Jack Thorne on writing His Dark Materials

Jack Thorne. Picture: Supplied
Jack Thorne. Picture: Supplied

Kevin Kriedemann caught up withBafta Award-winning scriptwriter and executive producer Jack Thorne, who has adapted the celebrated His Dark Materials book series for the small screen.

Already on the list of the most popular TV shows right now on IMDb, His Dark Materials, the brand-new fantasy series from HBO and the BBC, is now streaming on Showmax.

Based on Philip Pullman’s award-winning trilogy of the same name, His Dark Materials follows Lyra, a brave young girl from another world. Lyra’s quest to find her kidnapped friend leads her to uncover a sinister plot of a secret organisation, encounter extraordinary beings and protect dangerous secrets.

The fantasy’s cast includes child stars Dafne Keen (Logan) and Amir Wilson as Lyra and Will, respectively, supported by Golden Globe winner Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther), Golden Globe nominee James McAvoy (X-Men), Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor Lin-Manuel Miranda (Fosse/Verdon, Mary Poppins Returns), and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) Award winner Helen McCrory (Harry Potter, The Queen).

Kevin Kriedemann caught up with Jack Thorne (Wonder, Kiri, Skins, This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90), who adapted the book for the small screen.

Were you a fan of the books before you became involved with the show?

I was a big fan. I had just finished doing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the stage play, and I was talking to Jane [Tranter]’s partner, Julie [Gardner], on email about various things.

I said: “I hear you’re doing His Dark Materials,” and she said: “Do you want to meet Jane and talk to her about it?”

I’ve got to say, my first response was “no, I don’t want to go anywhere near those worlds ever again. They’re scary and terrifying; I’m going to mess it up; I don’t want to do it,” and everything else, but then I just went back to the books and went: “I desperately want to delve into this world.”

The opportunity was too great to not go through the inevitable pain and heartbreak, which is how the process turned out.

What about the books drew you in?

I read them when they first came out. It’s interesting, all the fantastical elements. Still, I think the thing that first drew me in was the strange relationship between Lyra and her parents, and the joy of that, and the incredibly well-written characters who had so much life and depth to them.

Andrew Davies [House of Cards] said the thing about adaptation is that it’s always all about the characters and choosing whose story you’re telling. Philip is very clear on whose story this is. This is Lyra’s story, but the more you read the books the more the other characters leap at you and start shouting, and they’re incredible for that. He weaves incredible fantasy worlds and the characters he fills these worlds with are so dense and interesting, and I think that’s pretty rare in a fantasy.

At its simplest level, what is His Dark Materials about?

The thing I love most about the story is that it’s a story of a girl, Lyra, going into the most incredible places and making the simplest moral choices. In so many of the Marvel comics and what’s popular in fantasy at the moment, it’s all about greatness; it’s all about saving the world.

Lyra is very simple – she always wants to do the good thing. Sometimes she doesn’t know what the good thing is, sometimes she gets a bit lost morally but she always has that drive within her, and following her journey through these incredible landscapes is the story of His Dark Materials.

What are the deeper themes here?

I think it’s a question of what we are at our essence, and what should drive us, and who we should be. I think it’s that deep. That’s the advantage of fantasy, you can ask those kinds of big questions and Pullman does it effortlessly.

If you follow the story of Will, Lyra, Lord Asriel, Mrs Coulter and others throughout the books, you see people who all have a different relationship with that question of who we should be. They’re all challenged in different ways. Ultimately, the victor in the stories is Lyra because she follows that path of goodness and she doesn’t waver from it.

I think that’s what’s special about the books and it’s really difficult to do that. [Pullman is] such a beautiful and humane writer for finding those truths.

I think it was a massive success because it’s a phenomenal piece of literature. I hope one of the things that the TV show will do is bring an even wider audience and allow new people to discover this. I really hope that we’ve celebrated these books and that we encourage people to turn back to these books and see their magnificence for themselves.

What world is it set in?

I think for Philip it’s from the Lutheran Church onwards, so it’s a 17th-century world, but Lyra’s world is a parallel world to our own. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a religious order that seeks to control thought, has enormous power. It’s a world where your demons are out and about. It’s a world where certain things have been developed in different ways but they still exist.

Electricity is there, but the majority of travel is done by airship. If you’re travelling large distances, you don’t get on a stagecoach, you get on an airship. It has similarities to ours, but it’s different.

It must have been a challenge to get even the first book into eight hours of television…

The process of writing these scripts has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever been a part of. We went through more than 40 drafts of episode one of this show. The reason we went through 40 drafts is there is so much information that we had to establish in setting up this world.

What you realise is that the questions that Philip leaves hanging are fundamental questions to leave hanging. I’ve adapted quite a few things and the task I always set myself is to follow the truth of the books. You can’t always follow the facts and you can’t always put everything in the same order. Still you’re trying to please a reality, a televisual reality of the books rather than necessarily the factual reality of the books.

Novels have got the great ability to go inside someone’s head and when you go inside someone’s head you can elevate things, but we don’t have that. But we’ve got an advantage that novels don’t have – we’ve got the actors’ faces. A large amount of this story is told through Wilson’s face, for instance. She is an incredible actress – I wrote a scene in which she sits beside a bath on her own and I wrote what she might be feeling in that moment, and then you see her do it and you just see something magnificent occur.

The amazing thing we’ve got in this show is the most [wonderful] cast. The process of writing the scripts, particularly once we started filming, was of just trusting their faces to do a lot of the telling.

Was Pullman involved in the process?

Philip was involved. We met a few times and talked. There’s a lot of information we found out from him and it was always about “so-and-so is doing this here and so-and-so is doing that there, so what was the bit they were doing in between?”

[We were] trying to plot journeys and to understand things, but also I was trying to get a sense of him and trying to get a sense of who he is and why he tells stories the way he tells them. That helps you find the truth in the story.

  • His Dark Materials is available on Showmax


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