The official Twitter for the BBC His Dark Materials TV series casually dropped a teaser trailer this weekend, the first look for this adaptation. There is no official release date for the series yet, although a teaser trailer suggests to me it will probably be sometime later this year, and we don’t see much more than the faces of the main cast, but people are quite understandably excited about it. With HBO and the BBC working together, it isn’t going too far to say that this show will probably be great. Like, really great.
So with that in mind – and to banish the ghost of the terrible movie once and for all – what are some of the things that we’d like to see from the BBC’s His Dark Materials?
1. Do not sugar coat any of the things that happen
Philip Pullman’s masterpiece may have been written for younger readers, but that doesn’t mean any of the subject matter is easy. There are some really dark scenes and moments of horror that are hard to read, but the story is so high stakes for all of the characters that these moments are never out of place or too much. One of the major complaints that a lot of loyal fans had about the film, The Golden Compass, was that the ending was so upbeat, with Lyra off to ‘set things right’. The end of Northern Lights (book one) is in reality one of the darkest moments in the series. I won’t spoil it and say what happens, but it is so important for Lyra’s character development and for setting the rest of the story in motion.
The show needs to make sure that it doesn’t try and sugar coat any of these events, in order to give it the strong emotional beats that make the trilogy so compelling.
2. Do the politics right
His Dark Materials is complicated. Like, really complicated. Like, ‘why would anyone ever publish something like this for children’ complicated. But it works, and it makes the story rich and layered. The politics of the series is not easy, and Pullman doesn’t pull any punches with it. The political motivations are complex, and with religious connotations mixed in, it is easy to see why a TV show might want to simplify it all a bit. I think it would a mistake to do that too much though, so I hope they take the time to explain what is going on. Just as one example, Lord Asriel is a man who almost literally sets out to have a fistfight with God and take the entire church down with him. His reasons for doing so need to be explored if people are going to appreciate the nuances of Pullman’s story.
3. Keep the characters as complex as they are, especially Mrs Coulter
Following on from the last point, I hope that the characters stay as complex as they are in the novels. Lyra, the main character, goes on a huge journey of character development – from a scrappy and troublesome street fighter to a brave, hugely emphatic young woman. Lord Asriel is the ultimate anti-hero, no more a villain than anyone else but also not at all a good guy. The character I am the most concerned about is Mrs Coulter.
We all know that female characters, especially ones who are morally grey, don’t always get the best reception from readers or viewers, but Pullman manages to make her incredibly sympathetic even as she commits certain nefarious deeds. The show will need to work hard to make sure that she doesn’t come across as a straight up villain. She is anything but that. Ruth Wilson will play her in the show, which is a good start – she’s a great actress, completely capable of portraying the nuances of the character – but the writing will need to be up to scratch.
4. No ‘Gyptian’ stereotypes
The Gyptians, who are major part of Northern Lights, are an alternative world version of the Romani people. They travel on boats and barges, and Lyra spends a lot of time with them once she has gone on the run from Jordan College. ‘Gyptian’ is such a thinly veiled disguise of the word ‘G*psy’ (very much a slur), and the broad strokes of their cultures seem very similar to the untrained eye. I am not saying that Pullman was necessarily offensive in his portrayal of his ‘Gyptians’ – as a people, they are heroic and kindly, which is not the way that many stereotypical pictures of them are painted in media. What I am saying is that times change and these books are over twenty years old. It would be wise for the TV show, therefore, to make sure that the broad strokes of similarity between the Romani culture and the ‘Gyptians’ are not exploited as a visual shorthand, and the Gyptians are developed as a unique culture. Or, at the very least, hire some Romani actors.
5. No creepy men, please
Lyra, our main character, is only twelve at the start of the trilogy and very much a child. She does mature as the series progresses, but she remains a vulnerable young woman for much of it. She is often surrounded by male authority figures – from the Master at Jordan College to John Faa, King of the Western Gyptians. She also spends a lot of time with men such as Lee Scoresby, the aeronaut. They’re all important characters and almost as one, they adore Lyra. This is great, and having male characters who support and respect a young woman is a refreshing thing.
However, it would be very easy – too easy – to have any one of them come across as creepy on the screen, especially if there isn’t as much time to develop their characters as there is in the books. I have faith that the show will handle this well, but it always something to watch out for. They’ve made a good start by casting Lin-Manuel Miranda – possibly the least predatory man in existence – to play Lee Scoresby, and I hope that my faith isn’t misplaced. Nothing will make me switch off faster than a hint of anything except fatherly affection from any of the men, even if it is unintentional.