In the HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s popular His Dark Materials trilogy, an orphan named Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) goes on a quest to find children who have gone missing.
This time of year, Gordon Square, in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, is covered in pale yellow and red leaves, which obscure the park’s walkways and its dying grassy patches and dot a half-dozen wooden benches that line its perimeter. The other day, Jack Thorne, the head writer of the new television adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantastical trilogy of novels His Dark Materials, was hovering over one particular bench, trying to read the words etched onto a small gold plaque: “Here beats the happy heart of our emotional geography. Jack & Rachel.” “Ah, it’s got scratched,” he said, peering at it fondly.
His wife, the agent Rachel Mason, had surprised him with the plaque in 2014. “It took quite a lot of effort” to secure permission from the city, Thorne said. They had their first date in the park, and Thorne proposed to Mason there, in front of a bench, after an elaborate treasure hunt. (“I had a box that had a box inside it, and a box inside it, and a box inside it, and the smallest box contained an engagement ring,” he recalled.) Now he goes to the bench to think about Lyra Belacqua, the young heroine of “His Dark Materials,” and Will Parry, the boy she falls in love with in “The Subtle Knife,” the second novel in the series. Lyra and Will share a bench, too, in Oxford, although they sit on it in different worlds. “Lyra and Will’s bench is so important in those books,” Thorne said. “There’s something reassuring about knowing this is mine and Rachel’s spot. And so, when thinking about Will and Lyra, that felt right to me.”
The first season of “His Dark Materials” premièred on HBO in the U.S., and BBC One in the U.K., in early November. The show follows Lyra, an orphan raised in the great halls of Jordan College, Oxford, in a world similar to (but not the same as) our own. In Lyra’s world, each person has an animal companion called a daemon, which functions as a sort of externalized part of their soul. When children in Oxford start to go missing, Lyra sets out on a quest to the North, where armored polar bears reign, to find them. She carries with her an alethiometer, or a golden compass, a truth-telling device that she has a special ability to read. It is the BBC’s most expensive series to date. Promotions have included watch parties, scavenger hunts, and an online test to determine your daemon. (Mine, disappointingly, was a black skink, which is a type of lizard). In the U.K., the books are almost universally admired, and fans have been burned before. Pullman has called the books a retelling of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and they involve a critique of organized religion. A film version of the first novel, from 2007, directed by Chris Weitz, cut nearly every reference to this critique, and was panned. Christian groups protested the film anyway, and no sequel was ordered. But perhaps the real problem was time. The books are dense, containing multiple worlds, and it’s difficult to fit everything into two hours without causing whiplash.
The eight-episode structure of the new version allows more breathing room “to dwell in the characters,” Thorne said. He was wearing a rain jacket, sneakers, and a red knit cap, and was speaking with his hands. There’s a scene in the show in which Mrs. Coulter (played by a stunningly good Ruth Wilson, who is often costumed in an enviable, and seemingly endless, collection of silk pajamas), a beautiful and mysterious woman who plucks Lyra out of Jordan College, is bathing Lyra in her extravagant London apartment. There’s a shot of the two of them together, Mrs. Coulter shampooing Lyra’s hair, and then a shot of Mrs. Coulter alone, staring distractedly into the cooling bath water as her daemon, a golden monkey, looks on with concern. She might be plotting, or else thinking about all she’s lost. “It’s just that moment of twenty seconds of watching an actor’s face, but it tells you so much about who she is,” Thorne said. “If you’ve got to rattle along with the story, you don’t have time for that.”
Some of the most affecting scenes occur in quiet moments between a character and his or her daemon. Lyra (played with gritty defiance by Dafne Keen) often falls asleep with her shape-shifting daemon, Pantalaimon, or Pan for short, curled up around her neck in the form of a white ermine. The fierce explorer Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) has his daemon, a powerful snow leopard, walk into the room ahead of him if he senses danger. Mrs. Coulter will sometimes abuse her golden monkey, who, unlike the other daemons, does not speak, perhaps out of fear. In one episode, after Lyra escapes Mrs. Coulter’s apartment, the golden monkey quietly closes Lyra’s bedroom door so that Mrs. Coulter can rip the room apart with her bare hands.
“Philip always says the daemons were the best idea he ever had,” Thorne said, sitting on his bench with a cup of tea. “And the complications of the daemons—the way that just grows and grows and grows—it’s so vivid and brilliant.” He first read the books in the nineteen-nineties, when he was in his twenties. He read them again when he bought them for his mother. “They’ve got that touch of wonderful crazy to them that sets them apart,” Thorne said. He heard about the TV project while enmeshed in another British fantasy world, as a writer of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a play that continues the story of the Harry Potter books—and continues to sell out on the West End. At first, he didn’t want to work on the HBO show. It was six months before “Cursed Child” opened, and he and Mason were expecting their first child. “I was knackered,” he said. “And I was scared of the Potter fandom, and I was equally scared of the His Dark Materials fandom.” But he loved the books, and he eventually signed on. A second eight-episode season is already in the works.
Most of the first season takes place in Lyra’s world, which is parallel to our own, but runs on different technology. “They’ve had their own industrial revolution, but it was a slightly different industrial revolution to ours,” Thorne explained. “So they’ve got electricity, but it’s ‘anbaric.’ ” The creators had to decide how to render this world on the screen. “We had lots of discussions about cars, like really, really lengthy discussions about cars, and what they would look like,” Thorne said. (In the film version, Mrs. Coulter is driven around in a vehicle that seems to be powered by a glowing orb. For the show, Thorne went for something more subtle.) They discussed at length what the armor on an armored bear would look like. They wrote forty-six drafts of the script for the first episode, Thorne said, trying to figure out how to explain Lyra’s world without overburdening the viewer but still making it comprehensible to executives at the network. “It was the hardest thing,” Thorne said. “I think the quote is, ‘Producers need answers; audiences need questions,’ ” he said. “There’s a lot of audiences that just want to be taken on a journey, that want to be bewildered.”
As we were talking, I pulled out my copy of “Northern Lights,” the first book in the series, called “The Golden Compass” in the U.S., and my bookmark fell out. “You’ve lost your place!” Thorne shouted, genuinely concerned. (Later, he told me that his daemon would definitely be a woodpecker: “my anxiety fed and dealt with by its hammering.”) Thorne is a great fan of fantasy books and movies, partially because he found solace in them as a lonely child. He saw “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” several times in theatres; he held up his wrist to show me a tattoo of the words “be good,” which is a quote from the movie. “Just that sort of sense of ‘the other’ made it all better,” he said. He feels similarly comforted by the daemons in His Dark Materials. “I think a lot of people have been reassured that there’s something inside them that could be there for them,” he said. “That your soul is not as simple as just going, How do I feel? That there’s a shared identity somewhere that can help you.”
It had grown chilly in the square, and our tea had long since gone cold. I asked Thorne about translating the religious themes in the book for the show. “I don’t think we ever use the word ‘church,’ but it’s not very subtle,” he said. In both the books and in Thorne’s adaptation, a sinister organization called the Magisterium rules over the inhabitants of Lyra’s world (many of its high-ranking members have daemons in the form of rats or snakes). “When I think of the Magisterium, I think a lot about Trump and Boris Johnson. I think about the way the police disposed of Extinction Rebellion in this town,” Thorne said, referring to the environmental-activist group. “I think of the abuse of authority—this thing of truth not being important anymore is really troubling in our times. Like, if you can lie well enough, you’re fine.” We walked toward the exit, where Thorne hailed a black cab. He looked troubled but then he brightened. “I hope you’re not too cold,” he cried out, before leaving. “Thank you for coming to our bench!”