Writer Jack Thorne and exec producer Jane Tranter, who runs production company Bad Wolf, spoke about the big-budget fantasy epic alongside stars including Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda at its TCA press tour panel.
Thorne admitted that he wrote several dozens drafts for the first episode of the show, which is set to launch on HBO in October. “We wrote papers to ourselves about all the different ideas in the show. We wanted to do a Ph.D. in Phillip Pullman and we tried to do a Ph.D. in His Dark Materials. I wrote 46 drafts of episode one in order to find a way to tell this story as elegantly as possible. [Pullman’s] denseness is a blessing and a curse; it’s so exciting. Sometimes when you’re doing an adaptation of something there’s a moment when you know everything there is to know. With Phillip you never can. It’s a very challenging show to write but also glorious to write.”
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Tranter secured an initial 16-episode run across two seasons for the adaptation of Pullman’s trilogy. She joked that she would have aimed for three seasons “if I hadn’t have thought it would look greedy.”
She said that one of the main reasons to produce 16 episodes at once – the show shot in Cardiff, Wales, where Bad Wolf is based – was down to working with child actors including Keen, who plays main character Lyra, a seemingly ordinary but brave young woman from another world.
“I think of it more as 16 episodes rather than two seasons because the end of the first novel is continuous with the second,” Tranter said, “and whilst you would have more of a gap — and God knows there’s whole teams in Cardiff that [want more of a gap] — as we move from one season to another we have children in the show and they grow up really quickly. They don’t look the same 12 months later and Lyra is the same age, so we had to find a way to turn the piece around quote quickly in order for that story to be told. There was a great thing in the book about a girl going through puberty and we wanted to be able to pace that out appropriately. That’s why HBO and the BBC went with us for 16 episodes.”
The former BBC drama chief called it a “quintessential” co-production between the British public broadcaster and the WarnerMedia premium cable network. “We started with the BBC because Philip Pullman is a [British] national treasure and the books are on the national curriculum and it felt right that it would have a place in the UK with one of its broadcasters. It [also] felt to us that we have premium cable performances and production values and that sense of glorious eccentricity to His Dark Materials is like no other, it felt very HBO to us and HBO and the BBC are very good partners,” she added.
The first season of His Dark Materials follows Lyra’s searching for a kidnapped friend. She uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children and becomes a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust. As she journeys through the worlds, including our own, Lyra meets a determined and courageous boy called Will (Amir Wilson). Together they encounter extraordinary beings and dangerous secrets, with the fate of both the living — and the dead — in their hands.
The cast of the drama also includes Anne-Marie Duff, Clarke Peters, Ariyon Bakare, Will Keen — father of young lead Dafne Keen — Ian Gelder, Georgina Campbell, Lucian Msamati, James Cosmo, Ruta Gedmintas, Mat Fraser, Geoff Bell, Simon Manyonda as well as young actors Lewin Lloyd, Daniel Frogson and Tyler Howitt.
Produced in association with New Line Cinema, the series is based on Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy of books: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass — considered a modern masterpiece of imaginative fiction.
Thorne said that it’s largely one book per season. “There are a few treats I’ve stolen from future books that I’ve tried to infuse this season with,” he said. “The whole thing is looking at the three books and [asking] ‘how did Phillip think of them like and how can we celebrate them in the best possible’ and sometimes that’s celebration involved moving certain elements forward.”
Executive producing the series are Tranter, Pullman, Thorne, Dan McCulloch, Julie Gardner, Tom Hooper, Deborah Forte, Toby Emmerich and Carolyn Blackwood for New Line Cinema, and Ben Irving and Piers Wenger. Hooper is lead director of the big-budget adaptation and is helming the first two episodes.
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