Like myriad fans before her, Jane Tranter was transfixed when she read the first of Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, almost 20 years ago. The executive television producer immediately vowed to bring the otherworldly tome to the screen. Unfortunately, there was just one snag: the rights had been snapped up by New Line Cinema, and they were developing it into fantasy yarn, The Golden Compass.
But fate intervened when the film was released in 2007. It was met by howls of disapproval from fans and critics alike, dismayed so many key elements of the books had been diluted, especially its musings on mysticism and religion, to make it more palatable to a mainstream market. It also faced a backlash from religious groups, for its perceived anti-theological themes. The outcry stymied plans for a sequel, much to Tranter's relief.
"The film was very disappointing and I remember thinking afterwards, 'I need to get the rights to this, to make it how it should be made.' Thankfully, after years of trying, I must have bored Philip Pullman and New Line into submission, because they finally relented and gave me the rights. From that moment on, for me — and everyone else who's been involved since — it's been a real passion project."
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That's especially so for James McAvoy, an ardent fan of the books, who portrays explorer Lord Asriel Belacqua in the BBC/HBO adaptation, coming to Sky's SoHo and Neon from Tuesday.
"I don't know if I'm outwardly or visibly geeky but this kind of stuff is just so far up my street it's untrue," McAvoy says, beaming with boyish enthusiasm.
"I've read the trilogy three times and listened to Philip's narration of it twice — the second time when I was prepping for the role. To play a character who's so lofty, so brilliant and so laudable — and then get to do the incredible dark things he has to do to get what he needs done — is so exciting."
The story follows Lyra, a seemingly ordinary but brave young woman from another world. Her search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children, and becomes a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust.
As she journeys through various worlds, including our own, Lyra meets Will, a determined and courageous boy. Together, they encounter extraordinary beings and dangerous secrets, with the fate of both the living — and the dead — in their hands.
McAvoy's on-screen nemesis is Marisa Coulter, played by Ruth Wilson (femme fatale Alice Morgan in Luther).
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"I hadn't actually read the books before I was approached ... I was completely ignorant of her," she admits. "Then my agent told me, 'She's the all-time, great female literary villain, you have to do this.' So I read the books and I was hooked: she's so mysterious, so enigmatic and so endlessly fascinating. That's what drew me in, from page to page.
"I had an enormous amount of pressure to try and fulfil what Philip had written on the page," she admits, shuddering. "The characters are extraordinary — they're so dense and complex, especially her. It's also got layers of philosophy, religion, science and other theoretical stuff. It's a big responsibility, especially as there are millions of fans of these books."
"When you're adapting books, there are two possibilities," adds screenwriter Jack Thorne. "There are ones that have an amazing story that might have flaws with it that you can fix, or else there are stark works of genius, like this, which you're then given the responsibility to translate to screen. That's a terrifying scenario, because you don't want to be the person that gives the world a damp rag."
He needn't worry. His Dark Materials is a sympathetic, darkly disturbing portrayal that perfectly encapsulates the foreboding, alien — and alienating — otherworld depicted so harrowingly in Pullman's trilogy.
Pitched as "an epic wonder that promises to fill the Game of Thrones-sized hole in your heart", it was renewed for a second, eight-episode series before the first one started screening.
The irony is that by transferring it to the small screen, it's become a bigger, bolder vision than its previous iteration, as believable and profound on television as The Golden Compass was unbelievable and whimsical on film.
"I think, paradoxically, that's because what the film lacked, which the television series has, is size," suggests Tranter. "I really like the heightened state of television; I like to tell epic stories, hour after hour, and I like the breadth as well as the depth that television offers. I think having that space, to adapt the books, is part of the thing that made it less daunting and gave us the courage to do it. We just had to faithfully follow the story, which the film couldn't do.
"I'm also a great believer that the timing is only right when it's right and I think, if I'm honest, that if I'd made these books in the early 2000s, for the BBC, it probably would have been a disaster," she adds solemnly. "I really had to wait for television to go epic, for Games of Thrones to happen, to show me how you could build a large scale television series, like this. So, in a way, it's lucky that I didn't get the rights to it beforehand."
What: His Dark Materials, small-screen adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy
Where: SoHo, Neon
When: From Tuesday