There was a time when His Dark Materials matched Harry Potter for popularity: when everyone tried to work out what form their dæmon would “settle” in (mine was a magpie, can’t remember why). When every child knew what the ‘aurora borealis’ was, and dreamed of armoured bears stalking the pack ice.
What happened next? Well, Harry Potter cast its seven-book spell and somehow created a film series that fans of the originals could take to heart. His Dark Materials remained a trilogy, but the film version never made it past the first book, and I was left dreaming of an alternate universe where people loved Lyra Belacqua as much as Albus Dumbledore.
Religious controversy, questionable casting, an altered ending – The Golden Compass (that was the US title for Northern Lights) was a failure. Not quite a box office flop, but not enough of a hit to convince film bosses to payroll another.
“With Golden Compass I felt that by being faithful to the book I was working at odds with the studio,” said director Chris Weitz (who went on to direct Twilight: New Moon). Never the best starting point for an adaptation.
Then there’s the anti-Catholic undertow, Dust as Original Sin of the originals – a hard sell for a blockbuster American audience, but not an impossible one. I mean, Harry Potter was accused of promoting Satanism when it was first published.
in the end, the film tried to be as inoffensive as possible, and ended up offending the people who mattered most: its readers.
So why will the BBC’s version of His Dark Materials be different?
Author Philip Pullman will be executive producer for the TV series. He was closely involved in the film version too, but this time he’s working with people who aren’t afraid to put the ‘Dark’ into His Dark Materials.
I'm delighted with the BBC announcement this morning. And now the work begins!
Who showrunner Russell T Davies said of Julie Gardner: “I used to dream of bringing Doctor Who back, but she took those dreams, made them real, and made them better than I ever dared imagine. And then she made all of her staff dream bigger and better than ever before.”
It’s not just the producers behind Doctor Who that will make the difference. Hollywood’s hands were tied from the get-go – for anyone who knows what happens in the final book, can you imagine a mainstream movie franchise ending like that?
Films worked for Harry Potter, but the multiple worlds of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass seem better suited to TV. Jane Tranter in the announcement promised “many episodes and seasons”, opening up a realm of possibilities.
In the end, fans of the books know it’s all too easy for our hopes to be raised and dashed. After all, it’s happened before.
But remember my dream of a parallel universe? It’s alive again.