We deserve a good ‘His Dark Materials’ adaptation

The new show attempts to explain our post-truth problem with a new moral mythology, to mixed success.

We deserve a good ‘His Dark Materials’ adaptation

The new show attempts to explain our post-truth problem with a new moral mythology, to mixed success.

Americans like to feel with our guts; we aren’t known for our intellectualism and subtlety. So a trilogy overflowing with biblical symbolism and erudite references to the likes of William Blake and John Milton, all set within a retelling of Genesis in a steampunk multiverse, does not really seem like a recipe for a hit. It’s too scholarly, too esoteric, too weird. That Philip Pullman, the creator of His Dark Materials, is loudly atheist and that his books follow suit cannot help.

His Dark Materials is the story of a “half-civilized, half-wild” girl named Lyra who lives in a parallel universe that’s almost like ours, but not quite. Here, each person’s soul is manifested through an animal companion called a daemon; Lyra’s is named Pan, and shape shifts because Lyra is still a child (daemons don’t take on their true forms until adulthood). A powerful religious body known as the Magisterium tightly controls everything from government to academic institutions, cracking down on the slightest whiff of heresy. But an enigmatic — and heretical — new discovery, known as Dust, is turning the world upside-down; a mysterious new world is revealed in the clouds of the North, children are suddenly disappearing, and a prophecy places Lyra at the center of it all as she charms witches and armored polar bears alike in her journey to find the truth.

Despite lacking the name recognition of the Harry Potter series, the His Dark Materials books were bestsellers, matching and even topping sales for J.K. Rowling’s hits. And where, in the words of The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda, the Harry Potter world is “agreeable and entertaining” but ultimately “utterly innocuous,” His Dark Materials is the “deepest and most disturbing children’s fantasy of our time” — and the best. Its heavy themes of death, religion, and even physics were the key to its success, engaging adults as much as children. A 2007 attempt at adapting the first book, The Golden Compass, was a complete flop for multiple reasons, but foremost because it shied away from this controversy and complexity, leaving a hollow, confusing movie that was panned by critics and still boycotted by Christian groups.

Undeterred by the film’s failure, HBO and BBC have adapted the trilogy, with three planned seasons, each taking on one book; it’s already been renewed for a second season. (The first episode premiered earlier this month.) While producer Jane Tranter told an audience at the San Diego Comic-Con that the nefarious Magisterium “doesn’t equate to any particular church or religion in our world,” the cassocks and Latin prayers of the first few episodes suggest otherwise. Either way, the real heart of His Dark Materials’ is not actually the danger of religion given full rein. Instead, it’s something broader yet more nuanced, and even more relevant: the dangers of deifying ignorance and vilifying knowledge — a tactic being wielded to great effect today.

“The Fall” story is behind so many of our values. It is the crux of the assumption that humanity is full of powerful, evil desires and can’t be trusted to make good choices — something people from Freud to the Framers of the Constitution believed, and why we have the electoral college.

Even if you aren’t religious, you know the story of the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, God has forbidden Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but a serpent tempts Eve, telling her that if she consumes its apple, she will know the difference between good and bad and become like a god. So she does, as does Adam, and it opens their eyes. They realize they are naked and scramble to cover up, suddenly self-conscious — and then God catches them, curses them with suffering, and kicks them out of paradise.

Traditionally, this story is viewed as the first, most foundational mistake ever made: the source of original sin, which has plagued humanity ever since. We did not become like gods, and the only knowledge gifted by the fruit was that of shame. For this, we lost paradise.

Every citizen of Western society is affected by this story, even if you’ve never touched a Bible. It doesn’t matter; the Bible is the bedrock of Western culture, and the story of the Fall is referenced and reinterpreted and reinforced in music and art and literature (Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Snow White’s poisoned apple, EVE in WALL-E, Ava in Ex Machina for a few examples).

“The Fall” story is behind so many of our values. It is the crux of the assumption that humanity is full of powerful, evil desires and can’t be trusted to make good choices — something people from Freud to the Framers of the Constitution believed, and why we have the electoral college. It roots the abortion debate, with its pervasive belief that women must obey men because women with choice are dangerous. And even though the biblical text never mentions sex, original sin has been integrally tied to sex and sexuality ever since St Augustine invented the idea to explain, in part, his own overwhelming lustful appetites; now it’s part of the rationale for everything from abstinence only education to slut-shaming. This story is why the word “experienced” means something sexual if said in the right tone of voice (and not in a good way), and why we try to preserve innocence.

Pullman saw himself taking on this Western canonical stance; to do so, he based His Dark Materials on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which retells the Genesis story. Paradise Lost catalyzed a debate, still active today among scholars of his work as well as writers from William Blake to Pullman himself, as to whether God or Satan is the true hero of the Eden story. Milton’s Satan is charismatic and sympathetic, his arguments compelling, while his God is pompous and unyielding. As Blake famously wrote, Milton (a Puritan) was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” As Satan argues in the poem, why would God keep knowledge from creation, except out of selfishness and a desire for domination? It would have been heresy for Milton to posit such a thought outright, but what if eating the apple was an act of resistance against an oppressor? What if the morality built on the Edenic story — that desire is dangerous and humanity is untrustworthy — was flipped?

So, with his own retelling, Pullman asked: given the choice again, to remain in Edenic innocence in paradise or to eat the Fruit of Knowledge and Fall, which would we choose?

Pullman’s question, though on the surface an old and fusty academic debate, has never been more relevant. Knowledge and critical thinking are losing value, replaced with blatant rewritings of fact tweeted in all caps and forced into reality through volume and repetition. Scapegoating vulnerable groups takes the place of real analysis. All of which helps consolidate power in the hands of the rich, and of bloated corporations — they can, after all, shout loudest.

The story of Eden, and of original sin, still echoes in the rhetoric used by Trump, in the US, and other populist leaders throughout the world. It’s an attitude promoted by everything from deriding Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy because of her professorial background to presidential tweets that trumpet narratives people want to hear over negative, inconvenient facts. Ignorance is so much more comfortable; sorting through complicated facts requires hard work and still rarely uncovers clear answers. We prefer a world divided into galvanizing sides of right and wrong; simplicity often feels noble and virtuous. Why be uncomfortably confused when you could be righteously angry?

But simplicity reduces our freedom; we can’t choose freely when we don’t know the truth of a situation, and its nuance is denied to us. Simple narratives are promoted by whichever group profits from the clear conclusions they present, manipulating the story to plaster over a complicated reality. At the moment, it’s a rich president, nationalist groups, and a ravenous capitalism that benefit from our ignorance, while adamantly denying their complicity in global problems — poverty, healthcare, racism, violence, climate change. As the trailer for His Dark Materials opens, “There is a war raging…between those who want to keep us in ignorance, and those willing to fight for truth and freedom.”

In His Dark Materials, this war is embodied in the mysterious Dust. The animal-shaped daemons of Lyra’s world shift shape until puberty, when they take on a form that represents a fundamental aspect of the person. After this transition, Dust is drawn to and produced by these adults, increasing as their wisdom grows with age and experience — and so the Magisterium believes that Dust is the physical manifestation of original sin, erupting at the loss of childhood purity and innocence.

They’re not wrong. Dust is the physical embodiment of knowledge, of consciousness — and, therefore, original sin. It’s not simplistic knowledge, in the sense of true and false; still-innocent children have that. Pullman, unlike his fellows in the atheist movement, has as little use for blind faith in science as blind faith in religion; he dislikes absolutist statements ascribing human experience in the world to “just” the work of chemicals in the brain, calling such ideas “nearly always mistaken” because they ignore the centrality of emotional truths to human experience. No, Dust is wisdom, the sort of knowing that springs from experience, empathy and reflection.

Pullman acknowledges, movingly, the loss — of confidence, of comfort, of ease — that often comes with growing up. Lyra falters at the end of The Amber Spyglass, the second book, growing up and losing her assuredness: “those invisible ladders of meaning down which she’d stepped with such ease and confidence were gone.” She is stricken, suddenly lost. Self-consciousness, after all, is a double edged sword; it can mean a deep knowledge of self, but, more often, it refers to self-doubt and awkwardness. Yet this is the full human experience, and anything less is not to live. “This life is immensely valuable... and we should do what we can to increase the amount of wisdom in the world,” says Pullman.

How exactly the show will manage to finesse such an abstract set of ideas, and all the layered allegories Pullman’s story relies on, remains to be seen in its full scope; early episodes get slightly bogged down in laying necessary groundwork. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the show is setting out to emphasize the importance of free thinking as much as the books. “Scholastic sanctuary” — which exempts universities from the Magisterium’s control — is referenced repeatedly, held sacred as the last bastion against tyranny.

Unfortunately, it’s a hard sell to paint academics as dangerous, rabble-rousing heroes. In the show, series villain Mrs. Coulter accuses the university of “bloated privilege,” full of “tired old men, talking in a tired old way about tired old things,” which aligns better with current public opinion of academia. Evoking the vitality of knowledge via the glory of the academy may not be the most successful strategy.

“Our purpose is to understand and to help others to understand, to explore, to speculate, to imagine. And that purpose has a moral force.”
Philip Pullman

Still, it does land sometimes; Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel is hunted for his discovery of a “myriad of worlds, of which the Magisterium controls only one,” calling to mind Galileo’s imprisonment for daring to claim the earth does not lie at the center of the galaxy and reminding us of the importance of research and freedom of knowledge in the course of human progress.

And Lyra’s passionate pursuit of the truth, regardless of any challenge, is inspiring as well. Dafne Keen’s performance is as courageous and magnetic as the beloved original. “Pullman gives us a new Eve and validates curiosity as a form of salvation for us all,” Maria Tatar, Professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard, told me. At the end of the day, it rests on Lyra to deliver this message, and the series certainly nails it where she’s concerned.

His Dark Materials argues life would be empty and false without experience and knowledge, but with this comes complete responsibility for our world. There’s no ultimate authority in this framework but us. “We have to take charge of our fate. Now we are here, now we are conscious, we make a difference. Our presence changes everything,” writes Pullman. “Our purpose is to understand and to help others to understand, to explore, to speculate, to imagine. And that purpose has a moral force.”

But he also realized that this is as easily distressing as it is inspiring. “We need a story, because it’s no good persuading people to commit themselves to an idea on the grounds that it’s reasonable.” So he set out to write that story, which is still persuading people today.

Mira Fox writes on religion, literature, and pop culture. She's based in New York.