The BBC has greenlit an eight-part drama series based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, which comprises novels Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
Commissioned by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore and BBC drama commissioning controller Polly Hill, the adaptation will be produced by Bad Wolf – the new prodco from Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner’s – and New Line Cinema, which is making its first move into scripted TV. The show will be made in South Wales and Los Angeles.
One thing we don’t know is who will write the show. Screenwriters are being talked to right now, so this week we’re speculating wildly on who might get the job.
Adapting His Dark Materials (which has sold 17.5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages) is undoubtedly a great gig for any TV writer. But it will also be a tough challenge.
Not only is Pullman’s trilogy a complex and controversial piece of work (which may not sit comfortably in the BBC1 schedule), it has the shadow of a failed movie hanging over its head in 2007’s The Golden Compass, so there is no question it will require a proven talent to pull it off – someone who can capture the dark, subversive nature of the work without diminishing its sense of mischief, romance and adventure.
If their diaries allow it, the obvious choices to handle the project would be Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat, both of whom have exactly the right credentials for a project of this kind. Moffat, immersed in Doctor Who and Sherlock, might not be a realistic option right now. But both writers are close to Tranter and Gardner and know what it takes to create shows that can work on both sides of the Atlantic, which will be a significant consideration for New Line Cinema.
On the face of it, both writers perhaps seem a little too slick for Pullman’s sombre fantasy world, but their sense of fun may be exactly what’s required to avoid the fate of The Golden Compass movie.
Tranter and Gardner won’t want to stray far from this kind of quality. But if Davies and Moffat aren’t available then they may look to other writers who have developed their credentials in and around Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sherlock. Again it depends on diaries, but you would have to look at the likes of Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who, Sherlock) – who might even bag a part in the show.
Strong alternatives with proven showrunner ability include Chris Chibnall (Doctor Who, Torchwood and Broadchurch) and Toby Whitehouse. Whitehouse would be an interesting call; a long-time friend of Gardner, he has shown the same kind of versatility as Gatiss and Chibnall with credits such as Doctor Who, Torchwood, Being Human and The Game.
If you’re looking for someone with recent credentials in adapting awkward novels then Peter Harness may be an option. Aside from his BBC1 adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, his credits include Wallander and City of Vice. Interestingly, he is also now part of the Doctor Who star chamber, having written episodes for the last two seasons (including The Zygon Inversion, co-written with Steven Moffat).
Other in-demand writers that you ignore at your peril include Jack Thorne (The Fades, The Last Panthers), Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman) and Howard Overman (Misfits). And to balance the fact that this is an all-male list, you’d have to consider talents like Abi Morgan, Sally Wainwright and Sarah Phelps – though this certainly feels like more of a project for graduates of the Doctor Who school of creative writing (which means we should also consider Neil Cross, whose credits include Spooks, Doctor Who and detective series Luther).
Tranter and Gardner might, of course, head in a completely different direction. With so much movie talent coming over into TV, why not go for Alex Garland or Jane Goldman – Brits who are pre-eminent in their field? Or maybe it requires the involvement of Nicholas Wright, the playwright who successfully adapted the novels for the National Theatre.
The innate Britishness of the Pullman project (its location, its core characters and its brooding discontentment with Catholicism), combined with the film’s underperformance, probably militate against the use of a US writer. And it looks like the kind of project that would suit a writer-auteur rather than a writers room.
But US writers who Gardner and Tranter have worked with recently include Glen Morgan (Intruders), David Goyer (Da Vinci’s Demons) and John Shiban (Torchwood: Miracle Day). So if winning the US market is a big priority then any of these might be a credible screenwriting solution.
All of which is, of course, pure speculation – and there are plenty of other scribes who could handle the brief. It’s important, for example, to keep in mind that the chosen writer will need to pass muster with Pullman, not just Tranter and Gardner.
In the meantime, all we really know so far is what the production team and author have told us. Commenting on the project, Pullman said: “It’s been a constant source of pleasure to me to see this story adapted to different forms and presented in different media. It’s been a radio play, a stage play, a film, an audiobook, a graphic novel – and now this version for TV.”
Although the BBC announcement was only made this week, there is already a sense that His Dark Materials is better suited to TV than film (echoing other complex fantasy works such as Frank Herbert’s Dune).
Pullman, who will executive produce, seems positive about the medium’s potential to tell his story: “In recent years we’ve seen the way that long stories on television, whether adaptations (Game of Thrones) or original (The Sopranos, The Wire), can reach depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel. And the sheer talent now working in the world of longform television is formidable.
“For all those reasons I’m delighted at the prospect of a television version of His Dark Materials. I’m especially pleased at the involvement of Jane Tranter, whose experience, imagination, and drive are second to none. As for the BBC, it has no stronger supporter than me. I couldn’t be more pleased with this news.”
Tranter added: “It is an honour and a joy to be part of the team responsible for bringing Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels to the BBC. Ever since they were first published, these books have been a huge influence on so much of my thinking and imagination and it is enormously inspiring to be now working on them for television adaptation.
“The broad horizons of television suggests itself as the best of vehicles to capture the expansiveness of the story and worlds of Lyra and Will, and I am looking forward to seeing how Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass will occupy their place in an audience’s imagination across many episodes and seasons.”
Tranter’s use of the word ‘seasons’ as opposed to ‘season’ is, of course, illuminating. The books aren’t Game of Thones-like in length, so it’s doubtful the three of them could justify more than a series each (unless Bad Wolf goes down the interminable route taken with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit). So any writer who is thinking about coming on board is probably looking at a three-year commitment (assuming the TV show doesn’t suffer the same fate as the movie version) – which isn’t too bad. That said, they should probably read this article in The Guardian to remind themselves why the film version didn’t work.