His Dark Materials Comic-Con 2019

More light has finally been shed on the big-budget HBO/BBC miniseries adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed fantasy series His Dark Materials. The highly anticipated second swing at the beloved trilogy after the disastrous 2007 film The Golden Compass came to San Diego Comic-Con Thursday, with cast members Dafne Keen, James McAvoyLin-Manuel Miranda, and Ruth Wilson, along with executive producer Jane Tranter, and writer Jack Thorne.

Find out what we learned from the His Dark Materials Comic-Con 2019 panel below.

His Dark Materials: Unlike Anything on Television

His Dark Materials is most famous in the U.S. for the poorly received 2007 film directed by Chris Weitz, but that is not the only adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s masterful fantasy-adventure series. “The books are huge in the U.K.,” His Dark Materials executive producer Jane Tranter told a jam-packed Hall H on Thursday, recalling the successful two-part play that adapted the trilogy in 2003. But television is where His Dark Materials belongs, Tranter said.

“I thought it was time that the books be liberated in a space that will allow them freedom,” Tranter said. “The space of television [allows us] to stretch it out and hit the notes that Philip Pullman hit in the books.” Tranter worked to get the rights to His Dark Materials for years, bringing the BBC on board from the beginning and eventually procuring HBO’s support. “It took a while for HBO to come on board, but the pill for HBO is that there is nothing like it on television,” Tranter said. “It’s not an easily comprehensible piece.”

Sure, HBO has impenetrable puzzle boxes like Westworld and dense, mythology-heavy ensembles like Game of Thrones, but what series of theirs could boast being a retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost? What appears at first to be a simple children’s adventure story transforms into a spiritual and philosophical journey for its protagonist Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) that re-interrogates Milton’s perspective on original sin. But the cast, and writer Jack Thorne (best known for his Tony-winning work of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) understand that at its heart, His Dark Materials is simply a coming of age story.

“This is sort of a coming of age story in a lot of ways around Dafne,” McAvoy said. “This is an amazing story of a young character who’s an orphan and she’s dealing with all these proxies and trying to understand herself through them. She’s trying to understand this slippery mercurial figure of Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) as well. It’s just so compelling.”

Why This Isn’t About the Catholic Church

Over the years, His Dark Materials has attracted plenty of controversy for its commentary on religious authoritarianism and its depiction of Biblical figures. It’s partially why the 2007 film tanked — the Catholic Church threatened a boycott, and the studio New Line balked at some of the story’s more unseemly depictions of the fictional religious group, The Magisterium. But Tranter wants to make one thing clear: This isn’t about the Catholic Church.

“One of the great things about His Dark Materials is the conversations about religion. Philip Pullman in these books is not attacking belief, he’s not attacking faith, he’s not attacking the Church per se, he’s attacking control. And the idea that control can be twisted and used to [oppress people]. At any time it can be personified by an authoritarian church or organization, and in our series it’s personified by the Magisterium, but it’s not the equivalent of any church in our world.”

Wilson, who plays the series antagonist Mrs. Coulter and was asked by moderator JD Heyman about her Catholic upbringing and her feelings on the depiction of religion in this series, agreed. “I think there’s a difference between faith and religion. It’s about religion but it’s about philosophy, and spirituality… All those things are in the books and in the show.”

A Soulful Explanation of Daemons

Perhaps the most unique and complicated pieces of world-building in His Dark Materials is the concept of the daemon. In the series, a daemon is the manifestation of a person’s soul, in the form of an animal that can walk and talk beside them. Think of them as your conscience, but it looks like a fluffy rabbit. Each person’s daemon “settles” (takes on one permanent form at puberty versus its shape-changing nature during childhood) into a different animal based on their personalities — a concept that McAvoy was quite taken by during the panel.

“I guess when Lord Asriel’s daemon settled, he must’ve looked at him and thought, ‘Wow I’m a badass snow leopard who walks my own path,'” McAvoy joked, to much uproarious laughter in the audience. “[When you see your soul on the outside] you can’t lie to yourself. And everyone else can see what your soul is like too, which makes for really interesting relationship dynamics.”

Co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda noted that it makes “every scene like 3D chess.” “What’s so fun about this world is you’re doing a scene with someone and you’re not just looking at them to see their motives, you’re looking at their daemon,” the Mary Poppins Returns actor described. But the role of aeronaut Lee Scoresby, who Miranda describes as “a cowboy who flies a balloon and fights in bars,” offers him more complexity (and a drastically new kind of role) than the character logline would suggest. Though he’s a tough, grizzled ex-soldier, Scoresby’s daemon is a fluffy arctic hare — one that Miranda gets to come in “singing a duet with…on a big-ass hot air balloon” in his first scene. (A reference to Hamilton? The Hall H crowd seemed to think so.) “We’re like our own little buddy-cop movie. Lee’s a lonely guy so we talk to each other constantly,” Miranda added.

The series takes a little liberty with its depictions of daemons — whose personalities are individual enough to be seen as separate. Wilson described a twist on Mrs. Coulter, an icy and unreadable woman who strikes a terrifying figure. But Pullman allowed the series to go deeper into that human-daemon relationship with Wilson allowed to “put a bit of monkey into Mrs. C.” Wilson described, “She becomes a bit monkey-ish when she’s at her worst. I do something quite nasty to a child, it was quite fun though. Mrs. C is so controlled and so glamorous and seemingly had lots of grace, but you get to see her at her worst.”

Following the Good

“This is an anti-superhero story,” Jack Thorne said — causing a few ripples in a crowd full of superhero fans. “If this were a superhero story, you’d be following Lord Asriel’s path. This is a story about people following greatness and people following the goodness in their heard. Lyra’s always following the good, while Asriel and Coulter are following greatness.”

“I have a tattoo that says be good,” Thorne continued. “There’s something beautiful about how Phillip sees the world that makes us all better.”

“Well now that Jack has upstaged us with a tattoo telling the theme of the show,” Miranda joked, getting a huge laugh from the audience. The crowd in Hall H skewed on the younger side — with many seemingly there just for Miranda or McAvoy — and got a bit restless during the panel’s more philosophical ramblings. But the cast and Trantor and Thorne displayed a deep understanding of the characters, which was exceptionally encouraging; especially in the case of Keen, who was born long after the books had been published and had never read them until she got the part. “Lyra has taught me a lot because I’ve been playing her for over a year now,” Keen said, continuing:

“What I love about Lyra is how much she changes. She learns from other people, she learns from Mrs. Coulter, Asriel, Lee. She absorbs so much so well. That’s what makes her a better person, she only thinks is this better, will this help people. At the beginning she’s quite arrogant, she’s lying all the time…she’s more innocent. Episode 1 she’s running on roofs and then bang, life smacks her in the face. And all of this pain causes her to grow.”

“But she is a massive liar,” she added. “But that’s the great thing about Phillip, is that he writes her as a liar but he calls her ‘Silvertongue,” McAvoy interjected. “That’s beautiful…I think what Philip sees as the primary catalysts of humanity is rational, creative, free thought.”

***

Set in a fantasy world where human souls take on the form of animal companions called daemons, His Dark Materials is a big-budget fantasy series that will adapt all three novels in Philip Pullman’s trilogy — The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The first season, which covers the span of The Golden Compass, follows Dafne Keen’s headstrong protagonist Lyra Belacqua as she ventures into the Arctic to save her friend from child kidnappers.

The series also stars James McAvoy as Lyra’s adventurer father Lord Asriel, Lin-Manuel Miranda as the grizzled aeronaut Lee Scoresby, Clarke Peters as the amiable Dr. Carne, and Ruth Wilson as the scheming Mrs. Coulter. The first season will cover the events of The Golden Compass, while the next seasons will adapt The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

His Dark Materials is coming “soon” to HBO.

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