How Can The BBC Succeed Where Hollywood Failed In Adapting His Dark Materials?

When it was announced that New Line Cinema was making an adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, I was incredibly excited. As a huge fan of the books, I dreamed of the perfect adaptation, which is usually impossible. When the cast was announced for The Golden Compass I was again very impressed. They had a great cast, they had a huge budget: what could go wrong?

That was back in 2007 and now of course we know that the movie was (in this writer’s opinion) a bit of a disaster and financially it absolutely bombed. So what went wrong? We will get into that, but there is some hope, as BBC’s adaptation of the book into a TV series is set for release later this year. We think around Winter time, the reason we think this is because Philip Pullman’s new book The Secret Commonwealth is released in October and we know for certain this will arrive on shelves before the show appears on screen. The first series from the BBC (US fans will catch it on HBO) will cover the same events as that ill-fated movie did, so how do the BBC make sure this time they get it right?

What Went Wrong?

The problem with The Golden Compass was that there was a conscious effort made from those involved to lighten up on some of the more controversial aspects of the movie. I don’t want to spoil the story, but let’s just say that organized religion and the very ideals of faith are torn apart in this story. This, for some reason seems to cause offense to many people, and unfortunately some of those people live in the US. The US is a huge market and there were small groups from places in the US starting campaigns against the movie being released there before it was even finished.

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What we got was a lukewarm version of the story from the first book, instead of a true adaptation. The movie tried to be a fantasy action movie and frankly, that’s not really what that first book is about. There are also many elements that make this overall story so special that simply do not appear until the second book of the trilogy The Subtle Knife.

Possibly the biggest controversy was the ending of the movie. For some reason, even though it was filmed (you can see it in the initial trailer for the movie), the decision was made to cut the ending of the book and leave it for the sequel movie which never happened. This had a notable effect on the story of that movie, because everything that had been built up had no real pay-off without the finale. In the book after finally finding her father Lord Asriel, young Lyra is shocked when her Asriel actually kills her best friend in order to open a gateway between worlds. This probably didn’t fit with New Line’s idea of Daniel Craig playing a dashing hero in Lord Asriel, which really isn’t Asriel’s character.

The movie also struggled with the relationships between the characters and their daemons, which is a huge draw of the books as characters can have entire conversations with themselves and that something you usually cannot do well on film, but you can do this with daemons. Such a missed opportunity.

Another issue with the movie was the way that the mystery of the Gobblers and what they really were doing was not really built up, it felt obvious instead of mysterious and sinister. Then the cutting room scene which had me on the edge of my seat reading the book felt very flat, because we hadn’t fully had time to appreciate the connection between characters and their daemon’s. Alas, all these little things begin to add up.

The movie really didn’t work on any level for me sadly. It does seem as though the studio heavily edited the movie in response to criticism from certain religious groups prior to release, something director Chris Weitz later described as a “terrible” experience. So how does the BBC avoid this themselves?

Just Tell The Story

Well, for a start this is a TV series and not a movie, which means it simply won’t be subjected to the same level of uproar about which theaters it releases in. If someone wants to switch on BBC or subscribe to HBO and watch it, they can do, whether they live somewhere where a small group of people want to ban things or not. BBC also has the advantage of being able to spend more time on the characters here given that they have more than double the run time with which to play with, an important factor when faithfully adapting books I feel.

The other factor that pleases me is that the BBC are not ones to shy away from a controversial storyline and being based in the UK, we simply do not have any backlash to these Philip Pullman stories. In fact, they were recently voted third by UK audiences in a televised show which sought to find the greatest British book of all time. Only Pride and Prejudice and The Lord of the Rings finished above His Dark Materials. So we can hope that the BBC will delve headlong into the more controversial aspects of this story for this show.

So confident are both the BBC and HBO that they have already greenlit Season 2 which should focus on the story of The Subtle Knife, my absolute favorite book of the trilogy. As long as BBC take their time to develop the characters properly an let the plot take care of itself, then I think they’ll have a hit on their hands

To conclude the argument, it would be very easy for BBC to make a mess of this story, but at the same time, it’s even easier to just get it right and make a more faithful adaptation. At this point, just getting the entire story on the screen for the first book would be an improvement.

Until we see the show for ourselves we cannot say for certain this will work, but, it’s certain that the show would not have to work hard to tell this story better than The Golden Compass did. Surely that’s all we can ask for now?

What did you think of The Golden Compass, did it meet your expectations if you have read the books, are you as excited as I am for the TV series later this year? Share any thoughts you have in the usual spot, just remember the Magisterium is watching!

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