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Whose Dark Materials?

Following the article "Why their Dark Materials might not be your Dark Materials," I would like to invite you to share a little thought experiment with me: what if they indeed decided to get rid of religion as a central theme in the film version?

If you replace the criticism of organised religion with criticism of any oppressive and totalitarian system, the story has to be changed. Now, a film version can never be more than an interpretation of the original material. And of course you can never do a book justice in as far as some thing always have to be cut, especially when working with a 1300-page trilogy. To move away from religion might simply make the decision what to omit easier. On the other hand, many images, characters and plot details that are central to the story do not work without their reference to religion and their religious roots. Of course religion is only the vehicle that is used to bring the message across. Pullman’s message is certainly one in favour of individualism and free thinking and against totalitarian regimes of any kind. It is not necessarily anti-religion but rather anti-oppression. However, religion is the vehicle he chose to bring his message across. The story is an author’s vehicle, and in this case, religion is the story. Is there a way to make a film version of His Dark Materials that does not have religion as its central theme without compromising either the story or the message? Surely, simply conveying the message and completely disregarding the story is not making a film version of a book. On the other hand, distorting or even erasing the message of the book cannot the way to go either.

Please note that the filmmakers probably won’t have to go to that extreme of leaving it out completely. I do not have any more information on the film than you do. If I am going to extremes in this article, it is for the sake of a thought experiment and nothing else. Also, I am not against the film. This is not a fanatic admirer fulminating against anybody who wants to lay their hands on the books. Instead, what I want to do is weigh the possibilities and limits of both the medium film and a film interpretation of His Dark Materials without criticism of organised religion as its central theme.

As with the books, the question of genre is an interesting one for the films. Pullman’s trilogy is hard to categorise, I personally would go as far as to “accuse” Pullman of deliberately defying genre categories. A film is probably easier to label because with the medium’s limitation opposed to the book as mentioned above, a filmmaker has to concentrate on one or few aspects in order to deliver a coherent and understandable piece of work, while an author has more freedom to play with genre conventions. Changes of tone and atmosphere can take place with more ease in a book than in a film. You’re not bound to a certain “corporate design” the way you are with a film, in which from the very first moment, costumes, settings, light, colour themes, etc. determine the mood and the character.

Still the question remains: which genre are we dealing with? Of course there is always an element of fantasy to His Dark Materials, and it is more than unlikely that a film version would not go in that direction. However, if the central theme is criticism of totalitarianism and oppression (and not religious oppression in particular), it becomes political to a certain extent. One may therefore assume that the second big genre we are dealing with here is dystopia. It is not a quest like Lord of the Rings (although literary scholars have pointed out that Lord of the Rings is in a way a parody of the typical quest). And this is why the question of genre is relevant, or at least interesting: if you compare the film with others, it makes more sense to stay within the same genre. Comparisons with Lord of the Rings are therefore not appropriate in certain respects, even though some formal features may be the same. It is much more sensible to draw comparisons with other dystopias. These comparisons may prove helpful when one thinks about how some details can be depicted in the film without a religious theme and how some religious topics can be bypassed. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes throughout history are also worth considering in this context. Unlike in a book, where you can provide more additional information easily, a film has to work with the horizon of experience of its audience. Prominent historical examples of totalitarian regimes make up the common ground of an educated 21st century audience.

Again, I do not think the filmmakers will have or even want to get rid of every single reference to organised religion – sadly enough, it seems to go all too well with political oppression, and the image of the life-denying, negative and oppressive man of the church can be used without much need for explanation. It is an image we as film audience are used to and therefore not question.

And again, this thought experiment is not necessarily much to do with the actual film. Now let’s take a look at certain aspects of His Dark Materials to further examine the limits as well as the possibilities of such a hypothetical cinematic interpretation.

Knowledge and Science

The three central gadget inventions, the alethiometer, the Subtle Knife, and the Amber Spyglass, work very well without religion. Regarding the alethiometer, one might discuss the claim to there being an absolute truth, which can be seen as something religious. However, the “absolute truth” is put into perspective through interpretation: not only is it emphasised and made clear throughout that interpreting the alethiometer is a hard and for many people an almost impossible task but also does the very nature of an interpretation defy the claim to an absolute truth.

In any case, the instruments aren’t driven by religion or God or of any religious nature. It is the same case with Dust, which is a more difficult thing to define and categorise. Pullman, who seems to hate tying up loose ends and love having his readers make up their own minds, never explains the nature of Dust. The connection to Original Sin is only made by the church and rejected by others in His Dark Materials. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a problem to transfer these central inventions to the screen without any reference to religion.

The same applies to the conflict between the universities and the ruling power trying to suppress independent research. The important aspect here is that it is not a question of religion to begin with. The church can be easily replaced by any other institution because controlling research, and thus of knowledge, is in the interest of every authoritarian or totalitarian regime, be it religious or secular. Not only can examples be found in history and present-day authoritarian regimes but also is it only logical that a central authoritarian institution would try to control scientific research and knowledge.

Dæmons and Spectres

The doubling of the self, human and dæmon, is one of the most ingenious ideas of Pullman’s. This is an emphasis on the importance of the self, of self-confidence, and of self-awareness. The opposite of this notion is symbolised by the spectres, or, less “naturally,” by severing the connection between humans and their dæmons. Political oppression can provide a frame for the image of the spectre just as well as religious oppression. This is one instance where Pullman’s message is not necessarily tied to religion at all.

The experimental station Bolvangar can serve as an example of that. The medical experiments undertaken there – essentially cutting away free thinking and personality and thus creating mindless zombies – do not have any religious motivation. Again, it is about control and power and nothing else. In fact, medical experiments are not something one would immediately associate with organised religion. They have hardly ever been religiously motivated. And fittingly enough, it is said in Northern Lights that Mrs Coulter’s motivation to promote and execute these experiments is far from religious. The set-up of the scene and the description of the place have no churchly touch at all. It is much more of a military place. The experiments as well as the secrecy around them and the reaction or the ignorance respectively of the people living close-by remind of experiments conducted by Nazi doctors in the Third Reich.

The only thing that would have to change in a film version without religion is the motivation of whoever pays for these experiments. It can hardly be the church and its fear of Dust, which it considers to be the manifestation of Original Sin.

Like the Gyptians, whose problems with the regime are rooted in them being classified as outsiders, and whose role in His Dark Materials is more a political one than anything else, other groups of beings and their environments could be transferred onto the screen in this thought experiment without much trouble.

The Armoured Bears’ realm is totally a-religious. It is not anti-religious; religion simply does not play a role in their culture at all. Svalbard is important for the plot, but its role when it comes to the central message is important as well. The point that Pullman is making with Iofur is that you should rely on your own instincts and think for yourself. Iofur is beaten because he does not stay true to himself. In fact, Lyra can even only enter his palace because the guards do not – cannot – rely on their instincts any more.

This point can easily be made in connection with a regime other than the church’s; the Panserbjørne are just as apolitical as they are areligious. Moreover and most importantly, people who are able and prepared to think for themselves are dangerous to any authoritarian regime.

The second realm that can be mentioned here is the world of the Mulefa. Of course their central relevance in The Amber Spyglass lies in their “Fall,” their story and how it makes Mary take on the role she has to play for Lyra and Will. Their world could only fulfil its other important role: to serve as an example of a peaceful, “perfect” society unharmed by the influence and interference of the regime. (Unless you turn the tualapi into agents of the regime.)

It has to be said, however, that the Mulefa world is one likely to be one of the victims of the rationalisation measures undertaken when transferring a book onto the screen. Its slowness, which Pullman depicted as something inherently good opposed to the war and fighting, has often lead to (younger) readers dismissing this part of the book as boring. In a film, it might interrupt the flow of the narrative; it is therefore unlikely to make it into the screen version.

It is obvious that many aspects, details, characters and plot elements in His Dark Materials are not directly concerned with religion. Others, however, might prove a lot more of a challenge when it comes to translating the material into a non-religion-themed film.


The idea of a film without religious themes defies the post-modern rewriting of Paradise Lost that Pullman has undertaken with His Dark Materials. Accepting this as a given, do we need intertextuality (or intermediality respectively) in the film at all? And if one goes on step further back: does His Dark Materials work as a story in its own right if the reader is not familiar with Paradise Lost? Even though the very name is a reference to Paradise Lost, it arguably does. It is a young adults’ book after all, and Pullman is not too blind to see that he cannot expect a 20th/21st century adolescent readership to be intimately familiar with Milton’s work. However, the book allows him to make a vast number of references which would have to be left out in a film at any rate. The most likely conclusion to this question is that it would be lost completely.


Where do angels fit in with a film trying not to use or evoke religious images? The very concept of the rebel angel does not work without even subliminal references to Paradise Lost. Angels are always connected with God and fallen angels with Satan.

If they do not fit in, what can become of their central role? It could be taken over by the witches, whose role as old and wise beings arguably allows them to. Another important aspect of the angels is that they can travel through the different worlds, an ability that can be easily transferred onto the witches.

A more difficult question to answer is raised if one were to include angels simply as one more species, one more kind of being involved the struggle and the war. If this were namely the case, how could angels possibly be politically oppressed by somebody other than God? And if they are not oppressed, why would they get involved in the struggle? Would they be on Lord Asriel’s side out of pure altruism? This is not as easy a matter as it seems at first sight. To stay true to Pullman, it is important to have representatives of all species fight on both sides. It is his message against racism, and this message seems to be very important to him (e.g. seeing as Lord of the Rings was accused of having racist undertones.)

However, angels are most closely connected to Dust. To dispose of them means losing the one kind of being that has this intimate connexion, which would leave the concept of Dust even harder to grasp and to explain (if that is indeed the aim of the film; it obviously was not one of the aims of the book.)


This element might prove one of the easiest and one of the hardest aspects to transfer onto the screen. On one hand, sex has always been connected with personal liberation. In terms of genre, a look at dystopias proves that: in Orwell’s 1984, Winston’s rebellion is manifested by and lived through his love relationship and sexual relationship. Sexuality is dangerous because it cannot be controlled: not by any totalitarian power, sometimes not even by the very individual.

Why, then, could the role of sex in the film version of His Dark Materials be a difficult one? If you take away all religious themes and the church as the central institution of power, you lose the important element of the church’s history of denial and rejection of sexuality, especially female sexuality and female liberation. This aspect works for the book because it does not need a lot of explaining; again, the common knowledge of the readership provides the background. For a film, this is even more important because you do not have the time to explain as much, and slowing down to explain something is arguably more harmful to the finished product in cinema.

This leads to another element that would be lost: the role of the witches would lose a big part of its importance. The witches’ role in His Dark Materials is central for a number of reasons. They celebrate sexuality; in fact, witches as a symbol of sexuality and celebration of the body is a traditional literary theme. And again the history of rejection and prosecution by the church is common knowledge and can thus serve as an ideal background.

The Fall of Man

Again, this leads on to another question: how a film version of His Dark Materials could work without the Fall. If it is not for this image, how is Lyra and Will’s love relevant to the fate of the worlds? How can it have any effect on Dust? It has to be noted that in the books, Dust is not necessarily connected with Original Sin; it is only the Magisterium and its agents who explicitly make this connection. However, the question that is tackled here is that of the key scene. Lyra and Will’s “Fall” resolves the story. It is not so easy to erase the sexual element and just use their love as the key. While love is discussed a lot in His Dark Materials, it is not what can turn around the fate of the worlds. As explained in the paragraph above, sex is something dangerous to totalitarian oppression. Love might be as well, but in a different way and with a different effect. One might argue that love is essentially placing yourself in another individual’s hands. Noble as that may be, it cannot be a replacement for personal liberation symbolised by sex and sexual awakening. The central message in His Dark Materials is not to love each other. It may be part of the message of the books (and again, a book has more ways of conveying different messages than a film) but emancipation in every aspect – in thoughts, action, and indeed sexuality – is more important.

In terms of plot, this question is relevant as well. If the Fall has to be effaced, or its role diminished, another scene must take the place of the key “victory” one. The only scene fit to take on this important role is the death of whoever rules the totalitarian regime or the destruction of the institution at its top. This change in the plot might prove ideal for the film – the ongoing war has to be ceased somehow. On the other hand, the downside of this is that again Pullman’s message would be very much distorted, if not changed completely. One of the things that make His Dark Materials stand out as young adults’ books is that they are not as predictable – Pullman plays a lot with predictability and seems to love not fulfilling the expectations he sets up in his readers. If there is a big, overarching war going on in a book like His Dark Materials, one would expect a big battle scene as the turning point. Pullman does not fulfil this expectation. Not only because he tries to violate yet another convention but also because of the point he is making: the key scene in His Dark Materials is not one of destruction and death.

Throughout the trilogy, many different stories of “Falls” are told. Lord Asriel reads out the (slightly changed) Biblical passage, it is in the story of the mulefa and the seedpods, and Mary tells the story of her Fall. In every single instance, the Fall is something positive. Pullman emphasises this over and over again. The culmination is Lyra and Will’s Fall; the other versions of the Fall are leading up to it. Can these stories be portrayed on the screen? It is obvious that a war culminating in a big battle scene is more effective in a film. Thus, it seems likely that film makers – for a film without religious themes – would sacrifice the message, even such an important one. This could in the worst case disqualify the film as an interpretation of the original material, rendering the screen project a failure.

The Supreme Ruler

At first sight, it seems logical and easy enough to replace God and the church with another oppressive totalitarian system. There are certain divine qualities, however, that explain the power He has over His kingdom and the world(s), which cannot be transferred onto another being or institution without some difficulty. It seems unlikely, for example, that an institution like the Magisterium would gain and retain power in all the different worlds were it not for God, or Metatron, who deliberately install oppressive church(es) to control the people.

If there were an organisation able to exercise control over the various worlds, what or who would be the common basis? Who would rule it all? How would they travel between the worlds? How would they control and check on their “subjects” in the multitude of worlds? There would have to be someone or something connecting them all, and if indeed one would try not to make this a divine being one would have to explain why and how this being gained this kind of power. Simply giving them a different name would not be enough. It would still too obviously be God or a God-like figure. God can do all this because His omniscience and omnipotence can be accepted as a given. Furthermore, He does not have to be connected to any of the worlds. Which other kind of being could be literally above the worlds?

Another question in this respect is the death scene. In the book, God’s death is significant as a symbol rather than as the destruction of the ruler and leader of the Church forces. That is Metatron’s death scene; and even his death is not the key scene and turning point of the story as discussed above. The juxtaposition of these two scenes is very powerful, yet it cannot work without God, as without God the symbol is empty. A symbolic death can only have its effect if the meaning and the importance of the symbol are known and felt by the audience. Sauron’s defeat in Lord of the Rings is not a symbolic one. It is quite straightforward: the destruction of the evil force. The death of God in His Dark Materials is nothing like it. It does not seem destructive at all to begin with. One could even imagine this scene as a sad one rather than a glorious and victorious one. However, for this very reason, the scene might be in danger of being cut from any film version, not only one avoiding references to God. It is slow and calm and might be in the way of the flow of a film (in which case devoted fans could only hope for it being included in some extended edition or director’s cut.) Again, this would contribute to the climax of the film being a violent scene rather than a calm and peaceful one.

The Land of the Dead

Another very important scene is affected by this question about the nature of the leader of the oppressive regime: the land of the dead. If God and His army are not the enemy, who else could have created this “prison camp” for beings in all the different worlds? Who else would have the power to ban people to that place after their death?

These questions have to be answered because this part of the story cannot be left out without doing serious harm to the final product. One rather simplistic reason to make the effort to keep the land of the dead in as a plausible part of the story is that it simply makes a good film scene. The description in the book is very visual and based on this, it should be quite effective on the screen. It has the power to grip the audience and to make His Dark Materials stand out from other, similar films; and this is not the only reason why one would try and preserve this storyline.

The importance of the land of the dead lies to a large extent in the storyline of Lyra and Roger – he is her driving force; Lyra sets out on her journey over the bridge to the stars and finally into the land of the dead because of him.

Furthermore, without the land of the dead, Will and Lyra’s sacrifice is rendered less meaningful. It might look like an easy solution to say that not a single window can be left open and they have to live separate lives because of that. However, the decision to leave one single window open for the souls of the dead to be able to escape their gruesome land is much bigger sacrifice. If every single window between worlds has to be closed, the decision is basically made for them. Pullman’s message in His Dark Materials is quite against this. He makes a point of emphasising the importance of making one’s own decisions. Even though fate and destiny are mentioned a lot, Pullman makes them stand back and puts decisions in the foreground. Lyra only fulfils her destiny because she is not aware of it; it is mentioned and repeated in the books how important it is for her to do what she feels right to do rather than simply follow her destiny or somebody’s orders. In other instances, fates are twisted (e.g. Will and Æsahættr’s destinies of being the “God-destroyer”) or not fulfilled at all. Will also explicitly rejects the idea of knowing about his own destiny. It is therefore all the more important that Will and Lyra make the decision to sacrifice being able to see each other in order to leave the window in the land of the dead open.

Besides thinking for yourself and making your own decisions, Pullman’s strongest message is to tell stories, and these two messages are combined in the scene with the harpies. To live a fulfilled life so that you have stories to tell, and to pass them on and possibly enrich other people’s lives with them is what saves you. While the church (in His Dark Materials, and sadly in many cases in real life as well) teaches lowliness and obedience as the paths to salvation, Pullman’s truth is that a happy, exciting and eventful life will save you. Nowhere in the book is this message more obvious or stronger; the land of the dead is central in this respect.

The problem with the land of the dead is that even though it is highly likely to impress visually on the screen, it might not work if the counter-concept is lost. The impact of it is not only because of its bleakness and hostility; it lies in the revelation of a cruel deceit. It is not a coincidence that the land of the dead is the only instance in His Dark Materials where we meet devout believers; they are essential to highlight the deception and betrayal by the church. This realm is so gruesome because it is opposed to the promise of heaven (or hell; the fact that it does not even make a difference whether one followed the teachings of the church is another cruelty.) In order to portray this sadistic deceit, you need the concept of heaven. Organised religion in its negative form oppresses people and keeps them under control easily because they do not have to fulfil any of their promises. The promise of a happy afterlife is a convenient one for them. It can be used as the church’s strongest weapon against individuality and independence; the importance of Lyra and Will overcoming death lies in them taking this means of oppression away from God or the church. Political regimes do not use the promise of heaven, or an afterlife of any kind. Certainly political regimes sometimes use religion but in the case of our fictional film version of His Dark Materials, religious themes and references are to be avoided. A scenario with the land of the dead as understandable and meaningful part of the story is thus rather unimaginable.

While an attempt to eliminate religious images and references will change many other details, these are arguably the most important and most affected elements. What can be concluded from this thought experiment? As mentioned in the introduction, film makers will not want or have to go to such an extreme. There is a lot of middle ground. However, it is not an easy task – translating complex and multi-layered texts like His Dark Materials onto the screen is always a challenge, and the controversies in Pullman’s work and his rather undiplomatic ways do not make it any easier.

The aim of this thought experiment was not to come up with advice or a plan for the producer and the director of the film. In the true Pullmanian spirit, it is about telling stories, thinking, and maybe inspiring other people’s thoughts.

Comments (1) — Add Yours

Actually, I would like to point out that the movie adaptation of TGC, while not having direct references to religion, does have hints that point out to the religious nature of the Magistherium. For example, they use the words “oblation” and “heresy”, and they also mention the Authority. Also the Magestherium in Trollesund looks like a church. Furthermore, I think Chris Weitz said that, if sequels are to be made, they would be more faithfull to the source material.

# Posted by KenBrasai on 18:30, 15 April 2008

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