By Ani Bundel
HBO brought three panels to San Diego Comic-Con for 2019. Naturally, there is the outgoing reigning champ, Game of Thrones, which has a Hall H panel Friday. There’s the current “big thing” Westworld, which has a Hall H panel Saturday ahead of Marvel. And then there’s the Next Big Thing, His Dark Materials, which HBO will be premiering this fall.
Based on the book series by Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials might not be familiar to general audiences yet, but for a room full of faithful on Thursday, it was a long time coming. There were huge cheers not only for producer Jane Tranter and writer Jack Thorne, but also the four main cast members Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, and of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
And yet, moderator JD Heyman tried to explain the show to those who might not know what they were getting. “Imagine a world where your soul lives outside your body…”
It’s something that sounds easy in theory. The His Dark Materials project was commissioned by the BBC back in 2015, but it took until now to be ready. Thorne explained he and Tranter went through 46 drafts of the pilot episode before they were satisfied they’d finally nailed it.
Tranter and Thorne also discussed how much they had to grapple with the religious themes of the piece. One of the reasons His Dark Materials has not made a big splash in the US market, despite the big-budget film adaptation The Golden Compass from the mid-aughts, was that producers shied away from it. Thorne, on the other hand, tackled it head-on.
Tranter wanted to be clear this was not an anti-Christian series: “Pullman isn’t attacking the church or faith…but a particular strain of keeping people in the dark and suppressing freedom of thought.”
Then there were those “souls outside the bodies” Heyman mentioned at the top of the panel. These “daemons,” as they are called, were hard for the actors to get used to. Rather than use straight CGI and have the actors try to work with tennis balls, the production went full Jim Henson and created puppets for each character to work with.
Miranda, who plays Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby, said it became a little like working on Sesame Street. (He writes songs for them, you knew that right?) After a while, you stop seeing the puppeteer, and the character becomes real. But then there was acting against someone who’s soul is literally next to them as a puppet. “It’s like 3D chess,” he sighed.
Both McAvoy and Wilson agreed having one’s soul outside the body changes everything about a person. You can’t hide. As McAvoy noted, his character, Lord Asriel, has a snow leopard for a daemon. It’s not exactly subtle.
But in the end, everyone agreed that His Dark Materials is, at its heart, a coming of age tale. As Tranter put it, “Pullman says he wrote adult books that children should read. I hope we made an adult TV show that children should watch.”
Oh, and don’t worry, Hamilton fans. Miranda promises his first scene in the show, he’ll arrive on-screen singing. All will be right with the world.
His Dark Materials is expected to air Mondays on HBO this fall. In the meantime, check out the extended trailer, shown at Thursday’s Hall H panel.