Creating His Dark Materials

The world of Philip Pullman’s epic adventure series has been brought to life in an eight-part drama co-produced by the BBC and HBO. We talk to Executive Producer Joel Collins about building alternate realities and creating a host of CGI creatures

First published in the 1990s, Philip Pullman’s fantastical trilogy – which includes Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – has sold 18 million copies around the world and been translated into 40 languages.

Inspired by Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, the books tell the story of two children, Lyra and Will, who end up on a journey through a series of parallel worlds. There are fictional creatures such as Gobblers, not to mention a host of talking animals and fictional scientific devices.

While the books have been marketed at children and young adults, Pullman didn’t create them with a specific age group in mind – and this no doubt played a large part in their success. Like Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate events, His Dark Materials presented young readers with stories that were dark, disturbing and complex – in Pullman’s case, involving murder, child abduction and religious scandal. They also gave readers a window into worlds that felt both utterly alien and instantly recognisable – Northern Lights is set in the Arctic, Egypt and Oxford among other places, yet it presents a version of reality where monkeys and bears can speak and demons are rife.

The National Theatre staged a play based on the series in 2003 and a feature film, the Golden Compass, was released in 2007. Based on the Northern Lights, it boasted an all-star cast including Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and received a BAFTA and an Oscar for its special effects, but reviews were mixed and a sequel was never released. (It was also branded “atheism for kids” by the US Catholic Church on its release, on account of its plot.)

Now, Pullman’s work has been adapted for TV. Written by Jack Thorne (whose credits include Skins, Shameless and This is England 86), the HBO and BBC version of His Dark Materials will tell the story of Pullman’s novels over three eight-part series. The first episode of the show aired on Sunday – and was met with positive reviews – and filming has already begun on season two.