'His Dark Materials': Could Philip Pullman's dark children's novels be the next 'Game of Thrones'?

Pullman is often accused of being too dark and complex for a children’s writer, but perhaps our children could do worse than following the lead of his hero, Lyra

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As suitably ominous orchestral music rumbles in the background, James McAvoy looks portentously at teenage actress Dafne Keen, who's surely to become a star later this year when she plays wide-eyed Lyra in the big-budget television adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.

"You once asked me what evil was," whispers McAvoy, playing the fiercely intimidating Lord Asriel in the trailer. "There are things that you're better off not understanding."

But in her quest to find the terrible truth behind the mysterious disappearance of her peers, Lyra can’t be kept in the dark for long. One of the main themes of Pullman’s bestselling trilogy is growing up and the acquisition of knowledge and experience: it’s probably why, though they might feature children, his novels aren’t necessarily children’s books.

"I have never wanted to extirpate innocence," Pullman said in 2016. '[But] what I'm against in a quite visceral, loathing way, is the sentimental vision of childhood you get… Peter Pan, who thinks it's better always to stay a child, some of AA Milne's verses, I can't bear them, they make me sick."

British author Philip Pullman poses with his new book 'La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One' during a photo call at the Bodleian Libraries, in Oxford, southern England, on October 18, 2017.
The 17-year wait for a return to the mystical world of British author Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" series will end on October 19 with the release of "La Belle Sauvage", the first volume of a new trilogy. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS
English writer Philip Pullman's new series 'The Book of Dust', which is to be released in October, comes 17 years after the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. AFP

And Pullman's more grown-up approach to the world of fantasy – a genre he's not entirely sure he writes in or for anyway – is one of the reasons there's so much excitement surrounding the trailer for His Dark Materials.

It's no coincidence, either, that the trailer for this HBO/BBC co-production hit the internet as Game Of Thrones fans were desperately casting around for something else to look forward to – here is an epic dealing with the very essence of what it is to be human, but also featuring witches, "gyptians", armoured polar bears, parallel universes and the intriguing concept of "daemons", the physical manifestation of a person's soul or spirit which takes the form of a creature.

As for Pullman, he took to Twitter after watching the trailer and simply said: "Here's a glimpse. Looking very good, I think."

And if that sounds just a little guarded, you'd expect Pullman, now in his 70s, to be so. After all, the 2007 film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards and Daniel Craig never made it past the first book. Some might say rightly so – pitched too far towards the The Lord Of The Rings audience it clearly pined after, it watered down Pullman's overarching thesis.

There’s so much plot exposition about Dust, a strange elemental particle which Pullman likens to consciousness, that the horror of the narrative – effectively a little girl trying to stop children from having their souls ripped from them – is lost. It was a sanitised film for the Christmas market which ended up pleasing no one.

Pullman, generously, said that he was sad that the stalling of the movies meant that we were robbed of seeing Nicole Kidman change from a "cold-hearted, ideology-driven tyrant to someone who's feeling the love for Lyra growing within her [but] trying to push this feeling away". Instead, we'll get to see Golden Globe winner Ruth Wilson take on this challenge as Mrs Poulter, someone who Pullman says is "ghastly but wonderful to write about".

Dafne Keen plays Lyra, the main character in Sir Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials', which is being adapted into a TV series by HBO and BBC. YouTube
Dafne Keen plays Lyra, the main character in Sir Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials', which is being adapted into a TV series by HBO and BBC. YouTube

Which, actually, could also be a description of Lyra. He admitted in 2017 that his hero is “a bit of a scoundrel in some ways – she’s a shameless liar, she’s a barbarian, she’s a bit of a savage, and those things are not necessarily admirable. But she’s real.”

Surely that reality is why, a full 24 years on from the first book, Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in some territories), we're still talking about Lyra Belacqua's quest.

Pullman is often accused of being too dark and complex for a children's writer: an epithet he doesn't reject entirely given he has just won (ironically given his misgivings about Peter Pan) the J M Barrie Award in recognition of a lifetime's achievement in delighting children. But if we want our children to deplore corrupt authority, overcome dangerous ideologies and believe in themselves and others, then they could do a lot worse than follow the example of Lyra. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once argued, the books should be seen as a reminder of the dangers of using dogma and abusing religion to oppress people rather than set them free.

And, as Pullman told Time recently, his second trilogy, set in the same world, takes on dogma in science, politics and many other areas.

"I was now free to look at other things that were of interest to me," he said of The Book Of Dust series. "I wanted to know more about Lyra, I wanted to know about other characters I'd seen peripherally, in the distance, and grew to like".

He called the first book La Belle Sauvage, less a prequel than an "equel" – and the follow-up The Secret Commonwealth, featuring Lyra as a young woman, is likely to be published at the same time as the television adaptation of Northern Lights hits our screens, in October. It has Lyra travelling across Europe and into Asia, in search of a town said to be haunted by daemons.

“The book is a timely exploration of what it is to be human, to grow up and make sense of the world around us,” says Penguin’s press release.

For once, the blurb is spot on – because it’s exactly what Philip Pullman has been doing so emphatically and beautifully for the past 25 years.