His Dark Materials: Where BBC Can Succeed in the Adaptation

BBC One has ordered a TV series based on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Here's why TV should fare better than previous adaptations...

In 2007 New Line Cinema produced The Golden Compass. It was planned as the first in a trilogy, with the hope that it would provide a similar motion picture event to the studio’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Instead, it nearly killed the studio. We looked at what went wrong with the movie in an earlier article: a tale of studio interference, patronising the audience, and not committing sufficiently to a story.

Now New Line has returned to the source material, and this time hopes are high. It was announced yesterday that Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter’s newly formed Bad Wolf production company would be working with New Line to produce an adaptation for BBC One. Considering one of the problems with the film was being cut down in post-production, television already seems to have a distinct advantage over cinema in terms of giving Pullman’s story room to breathe.

It’s much repeated that since 2007, long-form TV drama has become more cinematic in scope and style. After eight films and a decade of box office domination, there are still Harry Potter fans who long for a TV adaptation so excised subplots can at last be realized onscreen. TV seems a better fit than cinema for adapting longer stories, and now has the budgets and production values to achieve a scale similar to – if not matching – cinema.

It’s also long been acknowledged (albeit grumpily) that adaptations have to lose something between mediums. We shouldn’t expect to see absolutely every page of Pullman’s His Dark Materials books on screen, we should expect to see new scenes and dialogue, and perhaps characters will be cut or combined as budgets and time deem necessary. For a masterclass in exactly that, we should look no further than the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a 1000-odd-page tome trimmed by Peter Harness and co. into seven neat hour-long instalments. 

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What The Golden Compass film demonstrated was that the worlds and rules within this particular story need time to be explained in a way that doesn’t make viewers switch off. Consider Malcolm Tucker’s dismissal of Star Wars in The Thick Of It – that’s what you want to avoid, being the half-remembered joke because you were too impenetrable for anyone to understand what was going on. The only reason The Golden Compass avoids this is because hardly anyone talks about it.

While TV provides time for more nuance than film – it can and should take the time to dwell on chapters glossed over in the film – it also has an episodic structure that necessitates alterations. While book chapters are obvious beginning and endpoints, they don’t always equate to a single episode of television with its own internal storyline. With an initial eight-episode series commissioned, it’s not a given that the chapter’s cliffhangers will fall at the right point for a television episode, so either something else has to be moved or lost, or a new ending has to be found. As anyone who’s seen the more underwhelming Doctor Who cliffhangers will tell you, sometimes the artifice is very much on display when you need to end on something that will get the viewers back. When the BBC made radio adaptations of the the books, it’s worth noting that they were three feature-length episodes rather than a weekly serial.

Also worth noting from the radio production, though, is that in the four hundred and fifty minute running time, very little has been cut out that might be deemed controversial. The changes made are almost entirely due to it being a radio play, rather than because the trilogy’s condemnation of religion was thought problematic. While radio isn’t as high-profile as a BBC One family drama (and the BBC Drama commissioner has said the new series will be aimed at the family), it is to be hoped that the adaptation will preserve the rage within the text. That said, the radio version was made in 2003 when the BBC wasn’t under as much pressure.

It would be understandable, if regrettable, if His Dark Materials anti-religious ire was made less potent, but this should not be the case. The BBC broadcasts Songs Of Praise and Christmas Day services, but also Wonders Of The Universe or Children Of Earth. If anyone screams “Think of the children” there are shows like Byker Grove and Grange Hill to point towards, both of which featured controversial storylines that made tabloid headlines and came out on top (notably when The Sun called for the producer of Byker Grove to be sacked in 1994 after an episode showed two male characters kissing. Said producer and storyline were both fully backed by the BBC). The BBC can and should hold its nerve for this adaption, and it doesn’t have to worry about profitability to the same extent as the movie did. The fact that the BBC can find a home for this story, previously thought the domain of cinema, is surely a positive for British television. No one involved should be writing to avoid upset, no one involved should be preparing to apologise. First and foremost, it has to be entertaining, and the fallout can be dealt with later.

Making something entertaining is, of course, the eternal problem. No-one sets out to make something rubbish, after all. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, the BBC adapted The Chronicles Of Narnia, dramas that linger long in the minds of many children who watched them. Yes, their lion is less realistic than the Liam Neeson one, but that’s not the point. The point is that even on one viewing something caught people’s imagination, and persists to this day. That’s what an adaptation of His Dark Materials should seek to do. The source material has enough ideas, characters and visuals in it to enthrall, terrify and linger, get lodged right into their brains and refuse to budge.

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The presence of Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter is encouraging in this respect, seeing as that’s what they managed when they helped bring back Doctor Who. Irrespective of your feelings on the era Gardner and Tranter presided over, you can’t argue with the fact that it entertained millions of people and significantly changed television. It did that by proving there was a desire for shows the whole family can enjoy, and now the pair are probably the most experienced producers in British television at catering to that audience. They’re also used to making changes to something beloved: Doctor Who came back the same but different; they rode out the complaints and made it into one of the most popular shows on television. They will be aiming to do this again, to take ownership of His Dark Materials and make decisions that will upset fans, because that’s part of their job.

Yes, it’s a big ask, but people want this to be seismic. Pressure is going to be necessary.