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His Dark Materials - What We Know So Far

Several decades after the book series was published and following a film adaptation that never quite got off the ground, Philip Pullman's inventive His Dark Materials series will finally arrive on the small screen. The epic tale of one girl's quest to discover the mysteries of multiple universes, accompanied by her magical animal companion and a trusted friend, the trilogy of books has seen its share of controversy. Nevertheless, it has ultimately become a beloved and well-regarded series over time thanks to its incredible world-building, well-crafted characters, and gripping story.

Together, HBO and the BBC will produce the new miniseries, which was first ordered in 2015 and has taken a few years to become a reality. Luckily for fans of the original books, the series will arrive on television soon, so if you're ready to see Lyra's journey translated to the small screen, here are all the details you need to know before His Dark Materials premieres.

The controversial books behind His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman's first His Dark Materials book, Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in America), tells the story of Lyra Belacqua, a young girl who lives under the rule of the Magisterium, which fights against heresy in any form. The most magical element of Lyra's world is the existence of "daemons," which are counterparts of a person's soul that take the form of an animal. When readers first meet Lyra, she's still a child, meaning that her daemon, Pantalaimon, will continue to shapeshift until she hits adulthood, at which point it will take a permanent form of one specific animal that best represents her.

As Lyra and Pantalaimon explore Jordan College in Oxford, they discover evidence of "Dust," mysterious particles that are more attracted to children than adults, and eventually, Lyra gains possession of an alethiometer, which can discern the truth in any situation. The two continue their journey, eventually meeting Will, a boy from a different dimension. As the three journey on in the subsequent novels — The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass — they find more universes, make new friends and enemies, and even "kill God," a plot point that, unsurprisingly, has stirred up some controversy since the first novel was published in 1995. Pullman, an avowed atheist, has staunchly defended his series throughout the years, sticking to his guns about his allegories and subject matter without hesitation.

Isn't there a Golden Compass movie already?

Thanks to the popularity of the books, the last of which was released in 2000, an adaptation didn't take very long. In 2007, The Golden Compass (taking the first book's U.S. title) arrived in theaters via New Line Cinema, in the aftermath of the studio's previous fantasy success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the studio's most expensive productions to date, it underperformed at the North American box office upon its release, which many believe led to New Line's restructuring shortly after.

Despite a talented cast that included Dakota Blue Richards in her debut role as Lyra, Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel (Lyra's cold yet brilliant uncle), Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter (who seems kindly, but actually kidnaps children to use in experiments involving "Dust"), and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby (an aeronaut whom Lyra befriends during her journey), the movie failed with critics as well. In the end, it drew lukewarm reviews thanks to decisions made in the interest of softening the source material's more anti-religious elements. The film also changed the ending of the original novel, in which Lyra's friend Roger dies to jumpstart her journey. Both Pullman and director Chris Weitz expressed disappointment with the process, and between unhappiness behind the scenes and plenty of loud dissent from the Catholic Church, eventually, the decision was made to kill any possible future sequels.

When will His Dark Materials air, and how long will it run?

In September of 2019, it was announced that, due to the fact that His Dark Materials is a joint production between the BBC and HBO, it would actually premiere across the pond before it hit screens in the United States. His Dark Materials will make its British debut first, with an airdate of Sunday, September 3, and HBO will air the premiere on Monday, September 4 in North America at 9 pm EST.

Monday might seem like a tough time slot for a new show, and HBO certainly hasn't disclosed why they made this choice (aside from allowing the BBC to air the show first), but after years of Game of Thrones always airing on Sundays, perhaps placing His Dark Materials on a Monday will let the show differentiate itself from the fantasies that came before it.

In advance of the show's overall premiere, HBO has made it clear that they have complete faith in this adaptation by preemptively renewing it for a second season, which they announced in September of 2018. In terms of length, each season will span just eight episodes. With this news, it seems clear that HBO wants to continue the story and delve into the two sequels' worth of source material that went unused by New Line Cinema. Hopefully, HBO and the BBC can work together to finally bring The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass to the screen for the first time, alongside a more faithful adaptation of Northern Lights than New Line could provide.

What does the His Dark Materials trailer tell us?

Despite the fact that the show is slated for release by the end of 2019, there still isn't a ton of concrete information out there about His Dark Materials. The first trailer did finally drop in May of 2019, while HBO's fanbase was still reeling over the end of Game of Thrones. There are plenty of fantasy shows trying to fill Thrones' enormous shoes, and with its otherworldly bent and intricate world-building, a series like His Dark Materials might be the perfect show to assume the mantle.

The teaser depicts a much grittier and darker universe than viewers previously saw in 2007's The Golden Compass, giving audiences small glimpses at the supernatural creatures that inhabit Lyra's world, from daemons to armored polar bears (a fierce species of fighting animals that can also speak, polar bears in this universe house their souls in their armor, only dying when the armor is ripped from their bodies after battle). The teaser also gives us a look at the universe's massive cities, throughout which Lyra must navigate as she escapes evil forces that would kidnap her for her knowledge of Dust. We also get some brief but tantalizing looks at the cast, setting fans up for a wild ride.

Who's in the cast of His Dark Materials?

The original Golden Compass film might have faltered when it came to the plot, but its casting choices were pretty excellent, leaving a new cast with big shoes to fill. Luckily, the new adaptation has recruited a stacked cast of its own.

James McAvoy, known for the X-Men franchise as well as recent appearances in M. Night Shyamalan films like Glass and Split, will step into Lord Asriel's calculating and intimidating shoes, and will spend some time on screen with The Affair's Ruth Wilson, who will take on the role of the secretly insidious Mrs. Coulter. Hamilton creator and Moana songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was last seen on-screen in Mary Poppins Returns, will take over the role of Lee Scoresby, the affable aeronaut who helps Lyra throughout her journey. The cast will be rounded out with familiar faces like Clarke Peters (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Ariyon Bakare (Rogue One), Will Keen (Wolf Hall), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Anne-Marie Duff (Shameless), Georgina Campbell (Black Mirror), and more.

Who is directing and writing His Dark Materials?

If you thought there was plenty of starpower in front of the camera for His Dark Materials, wait until you hear who's working behind the scenes. The series will be written by scribe Jack Thorne, who cut his teeth on shows like Skins and Shameless and films like Wonder and A Long Way Down. He then moved to the stage and embarked on his largest project to date (other than Materials). Alongside famed writer J.K. Rowling and co-writer John Tiffany, Thorne wrote the script for the smash hit play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which scooped up plenty of Olivier and Tony awards throughout its dual runs on Broadway and in the West End.

The first two episodes of the series will have an even bigger Hollywood darling at the helm. Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper, who won a statue for The King's Speech and followed that up with Les Miserables, will kick off the series just before his adaptation of Cats hits the big screen during the 2019 holiday season. After Hooper gets everything started with the first two episodes, further installments will be directed by Dawn Shadforth and Otto Bathhurst, among others. In short, fans of the books can rest assured that His Dark Materials will have plenty of talent working behind the scenes.

Who is playing Lyra in His Dark Materials?

Of course, one of the most important roles in the series is that of Lyra, the plucky, brilliant, and brave heroine who inspired millions of fans as they made their way through the original books. On the heels of Dakota Blue Richards, who made her film debut with the role in the 2007 film adaptation, it was clear that producers would need to find a young actress who feels wise beyond her years. Luckily, they found just the right person.

In March of 2018, it was announced that Dafne Keen would step into Lyra's formidable shoes. If that name sounds at all familiar to you, it's probably because you saw her breakout role in Logan alongside Hugh Jackman in his final appearance as Wolverine. Keen made her mark playing Logan's clone daughter (also a superpowered mutant) in an emotional and grounding performance that put her firmly on the map, making her an obvious choice to pick up Lyra's alethiometer and helm this complex, intricate series. The show will be a family affair as far as Keen is concerned as well; her father, Will Keen, will appear as Father MacPhail.

What did we learn from the His Dark Materials panel at SDCC 2019?

Naturally, His Dark Materials made its way to the holy grail of pop culture conventions, San Diego Comic-Con, in July 2019. There, a few more details were announced about the upcoming series to keep fans firmly on their toes.

With Thorne, Keen, Miranda, McAvoy, Wilson, and executive producer Jane Tranter on hand, the panel reportedly delved into the religious aspects of the show, as well as whether or not the actors had read the source material before taking their roles. Keen nearly didn't read the books, unsure if she wanted to be influenced by them. But once she decided to, she recalled, "literally until I finished the three books, I did not close the book." 

Miranda, known for his musical roles, announced that he'll bring some song and dance to the show, entering with a performance co-anchored by his daemon. Wilson, for her part, revealed that the show delves into Mrs. Coulter's backstory (provided by Pullman himself), which will provide new insight for fans. The minds behind the project also assured audiences that the show wouldn't explicitly criticize religious institutions, choosing instead to attack broader authoritarian concepts.

Will His Dark Materials change anything in adaptation?

One of the chief complaints about the 2007 adaptation of The Golden Compass was that the movie tried to keep everything far too light and breezy, with studio executives actively pushing for a "happy ending" and looking for an upbeat finale for the first film. Luckily, according to Pullman, HBO has no such qualms about happy endings.

Pullman has granted his permission for the books, which rely heavily on Victorian elements, to be "twisted and modernized" for the adaptation, reinventing the story for today's audiences. The BBC, for their part, are already taking a modern approach to the series' marketing, tweeting out a message from the authoritative and restrictive Magisterium (which houses most of the story's villains) warning fans about releasing any "clandestine materials." For fans who grew up with the books and disliked the saccharine approach found in the first adaptation, it looks like they may be able to rest easy and enjoy a more sophisticated take on these beloved novels.