There are times when writing this blog is a bit like visiting subjects that have been written about before. For me this happens mostly with regard to books, and particularly here, whether they transfer well to other media. Everyone knows about the so -called ‘unfilmable’ books – many of which feature in my personal pantheon, and many of which I have written about here before. The reason I am returning to this particular chestnut is that a brand new version of Philip Pullman’s fantasy cycle ‘His Dark Materials’ has just appeared on screen courtesy of the BBC in the UK and HBO in the United States. As a long time fan of these books I looked forward to this new dramatisation and after watching the first episode (and the over long trailer for the rest of the series that followed on the BBC!) I have to say I was quite underwhelmed – for instance where were all the daemons? Everyone in Pullman’s world has a daemon but in the crowd scenes they were conspicuously absent. And some of the characters just did not match the images in my reader’s head – for example, in the book Lyra has “dirty blonde” hair, and the actress (Ruth Wilson) playing Mrs. Coulter just wasn’t right, and no matter how good James MacAvoy was as Lord Asriel he struck me as too young to play someone who I feel is clearly older in the book. Like some critics I found myself thinking back to to the ill fated film version of ‘Northern Lights’ made in 2007 and called ‘The Golden Compass’ and how Daniel Craig was a better Asriel, and Nicole Kidman a better Marisa Coulter and, my personal favourite, Sam Elliott had the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby down to a tee – in this new iteration Lin – Manuel Miranda seems too smooth for the role. In many other aspects that film was a disaster and Pullman’s weird creation was badly served – but in my opinion it had its moments.
Some books do defy filming – usually because run times (and attention spans!) seem not to last for the length of the discursive nature of fiction (the film versions of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ being an honourable exception!). Yet corporations still want to push their product out there, and as I may have said before, if these versions/ iterations take people back to the source books then hooray, but if they just become another strata in the geology of far too much choice then what is the point? Again, although I recognise that creative endeavour is a product I find myself saddened by the endless commodification of everything.
Whilst I was thinking on the piece I came across a useful article in The Guardian about this very subject – the writer offered this handy definition of the word ‘unfilmable’;
“For “unfilmable” is often just code for “we tried and it didn’t happen”, an excuse for all the films trapped in development hell, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Bradley Cooper was once lined up to play a hunky Lucifer), and the long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. “Unfilmable” can also mean “we tried and did a terrible job”. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is not unfilmable, but the 2017 take starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey might make you wish it was”.
Of course This is all just my opinion, there may be many who will love the new version – and one critic has suggested that, if successful, this new series could become a staple of autumn television (in the same way as the Harry Potter films have become). But Pullman’s alternate world(s) are the place for weighty discussions and important questions alongside the superb storytelling, these do not deserve to be watered down to fit someone’s ideas of prime time gold – or even the ever elusive search for the latest ‘Holy Grail’ of ‘water cooler’ television!
(The quote is from an article in The Guardian’s by Sian Cain in July 2019 and on the ‘paper’s website).