Staging the Next Fantasy Blockbuster

January 25, 2004 By SARAH LYALL from New York Times


Anna Maxwell Martin on left, Philip Pullman in his garden office on right.

The unassuming man at the end of the eighth row slipped quietly from his seat during the final applause for the sold-out performance of "His Dark Materials" at the National Theater. But he didn't get far. This was Philip Pullman, 57, who wrote the thrilling books on which the play is based, and he was quickly waylaid by a crowd of young readers who seemed unable to believe their luck.

"His Dark Materials," which began as a trilogy of young-adult novels with extravagant themes but humble commercial expectations, has turned into a serious international phenomenon and bestowed on its author the sort of celebrity that prompted him to move to a house with an unlisted address. The books, luminous adventures that address life after death, religious faith and the complicated intermingling of good and evil, have been translated into 37 languages and sold more than 7 million copies in Britain and the United States alone.

Anyone who has seen the "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings" movies, or even just noted their success, can guess what is happening now: the books are being moved into position as the next blockbuster fantasy franchise. In London, the National has staged a lavishly ambitious, sold-out, $1.4 million, two-part, six-hour adaptation. And New Line Cinema, which released the "Lord of the Rings" mega-movies, has bought the rights to Mr. Pullman's trilogy and hired Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay.

But "His Dark Materials" is a far more challenging proposition than its cinematic predecessors, and not only because of the complexity of its philosophical and scientific underpinnings. The books make a breathtakingly subversive attack on organized religion and on the notion of an all-powerful god. The trilogy has already been criticized by church organizations alarmed at its preference for humanism and for its depiction of a cruel fictional church that is obsessed with what it regards as the sexual purity of children but blinded by its own lust for power. Among other things, the books feature a church-sponsored prison camp for kidnapped children, a pair of renegade male angels who are touchingly in love and a god who is ancient, weak and exhausted, yearning more than anything for the merciful release of death.

A movie director will be hired in the next month or so and filming should start in about a year. With a skittish eye, perhaps, on the power of religious groups in the United States, New Line's executives say they will probably insist that the books' repudiation of religion be softened into more of a meditation on the corruption of power in general. Mark Ordesky, executive vice president and chief operating officer of New Line Productions, said in an interview that "the real issue is not religion; it's authority - that's what's really the driving issue here."

Mr. Ordesky pointed out that the figure who most represents God in the books is known as "the Authority" and said that the core of the story is about "people who are striving to be free and have free will, who are in conflict with forces of authority and totalitarianism."  What the studio likes about the trilogy, Mr. Ordesky said, is the same thing it liked about "The Lord of the Rings": the story. "Big-budget, big-spectacle, visual-effects movies are in themselves of no interest to audiences," Mr. Ordesky said. "What resonates is when you take all that and have a compelling human story beneath it."

The chances for fabulous effects are pretty good, too. The books take place in multiple parallel worlds, including current-day Oxford and a sort-of Oxford from some undetermined time in the past. For those who care to look for the references, the books allude to Milton, Blake, Coleridge, Ruskin, the Bible, Homer, Norse mythology, quantum physics and string theory, but they are also suffused with a richly compelling plot and fantastic characters. There are two beguiling young human protagonists, Lyra and Will, but there are also armored bears, scheming academics, terrifying harpies, fierce, tiny spies that travel by dragonfly, cosmically powerful but physically wispy angels who long for bodily form, witches with racy love lives, corrupt clerics, gentle mammals that travel by wheels and, best of all, daemons, the animal embodiment of an individual's soul that leaves the person's side only in death.

Even at a time when books for young people, with their strong narratives and enthusiastic suspension of imaginative disbelief, have been taken up eagerly by grown-ups, Mr. Pullman's work, at its heart a retelling of Milton's "Paradise Lost," stands out for its unapologetic sophistication. In 2002, "The Amber Spyglass," the final novel in the trilogy, became the first children's book to win the $45,000 Whitbread prize for the best book of the year in Britain. (The first volume in the series, "Northern Lights" - called "The Golden Compass" in the United States - was published in 1995. The second, "The Subtle Knife," was published in 1997 and "Spyglass" in 2000.) If the Harry Potter stories succeeded in making grown-ups (and not just fantasy-genre readers) interested once more in worlds of endless possibility, "His Dark Materials" reminded them that the best children's books are literature of the highest quality.

"Few recent works have succeeded more abundantly than Philip Pullman's trilogy in achieving the first things we ask of a work of art," wrote Alastair Macauley in The Financial Times. In The Daily Telegraph, the critic Charles Spencer said that Mr. Pullman's books transcended the obvious comparison to the Harry Potter series. "While J. K. Rowling's books about the boy wizard seem increasingly derivative, formulaic, flatly written and ridiculously long, Pullman's magnificent `His Dark Materials' trilogy offers both hours of spellbound wonder and sudden moments of deep emotion that cut at the heart like the subtlest of knives," Mr. Spencer wrote.

Mr. Pullman, a former schoolteacher, has long had an impressive literary reputation, but none of his earlier works have had anything like the success of "His Dark Materials." Opinionated and outspoken, he has championed children's literature as a way to express themes and ideas that, he mischievously argues, are too large to be depicted in adult fiction. He has also been a forceful proponent of what he calls the Republic of Heaven, in which life is lived fully because there is nothing more - no prospect of an afterlife to wait for. By the same token, he has criticized C. S. Lewis's "Narnia" books for what he says is the divisiveness of their Christian message, in which those who cling too enthusiastically to the physical world are consigned to hell. (Mr. Pullman may have a chance to face off, in a way, with Lewis, who died in 1963: next year, the BBC will begin filming the first of five movies based on the "Narnia" books, with Andrew Adamson, of "Shrek," directing.)

Mr. Pullman's books, in turn, have already been condemned by a chorus of religious groups here: The Catholic Herald has pronounced them "truly the stuff of nightmares"; the Association of Christian Teachers recently said that adults should think carefully before letting children read them. "We don't want this book on the bookshelves of primary schools," Rupert Kaye, the group's chief executive, said of the trilogy in an interview. "It's one thing to say, `The church has got things terribly wrong and I'm going to hold it up to the light of day,' and it's another thing to have a book in which every Christian character is evil or selfish or power-hungry."

Mr. Pullman said in an interview that although he has strong feelings about religion, readers should draw their own conclusions from his books. "If I were to say, `This is the only way to read it,' I would be putting myself in the same position as the evangelicals - that is, telling people how to read and what to think," he said. "The very last possible thing on earth I want to be known as - with the single exception of `pedophile' - is `guru.' I'm not in the business of doing that. What I'm doing is telling a story."

Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theater, came to "His Dark Materials" on a colleague's recommendation. Impatient with children's theatrical standards like "The Wind in the Willows" (a production of which he had directed some years ago), Mr. Hytner was looking for projects based on contemporary books for young adults. "What seemed immediately stageable were the series of archetypal, highly emotional family conflicts, which I thought were powerful and dramatic and would hold a theater full of people," Mr. Hytner said of the trilogy. It took 18 months of workshops and rewrites for the playwright, Nicholas Wright, to whittle the 1,300 pages of "His Dark Materials" down to a manageable script. One of the central problems of staging was how to depict the characters' daemons; the answer was to hire the puppet designer Michael Curry, who collaborated with Julie Taymor on "The Lion King." The resulting daemon puppets - a treacherous golden monkey for Lyra's mother; a haughty snow leopard for her father; a collection of birds for the Oxford professors; reptiles for members of the church hierarchy - are manipulated, bunraku-style, by actors dressed in black. The play, directed by Mr. Hytner, uses 30 actors and features a dizzying 110 set changes that make fine use of the unusual revolving stage in the National's Olivier Theater.

The production is to return to the National next December for another four-month run; the complexity of its staging makes it highly unlikely that "His Dark Materials" will transfer to another theater, Mr. Hytner said. But when it does come back it will likely be in a somewhat altered form. Reviews have been mixed, with many critics praising Mr. Hytner's ambition but concluding that the play ultimately fails to capture the magic of the novels. In general, though, the critical response does not appear to have dampened the buoyant passion of actual audiences. Despite its length, the production has attracted a large number of children, who can be seen earnestly explaining the fine points of the narrative to their parents during the intermissions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pullman is at work on an unrelated children's book, "The Scarecrow and His Servant," which he expects to finish by the end of the year. But he has not left "His Dark Materials" - the phrase is from "Paradise Lost" - behind. (He recently published "Lyra's Oxford," a small teaser of a book containing a short story about the trilogy's heroine, and is at work on "The Book of Dust," a prequel.) He now gets so much mail that it takes him and his wife, working together at home in Oxford, two days a week to answer it all.

Earlier this month, Mr. Pullman was interviewed onstage - in front of another sell-out crowd that filled every one of the theater's 1,110 seats - before the curtain rose on the second part of "His Dark Materials." He answered the usual questions about where he gets his ideas and what sort of daemon he would have (a magpie or a jackdaw, he answered, "one of those birds that steal bright things"). He did not talk about death, though it is a central aspect of his grand vision. Indeed, even critics who didn't like the production have loved the scenes that take place in the prison-like World of the Dead, where the downtrodden, suffering deceased are gently released into the outside world, where they feel a moment of unspeakable ecstasy before dissolving gratefully into the earth and the air.

"It's astonishing how uncompromising it is in introducing kids to an alternative mythology of death," Mr. Hytner said, "how it finds a harsh consolation in the notion that death is death and that the worst possible thing, the most desperate thing, is that there is some kind of afterlife. It's thrilling to see kids as young as 9 and 10 sitting, riveted, by that and feeling perhaps relieved by the notion of oblivion."