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Why Their Dark Materials Might Not Be Your Dark Materials

Introduction

Most people who have read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” are looking forward to seeing Chris Weitz’ adaptation in cinemas this December. In this article we take a look at why they should keep an open mind.

Over the last three years that we have run HisDarkMaterials.org it has become clear that there is a kind of magic to the trilogy that is not easily found in other books. Almost all readers of the books have fallen in love with them; this has lead to a very intense scrutiny of the whole process of the movies’ development. Let me just take a look at some of the concerns that have been mentioned before by members of the website.

A Movie?

When a studio announces that they will be filming a popular book there are always those readers that denounce the development because in their eyes it will ruin the essence of the story. For a book bearing such heavy philosophical burdens as His Dark Materials the case is even worse. Finally the fact that Pullman mentioned that he would not be meddling in the creative process only exacerbated matters. Fortunately it seems things aren’t exactly as black and white as some people would have thought.

Casting

Casting is always an issue, but with His Dark Materials particularly so as it features prominent protagonists that a lot of the (younger) readers can associate with. Logically this has lead to many adolescents putting themselves forward to play either Lyra and Roger; a chance partially offered by the open casting call for Lyra.

After the cast was announced with Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Eva Green taking on the most important adult roles in the movie it settled most discussions. Face it; nobody doubts that they’ll do an excellent job. However, Lyra and Roger remained unknowns. As mentioned in the first Shepperton report I was sincerely impressed by Dakota Blue Richard’s representation of Lyra. Often when it comes to actors they are referred to as “translating” a role. With DBR this is not the case as her Lyra role seems to come very naturally. It definitely looks like New Line’s gamble with open casting paid off, unlike with Inkheart (more on that in a forthcoming article). The only risk is that Dakota will be seen as ‘Lyra’ for the rest of her acting career.

Aside from the fact that some people might have had a slightly different cast in mind (Jason Isaacs for Asriel?) there is no reason why they shouldn’t find peace with the current line up. That is, as long as Ben Walker turns out to be as good at portraying Roger as DBR is at portraying Lyra.

Production Design

Dennis Gassner is in charge of the production design for The Golden Compass. There were never too many reasons to doubt his skills as he’s done work for movies ranging from The Truman Show to Jarhead. Ironically he also worked on a movie called Ask the Dust. Still he was under a lot of pressure, not only because he has the jobs of setting the scene for some 1300 pages of material; material about which millions of people already have an idea of what it should look like. The hardest part was probably the fact that the first book takes place in an alternate world subtly unlike our own. Like somebody pointed out to me many Americans will have a hard time distinguishing an alternate London or Oxford from the real thing.

Luckily Gassner’s take on the architecture – think 1920’s London redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren with a touch a glass and steel – is very reassuring. It’s like our world, but some elements such as the sky ferry (zeppelin) docks and the looming tower of the Magisterium should convince even the most uneducated viewer that this is not our world.

During his presentation at Shepperton he explained that he always starts with a simple concept: for the design philosophy this entails the circle, symbolizing good, and the oval, symbolizing evil. These motifs return in such places as the Jordan College gates – circle – and the Magisterium’s logo – oval. He continues to explain that the same goes for the architecture, where he started out with London’s Air Street as the ‘template’ for the design. It all looks very convincing.

The only slightly obscure part is the mention of the ‘alchemical power’ which supposedly powers vehicles in  Lyra’s world. I can only hope that they mean a form of ‘anbaric power.’

The Script

There has been a lot of discussion about the script, and more specifically, about the script writers. We all know that Sir Tom Stoppard was originally adapting the trilogy. However, at the end of May 2004 Tom Stoppard was side-tracked and it was reported that Chris Weitz would helm the adaptation of at least the first book. Some articles even mentioned that Weitz’ dissertation was presented to Stoppard which later on turned out not to be true when Sir Tom told the Times that

“[..] they did not want me to do any more work on the script than I had already done. They said they might come back to me for the second and third script. I think that is a polite way of saying cheerio.”

New Line was under quite a bit of pressure to clarify their actions, and end of November 2004 they gave us the following statement:

“We have an incredible amount of respect for Tom Stoppard and value his contributions to the His Dark Materials project. However, because Chris Weitz is a writer/director, we believe it is important to give him the opportunity to bring his vision to life. After meeting with Chris, His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman agreed with our assessment that Chris was the right man for the job. He is an Academy Award-nominated writer/director with an excellent take on the material and we are confident that he will do this wonderful story justice on the big screen.”

In other words, it seemed like they were saying that although they liked Tom Stoppard’s script they were impressed to such an extent with Chris Weitz application that they were willing to dismiss one of the most promising contributors to the movies. Needlessly to say this didn’t fare too well with the press or the readers, with the Independent going as far to run an article titled “Tom Stoppard dumped as 'gross-out' director takes over Dark Materials.”

Luckily for us His Dark Materials fans, New Line Cinema’s Senior VP European Production Ileen Maisel was kind enough to enlighten us on this oft debated matter. She told us that

“[Tom Stoppard] took the script in a direction that we did not want to make. It was that simple. He focused on the science. He focused on the physics. And he focused on the Magisterium. And we always believed what Philip believed which is that it’s the story about Lyra.”

So there you have it. It wasn’t a case of Stoppard getting axed because Weitz was more dedicated, it wasn’t a case of Stoppard falling out with New Line; it was simply the fact that Stoppard’s often lauded overly intellectual approach wasn’t appreciated. Interestingly enough it’s not like New Line never informed Sir Tom of this creative difference. In the Guardian he once remarked “I was also attracted to Philip's wide reference to everything from particle physics to Paradise Lost - too attracted in my first draft. I was asked, quite rightly, to make the script more "Lyra-centric". The job became harder the further one got into the trilogy because Philip makes time and space elastic. This doesn't trouble the reader, who may not even notice, but it is harder to deal with in a film.”

All that remains is the question why Chris Weitz returned to the project after leaving citing technical challenges. When we questioned him why he returned he hardly gave a satisfactory answer. Could it be that he conquered his fears of green screens? Could it be that New Line made him an offer he couldn’t refuse? Could it be that he though the alternative directors not good enough to work with the material? As soon as we have the answer we’ll let you know.

Religion

Religion is without a doubt the most controversial point when it comes to adapting His Dark Materials. When Nicholas Wright adapted His Dark Materials for the stage he retained all the religious elements, leading to various Christian organizations boycotting the show.

Although Philip never meant to portray the Magisterium as a representation of our Church, almost all who read the books have interpreted it that way. It’s no wonder that now and then some religious zealot kindly informs me that I’ll be heading straight to Lucifer’s lounge. For those of you that haven’t read the books, the Magisterium is portrayed as a modern, totalitarian Inquisition.

When Tom Stoppard was still writing the script he mentioned that

“Philip Pullman is making a very uncontentious point that some of the worst excesses in our hundreds of years of history all over the globe have been committed in the service of religious fervour. He clearly takes the view that religious fervour has spread a lot of wretchedness and violence and so forth around the world.”

The impression this gave a lot of the readers was that Stoppard was going to portray the Magisterium the same was as it was portrayed in the books.

The controversy erupted when Chris Weitz stated in an interview that

“New Line is a company that makes films for economic returns.  You would hardly expect them to be anything else.  They have expressed worry about the possibility of HDM’s perceived antireligiosity making it an unviable project financially.”

Afterwards various comments were made that hinted at the fact that ‘it wouldn’t be as bad as he had made it sound.’ I concur that quoted out of context it is a quote capable of causing quite a stir, but honestly, is His Dark Materials about religion? I don’t think so.

Once again Ileen Maisel:

Ryan: What’s your take on the whole religious aspect of the movies?

Ileen: “Philip Pullman himself has addressed this, which people don’t necessarily want to pay attention to. For Philip, and he said it in a number of talks that he gave at the National Theatre, Philip is against any kind of totalitarianism. Alright? So from our point of view the Magisterium is a totalitarian government. That’s what it is. It’s not about religion, it’s not about God, it’s about totalitarianism. And it’s about the struggle and the ultimate winning of individual self-responsibility and free will. That’s what this movie is about, that’s what all three movies are about.”

Ryan: I said to myself I’ll make up my mind when I see the first stills, and when I saw the still of the Magisterium guard I thought V for Vendetta.

Ileen: He feels that way about communism.

Ryan: You don’t necessarily have to go with the whole religious...

Ileen: If anything it diminishes the power of the stories.

Ryan: It also leaves you open to criticism.

Ileen: Yes it would leave you to criticism but that’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is the integrity of the story. What I’m interested in is what Lyra achieves, and what she achieves is ultimately accepting responsibility for who she is and her free will and her decisions. That’s why Serafina repeatedly says we can not let her know what her mission is because it has to be her choice. That’s what Philip is about, and that’s what these movies are about, and that’s what Chris Weitz is about. And to be honest with you it’s why Daniel Craig committed to playing Lord Asriel, it’s why Nicole Kidman committed to playing Mrs. Coulter. All of them were very very involved in the philosophy of these movies, because we all feel it’s so important, especially in this world that we live in right now. And to do it in an incredibly entertaining way in which he brings together this extraordinary gang of misfits and courageous individuals who themselves have to each achieve something to help her achieve something, it’s extraordinary.

Ryan: Is the Magisterium still going to have a religious undertone?

Ileen: It’s totalitarianism.

Ryan: So it’s purely totalitarianism?

Ileen: That’s what we’re up against.

Ryan: Then what is the Magisterium’s motivation to sever children from their dæmons? From the Christian perspective it’s about preventing Original Sin, so what is this about?

Ileen: You have to see the movie, because what we do, we take it in a direction that I think you’ll be very very happy with, that also Philip was very happy with. Because one has to define their terms, about what Original Sin is, what Dust is, what Dust does, and how it acts as a motivator. From Philip’s point of view, and what Philip has said, in fact Philip has written certain scenes for us; that he’s been involved with, that Chris has then rewritten. For us Dust is wisdom. And that’s why the Magisterium wants to separate it. What the Magisterium wants is little automatons to do exactly what they want. They don’t want free thinking individuals who challenge their authority: nothing different than what we come across in this world.

Ryan: Exactly like the staff in Bolvanger, who are bland because they’ve been severed?

Ileen: And that was Philip, Philip basically said Dust was Wisdom.

Ryan: We couldn’t have wished for a better answer.

Concluding

Not everybody had faith in New Line adapting these movies. Even Terry Gilliam once remarked that

“[His Dark Materials is] a big project and I'm not sure the studio really understands what it is, which may be why it seems to be languishing at the moment.”

New Line has always states that they’re absolutely committed to this project, but with the various troubles surrounding, in particular, the script and the religious aspects they didn’t really manage to convince the skeptics. After all, would any studio state that they’re not committed to a $150 million movie?

It is obvious that The Golden Compass might be very different from what people expect, which is not often something that people keep in mind when discussing the movies. Everybody is always so keen to point out to how differently they envisaged it – just read the discussions about Nicole being too blond – but I believe that if they keep an open mind they will end up enjoying the movie more.

All things considered I think it is fair to state that the movies are in very capable hands. Deborah Forte has spent more than 11 years guiding these movies, and to see that she and her colleagues are still showing the same passion and interest as if they’d read the books only yesterday is simply heart warming. Naturally they want to make a profit, but more than that, they want to tell a story.

Tell Them Stories, in Philip Pullman's words - it’s what His Dark Materials is all about.


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