I had a religious upbringing in a fairly conservative town in central Texas, but thankfully, my parents encouraged me to read; they didn’t restrict my consumption of fantasy and science fiction, unlike other kids in strict Christian families that I knew. I was an absolute nut for anything involving magic or alchemy, and if it didn’t have a map of a fictional country at the front of the book, I wasn’t reading it. Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, hit that worldbuilding sweet spot.
Many children of my generation were similarly swept up in a mysterious world filled with mystical daemons and sinister conspiracies. Given its international fanbase, it’s no surprise that His Dark Materials has been considered ripe material for adaptations in other media — the series has taken the form of a radio play, a theatrical production, a failed movie franchise, and now as a television series co-produced by HBO and the BBC, the second season of which premiered this week. Though the airing of the new His Dark Materials show has been relatively quiet and controversy-free, the series has had a long, hard road to mainstream acceptance despite its many fans.
His Dark Materials — published from 1995 to 2000 and consisting of three novels, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass — infamously chronicles an attempt to overthrow the Christian God and his kingdom in heaven; the great evil in the books is the sinister Magisterium, a loose stand-in for the Catholic Church. In other words: Pullman’s books, while marketed to an adolescent audience, never infantilized that audience and ventured into some heady thematic territory. So it’s no surprise that the trilogy was the subject of relentless criticism and condemnation from the moment of its genesis, both in Pullman’s native U.K. and here in the United States.
When I read His Dark Materials in middle school, I was still steeped in my conservative religious upbringing and started to feel increasingly uncomfortable reading the second book in the series, The Subtle Knife. By the time I got to the end, when the book’s characters fully announce their intention to assassinate God, I was utterly scandalized — I promptly returned the "heathen" book to the public library and never read The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the trilogy.
Since its release by Scholastic in the '90s, the series has been dogged by complaints by various religious groups. Pullman’s books were significantly more subversive than their peers in the Young Adult section, but it’s much easier to sneak criticism of the Catholic Church into a book than it is a blockbuster motion picture event. Though the recent HBO series His Dark Materials has so far gotten away with relatively little pushback from the religious right, the previous adaptation of Pullman’s work, 2007’s The Golden Compass, wasn’t so lucky.
Despite the filmmakers' efforts to make the material more palatable to conservative audience members — which only succeeded in alienating fans of the series — Christian groups had their knives out from the get-go. Religious critics even admitted the movie was more toned-down compared to the book, but that would never be enough. In a statement released by The Catholic League, the anti-defamation group urged parents to boycott The Golden Compass “precisely because [The Catholic League] knows that the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present. And no parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books.” The League launched a major campaign to protest the movie, publishing an expository pamphlet called “The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked.” Protestants took issue with the film for similar reasons, with Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, arguing that Pullman’s work is “as subtle as an army tank,” and that “his agenda is nothing less than to expose what he believes is the tyranny of the Christian faith and the Christian church.”
The movie casts the book’s spiritual conflicts as more of a struggle between science and magic than science and religion; the Magisterium’s members clearly look like men of the cloth, but there’s enough difference to explain away any connections. Nicole Kidman, perfectly cast (and utterly wasted) as Mrs. Coulter, was raised Catholic and said she would not have done the film if she considered it “anti-Catholic,” and the rest of the cast and crew stood by the movie as a critique of authority in general, not organized religion or Christianity specifically.
In the newest envisioning of His Dark Materials, the Magisterium has more explicit religious overtones, and they strictly govern and punish anything considered “heresy” or “blasphemy.” But all in all, this series’ version of the Magisterium still feels less like any real church and more like a dystopian and authoritarian organization more interested in ruling power than religion.
Considering how fervently religious critics have come for His Dark Materials in the past, it’s a little shocking how little flak the new series has gotten. Writing for the Jesuit publication American Magazine, John O’Keefe calls the series’ depiction of the Magisterium to be “quite harsh” and faults its negative feelings toward organized religion, but even then, his most severe criticism is that the miniseries tones down the book trilogy’s environmental message. A warm review in Christianity Today explains that the show’s religious commentary is less about the church itself and more about authority run amuck, imagining a society where a “hierarchical church authority controls society, but lacks the genuine faith to guide it.” James Parker wrote a scathing takedown in The Atlantic — but of Pullman’s original books and his own atheism, not the miniseries. The Catholic League didn’t even bother to put out a statement.
Maybe it’s just that times have changed, but this dilemma is why a project like His Dark Materials is perfect for a platform like HBO — HBO gets money from its subscribers whether His Dark Materials does well or not, so there’s less risk involved. All in all, HBO is resistant to controversy in a way theatrically-released feature films are not.
I never actually got around to reading The Amber Spyglass; my fear of God was a little too intense at the time. But my own personal beliefs and views have changed quite a bit in the years since, and it seems the rest of the world has changed too — the HBO series will be the first time anyone has ever adapted The Subtle Knife or The Amber Spyglass to the screen.
Several years after the film adaptation of The Golden Compass was released, star Sam Elliot blamed the Catholic Church for its failure. Thankfully, now we can enjoy His Dark Materials whether the Catholic Church wants us to or not.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.