in the lead. It’s got talking animals. It’s got armored talking bears. It’s got people going to the north and fighting. It’s got a character who can fight and he can fly. What’s not to like about it? And actually one of the wonderful things that Philip does is he gives you this enormous level of fantasy, adventure, compelling narrative fun. You know, there is nothing more delicious than a villain as Mrs. Coulter.”

Jane Tranter, His Dark Materials TCA panel, 7/24/19

Philip Pullman hides challenging themes in visual fantasy

Tranter says the fantasy elements, which can be strikingly visual on television, are a way into the deeper themes Philip Pullman explores. She hopes viewers will come for the action but stay for the provocative thought underneath.

His Dark Materials executive producer/writer Jack Thorne and executive director Jane Tranter | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO

“Philip does sort of two things,” Tranter said. “He shows you like the top of the mountain of gloriousness. But, he holds that mountain tip up by proper argument and thought. All the conversation we’ve had to this point has all been discussing the very things that make us up as a society. So, it’s fantasy, but it’s fantasy that’s bedded in something.”

‘His Dark Materials’ had to make different connections than Philip Pullman did

In the books, Philip Pullman could connect whatever themes he wanted in language. Since His Dark Materials doesn’t have a narrator, the show had to find different connections between elements of the books.

“I think our job as adapters was to make sure that we took those glorious notes that Philip founded and joined them all together in a way that in a novel the authorial voice can join them all together for you,” Tranter said. “You have to find the connective tissue.”

Ruth Wilson, Philip Pullman and Dafne Keen
(L to R) Ruth Wilson, Sir Philip Pullman and Dafne Keen | David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for HBO

For example, Pullman could just describe his alternate world. Tranter had to design it.

“Part of his brilliance I think is in the creation of what we always call Lyra’s world, and to look at it which is so similar to ours but different,” Tranter said. “That whole world has evolved differently. So we make certain choices with the design. We felt that Lyra’s world hadn’t industrialized. It certainly hadn’t technologized in the way that ours has.”

‘His Dark Materials’ has some randomness too

One of the advantages of fantasy is that not everything has to make sense. When in doubt, His Dark Materials could just say, “Because Philip Pullman said so.”

“Or sometimes, Philip doesn’t bother to join them together at all because he doesn’t have to because he can,” Tranter said. “One of the things that we love about Philip is he regularly said to us, ‘You don’t build castles in the air through logic.’ So, if that character’s there and then they’re there, so be it. If it serves the story, so be it.”