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James McAvoy and His Dark Materials EPs on courting controversy

The first His Dark Materials adaptation dealt with lots of conversation in the media, this new HBO version hasn't-- yet
Image of Executive Producers and cast members from His Dark Materials
Greg Silber- Popverse

The third and final season of His Dark Materials, the fantasy television drama series based on the beloved 1995-2000 young adult trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman, will begin airing on December 18th on HBO and BBC. This is not the first time Pullman’s series has been adapted, as the cinematic adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass, was released in 2007 but wasn’t financially successful enough to greenlight a sequel. Despite its underperformance at the box office, however, that film sparked considerable controversy for its perceived anti-Christian themes.

So why has the television version, as popular as it is, been comparably uncontroversial? And could that change when audiences see Lyra and Will’s adventures come to an end as the series wraps up with this final season?

“It’s interesting that if you remember where the film finished, it didn’t even get to Bolvangar,” says co-executive producer Jane Tranter, referring to a treacherous experimental facility explored in the series. “So it didn’t even get to the bits that were really controversial. So the controversy surrounding the film was whipped up around what people perceived to be the case. I’m not saying the books aren’t controversial. Philip Pullman takes a very clear swipe at authoritarianism, both in church and state and anywhere. He plunders history to pull together what he feels that is, through the depiction of the Magisterium, through Metatron, through authority, all those different layers.”

“But the things that everyone got very agitated about around the film were things that simply don’t exist in the book,” Tranter explains. “Nobody ‘kills God’ in the books. God doesn’t exist in the books. God isn’t a character. The authority is not God, the authority is not the creator, and Pullman lands that point very clearly. So I think the controversy was around people who didn’t know the material, and just wanted to do controversy for controversy’s sake. We’ve done a very faithful adaptation, and it’s been slow enough for people to be able to understand what Pullman was saying in a way that a bit of the film wasn’t able to do.”

“Some of our most interesting, I think, and memorable feedback has been from publications that come from religious institutions, and they talk about the danger of doctrine with no spirit” says co-executive producer Dan McCulloch. “For me, that really summed up what the message is, and how the world’s changed so much. We see the dangers of belief now, which play out quite clearly in the book and we followed as well.”

“We’re 15 years later [than the release of the 2007 The Golden Compass film],” says James McAvoy, who stars in the television series as Lord Asriel and is a long-time fan of the books. “I think that we’re… worrying about more important things at this time. While we still have a zero-tolerance group of people who won’t take any questioning of any type of religion, or any type of spirituality, I think that material has been about a little bit longer. We are more tolerant. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. We are mortal. And I think the material has been about longer, and interrogated better by this time. Philip Pullman is not anti-god. He’s anti-false-god. He’s anti religion being used as a means of abuse and institutional control. He’s against that. That’s what we’re killing. That’s the thing that we’re at war against. He’s actually pro-spirituality and pro-God."


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About the Author
Greg Silber avatar

Greg Silber

Contributing writer

GREGORY PAUL SILBER (but you can call him Greg) is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and critic specializing in comic books and entertainment. His work has appeared in outlets like The Daily Dot, Shelfdust, NeoText, the Eisner award-winning PanelxPanel, and The Beat, home to his “Silber Linings” humor column. A mild-mannered copywriter by day, Greg is also a comic book writer, a freelance comic book editor, and can often be found hosting trivia at Brooklyn bars. He loves horror movies, rock concerts, and thinking about the time Grant Morrison complimented his work.

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