by Ben Soton
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. BBC1 at 8pm on Sundays from 3rd November.
BBC1’s latest Sunday night drama, His Dark Materials, is now on its fourth episode. An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy consisting of The Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, this is a fantasy set in a strange alternative reality; a dystopia ruled over by an authoritarian regime called the Magisterium, with analogies to the Catholic church or any system of domination and thought control.
This is the second attempt to put Pullman’s works on the screen; the 2007 film The Golden Compass, an adaptation of The Northern Lights, was considered a failure and criticised by some fans of the book. Secularist organisations claimed the book’s anti-religious message had been diluted whilst the religious lobbies predictably condemned it.
In this television adaptation, leading characters are played by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel and Dafne Keen as Lyra.
In this strange world humans are accompanied by a daemon, some kind of alter-ego in animal form, and zeppelin-style balloons dominate the sky. The attention of the all-powerful Magisterium is drawn to Oxford, which is also the home of the story’s main character, an 11-year-old girl called Lyra.
Lyra holds a secret that could threaten the rule of the Magisterium. The story features a group of people known as Gyptians, a reference to gypsies, who form the world’s underclass. We also see characters travel between alternative realities, including our own. So far, we have seen the disappearance of Gyptian children and talk of a trip to the North Pole. Large numbers of the Gyptian children have gone missing and they are gathering in London in search of them. Is the rule of the Magisterium under threat?
Pullman’s trilogy has been viewed as a re-telling of John Milton’s 17th Century poem Paradise Lost. In fact the term ‘His Dark Materials’ features in Milton’s work. Whereas Paradise Lost tells the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden by defying God’s instruction, Pullman’s work glorifies a young child who defies a petty-minded god-like institution, the Magisterium. For this reason, the book’s anti-religious and anti-clerical message has brought criticism from some Christian organisations; Bill Donahoe of the Catholic League in the USA described it as “Atheism for Kids”. On the other hand, the books have actually been endorsed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who states the positives of opposing religious fundamentalism.
Pullman has a relevant message in today’s world. The power of religion is no longer what it was; however, we live in a world where information is controlled by powerful, billionaire-owned media network that presents a world view at complete odds with reality.
In the case of the anti-Semitism row within the Labour Party, we are now seeing lies presented as facts. Meanwhile the supposedly impartial BBC presents articles in the Tory newspapers as news stories in their own right.
Whilst over the last 30 years wealth and power have been concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, in Britain opposition is seriously limited with even the right to strike effectively illegal. When the head of the Magisterium enters our world, he would not feel out of place. We have our own Magisterium to deal with and if you are reading this paper you are playing a small part in the resistance.