Why 'His Dark Materials' succeeds where 'Golden Compass' failed

'The Golden Compass' writer-director Chris Weitz on why his 2007 fell flat.

The writer and director of the maligned 2007 Golden Compass movie knows exactly what went wrong with that adaptation. You should know it’s not his fault, and that things are looking much brighter for the new His Dark Materials TV adaption from BBC and HBO.

In an interview for Inverse about his then-new movie Operation Finale earlier this year, Chris Weitz spoke about the issues he faced writing and directing The Golden Compass.

“In The Golden Compass there was a kind of critique to a certain attitude towards religion,” Weitz said. “That was kind of a third rail eventually as far as the studio was concerned.”

For locomotive railways, the third rail carries the electric current, so if a person touches it, they’d be electrocuted. As a political or thematic analogy, a third rail topic is something considered so dangerous and controversial that engaging with it would prove catastrophic. The studio’s fear of offending people with an anti-religious story ultimately diluted the soul of Philip Pullman’s original novels and ruined the story while failing to appeal to religious conservatives who still protested its existence.

By comparison, His Dark Materials opens on a scene where James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel brings Lyra to Oxford seeking scholastic sanctuary so she might be protected from the Magisterium. In the real world, people usually sometimes seek religious sanctuary from political forces, so it speak volumes to the amount of corruption inherent in this society.

his dark materials opening
'His Dark Materials' opens on a man bringing a baby to a college for sanctuary, so it can be protected from the Magisterium.

Pullman’s original His Dark Materials trilogy is an overt criticism of the Catholic Church’s dogmatic teachings taken to extremes in a fantastical alternate reality. In its original form, the story explores how the Magisterium, a stand-in for the Catholic Church, lies and manipulates the masses while those in control abuse their power. The story rejects religion outright in favor of a more scientific yet fantastical view of the universe.

“I think that people’s faith even at times people’s dismissal of faith is a really important issue that we need to be able to portray in movies without being afraid of it,” Weitz said.

Even if portraying powerful religious organizations in negative ways offends some people, it’s important for stories to inspire questions about the nature of society, life, and the powerful forces that control it all.

In its first episode, His Dark Materials puts a bunch of academics in a room where they see irrefutable evidence of parallel worlds. Immediately they panic about what the Magisterium might do to them if they spoke about such heretical things. There’s real fear here, and it raises important questions about what life might be like in the real world if the Catholic Church had too much power — or what the rising influence of Evangelical Christianity in America today could eventually lead to

The Golden Compass movie didn’t work because the studio sought to make it as accessible as possible by making this essential critique vague and euphemistic, but this new His Dark Materials adaptation from BBC and HBO delivers a more faithful adaptation that’s bolder as a result. Not everyone’s going to like it, but at least it’s authentic.


His Dark Materials airs Mondays on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Media via HBO, Inverse