LOS ANGELES — HBO executives were initially excited when approached about joining the BBC in bringing Philip Pullman’s epic “His Dark Materials” trilogy to television. Then reality hit. Pullman’s work has been so highly praised by a large legion of fans that with such an undertaking comes great responsibility.

There was a good reason to be nervous as the first book in the series was turned into the disastrous feature film “The Golden Compass” in 2007. The team that tackled the project would have to make sure adapting “Northern Lights” (published as “The Golden Compass” in the United States) and the subsequent “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” would have to be close enough to the source material to please loyal fans but open enough to draw in those who have never read the books.

GETTING IT RIGHT

Executive producer Jane Tranter ignored what had been done and focused on what could be done for the series, which debuts Monday on HBO.

“I think one of the things that can happen when you adapt a book for film is that you have to sort of cut down the middle of the story. We’ve got eight episodes a book in order to be able to tell this incredible story, which is as broad as it is deep,” Tranter says. “And because we can do that, we can sound every note that Philip Pullman in his book sounded, and in so doing, we make clear that the religious controversy that there was around the film was not relevant to the books themselves.

“In ‘His Dark Materials,’ Philip Pullman talks about oppression. He talks about the control of information. He talks about the falsification of information. And he chooses the form of The Magisterium, which is a fantastical organization which includes church and state, and is a byzantine organization to do it. There is no direct contrast with any contemporary religious organization for ‘His Dark Materials.’”

THE STORY

The series follows Lyra (Dafne Keen), a young woman from another world whose search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children. She must find a way to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust.

The task of making the books accessible fell to executive producer Jack Thorne, who also wrote the series. His approach started with looking at all three books and trying to make determinations as to what made Pullman tell the stories the way he did, then how best to celebrate them. Thorne hints that while each season of the series is based on one of the books, certain elements had to be moved around to create dramatic tension.

It also was a challenge to get across the complicated worlds and characters Pullman had created in the most entertaining way. That ended up being a lot of trial and error.

“We wrote papers to ourselves about all the different ideas on the show. We wanted to do a Ph.D. in Philip Pullman and we tried to do a Ph.D. in ‘His Dark Materials.’ We then went through many, many drafts. I wrote 46 drafts of Episode 1 in order to try and find a way to tell this story as elegantly as possible,” Thorne says. “Philip’s denseness is a blessing and a curse.

“You’re constantly fighting it, but you’re constantly finding new things, new ideas and it’s so exciting. Sometimes when you’re doing an adaptation of things, there’s a moment when you kind of feel like you know everything there is to know. With Philip, you never can. And we had him on our shoulder all the way through to sort of guide us through that. But, it’s a very, very challenging show to write. And but also a glorious show to write.”

BRINGING CHARACTERS TO LIFE

Once the script was in shape, the task was turned over to the actors to bring the words to life. The cast includes Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Clarke Peters, James Cosmo, Anne-Marie Duff, Will Keen and Ariyon Bakare.

Although he never saw himself as Lord Asriel, Scottish actor James McAvoy was tasked with taking on the character. He went into the project with an advantage, having repeatedly read all three books in the series. The background helped him understand one of the key components.

“In this world we all have this animal that personifies our soul,” McAvoy says. “And it takes form. It solidifies its form at puberty. And at puberty, you get to look at your solidified form where that animal decides to hold its shape for the rest of your life as one particular animal instead of many. And you’re going, wow, I’m a snow leopard. OK, that’s me. I can’t hide from it.

“It’s just an interesting relationship with yourself because you get to look at yourself and talk to yourself and talk to your soul and you can’t really hide from who you are in the way that people in our world can. So that was pretty interesting.” ‘His Dark Materials’ airs 9 p.m. on HBO.^p

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

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