From a study to the studio: How Philip Pullman turned His Dark Materials trilogy into a TV saga
Author and Executive Producer Philip Pullman takes us through the making of His Dark Materials, from his epic trilogy of fantasy novels to a TV saga.
How did this TV series of His Dark Materials come about?
Philip Pullman: It was a few years ago. There had been various attempts to make adaptations of this story, and in all sorts of different media. It’s been on the stage. It’s been on the radio, it’s been a movie, but I was always attracted to the idea of long-form television, as we now call it.
It gives the opportunity to tell a long story in full. When you adapt a novel to a movie, which can be realistically about two hours in length, you have to lose a great deal, but TV does allow a story to be unfolded in more or less real-time.
Why do you think now was the time to do it? Was it the advance of CGI technology?
Philip: I’m not sure that the CGI argument is the best one for doing it now. Yes, CGI is extraordinarily effective now and it’s possible to create ‘dæmons’, animals, all sorts of things and put them on screen as if they’re alive, but there’s a storytelling problem with that. That’s to do with the fact that you mustn’t crowd the screen.
If we had a ‘dæmon’ in shot every time there was a person in shot, it would be very cluttering, and it will be a terrible job for the scriptwriter and director. What you want to do is focus the viewer’s attention on the important thing. In most cases, it’s the person not the ‘dæmon’.
We don’t find it difficult in the book, as the narration only draws attention to the ‘dæmon’ when they say something or when they do something. But if they’re not doing anything, as they’re not for quite a lot of the time, we don’t need to have them around. So, it’s a storytelling problem really rather than a CGI problem.
How protective of your story were you?
Philip: In any adaptation, the story has to suit the nature of the medium into which it’s going. If a story goes from a novel onto a stage, for example, you’d have to arrange the story in such a way that every element in it is clear, both to the person in the front row and the person at the back of the stalls.
Also, there’s a matter of getting on and off stage: You have to adapt the story. It’s the same thing for television, same thing for movies, same thing for radio, so it’s inevitable. I wasn’t going to be insistent that every single item in the story had to be exactly presented as it was on the page.
Why do you think your novels have proved to be so popular and enduring?
Philip: I think, the thing that keeps most people reading once they’ve started reading is the fact that they’re intrigued by what’s going to happen to the main character.
This is why quite young children follow along stories through all sorts of complexities, and enigmas, and mysterious passages. They want to know what happens to Lyra. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her, she’s in a state of mystery and doubt for some time.
The kind that reassures the reader because they know that if they follow Lyra, they’ll be alright. I think, that’s one of the things that kept the people’s imagination going.
I also think it’s because the story as a whole concerns something that every one of us experiences, and goes through in our life. That’s the change from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience, in terms of William Blake.
The meaning of puberty, not under the obvious physical, sexual changes, but the changes in the way we apprehend things, the way we think of things, the way we see the world... That’s the heart of the story, and because that’s something that happens to all of us, I think the people have found something in that too.
His Dark Materials will premiere on Star World on Sunday, November 24 at 9 pm. The series will air every Sunday at the same time.