As far as missed opportunities go, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy represented one of the biggest lost adaptations. The fantasy trilogy—composed of 1995’s “The Golden Compass” (originally titled “Northern Lights”), 1997’s “The Subtle Knife” and 2000’s “The Amber Spyglass”—took place in a kind of steampunk London (among other dimensions where technology and magic existed in Victorian Albion. The most unique touch: human souls were made concrete in the form of creatures known as daemons who always stay close to their humans.
Because of the timing and the emphasis on magic, “His Dark Materials” was often compared to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books, but the two are actually reverse images of each other. Rowling’s books (now known as the Wizarding World) were relatively light-hearted, reader-friendly takes on magic in a modern setting. Even the most light-hearted of Pullman’s characters were quite dark by “Potter” standards. It always felt like there was something dark, dangerous and irresistible hidden in the heart of the “Dark Materials” books.
But unlike the “Harry Potter” books, “His Dark Materials” stumbled at the cinema. New Line Cinema produced a 2007 film titled “The Golden Compass” with Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Nicole Kidman (Marisa Coulter) and Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua) in the lead roles. But the troubled production, burdened by a muddled story and noticeable changes to the source material, was critically panned, and the rest of the planned film trilogy was scuttled.
Pullman wrote two much shorter books after the trilogy, “Lyra’s Oxford” and “Once Upon a Time in the North,” but it has been virtual silence since the latter book came out in 2008.
Very late last year, “His Dark Materials” jumped back into literary life with Pullman publishing the first of a trilogy, “The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2017, 449 pages). This first book is a prequel 10 years before “Dark Materials.” Set in the same Oxford, Lyra (who is 12 at the beginning of “Dark Materials”) is just an infant here. The book revolves around the experiences of the boy Malcolm Polstead who works at his parents’ pub the Trout. Malcolm stumbles upon the mysterious baby Lyra at the priory and feels a connection. When scary people attempt to abduct Lyra, Malcolm takes it upon himself to protect the baby during a biblical flood. The book gets its title from Malcolm’s canoe, the La Belle Sauvage—the boat is very important to the plot.
“So he knew that he was safe, and that Lyra was safe in the priory, and that Lord Asriel was safe because he’d escaped his pursuers; but there was danger all around, just the same,” Pullman writes.
“La Belle Sauvage” will remind readers of the qualities that made Pullman’s books so good. The prose is densely detailed and his world building is unparalleled. This book represents a perfect jumping-on point for those unfamiliar with Pullman as it is set before “His Dark Materials.
“There are fascinating little mysteries, such as the yet-undiscovered nature of Dust (the particle that holds reality together) and the understanding of the human-daemon relationship (something crucial to “The Golden Compass”).
The Magisterium (Pullman’s version of the church) is conflicted here, represented by both the good nuns of the Priory of Godstow and the underhanded operatives of the League of St. Alexander. The shadowy operatives of Oakley Street go up against the Consistorial Court of Discipline. “La Belle Sauvage” serves as the true start of the series, and this is made clear as Malcolm winds up navigating through the important mythology of the series.
While Pullman has stated the second volume in the prequel series, “The Secret Commonwealth (which features Lyra as a 20-year-old) has been finished, there has been no stated release date and no word yet on the state of the final book, including when it will be set. Pullman has been quoted as calling the new darker series an “equel,” taking place before, during and after the events of the first books.
Aside from the books, “His Dark Materials” is getting the adaptation it deserves in the form that suits it best: a TV mini-series for BBC. As with the rest of the new trilogy, no release date has been given but we do know the series is being adapted by Jack Thorne (the dramatist behind, wait for it, the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”). The series will feature James McAvoy (Lord Asriel), Ruth Wilson (Marisa Coulter), Dafne Keen (Lyra) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Lee Scoresby).
All this is good news for followers of “His Dark Materials” as Philip Pullman’s series may finally be getting the popular boost it deserves.