Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is often seen as an atheist’s take on C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory via fantasy adventure series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The comparison is less than one-to-one, but it’s undeniable that the series’ most present villains, the priests of the Magisterium, are a direct and horrifying allegory for institutionalized Christianity.
Primary among the Magisterium’s goals is to eliminate sin from humanity by any means possible, including, as adapted in the first season of HBO Max’s His Dark Materials, severing children from their souls. By its nature, the TV series spends more time with the adult characters of Pullman’s world than the books do, and the altered focus brings the books’ themes of adults controlling children to the foreground.
Getting the audience inside the heads of those villains without making them too sympathetic — whether it’s a mother who rages that her child’s identity is not merely an extension of her own or a global state that wants to remove the free will of its citizens before they come of age — was the biggest challenge of creating the show, according to series writer Jack Thorne.
“We deliberately introduced [Father Hugh MacPhail, who rises to become the leader of the Magisterium] much earlier than the books did,” said Thorne, “because we wanted to understand his journey. We wanted to understand how someone does this to themselves and does this to their country.”
Polygon sat down with Thorne over Zoom for the occasion of the release of the third and final season of His Dark Materials, produced through a partnership between BBC One and HBO. The new season adapts the events of The Amber Spyglass and introduces even more societies from across the multiverse, where monolithic religion has sought to curb free will and just so happened to decide to start with children.
When asked if he thought there were present parallels between Dark Materials’ fantasy horrors and current trends of book bans and legislative claims of child corruption, Thorne agreed that the connection was not lost on him.
“I’m very scared of where we are, as a world right now. I think we all are a bit scared of where we are as a world. The way that we’ve put ourselves in our binary boxes and gone, If you’re not on my team, then you’re on the other team. And the forces that have arisen that have taken advantage of that. You think especially of Trump, and you think of Boris Johnson in my country, and the scary way they found to manipulate news to support their ego-driven agendas. That does live very strongly in [His Dark Materials].”
Pullman’s Amber Spyglass, the final book in his trilogy, packs those themes alongside much more, introducing an ultimate antagonist behind the Magisterium, a version of Purgatory, angels, and even the creator of the universe. But it’s also the book that completes the series’ transformation from a classic fantasy setup — children finding hidden doors to other worlds — to something from the classics of science fiction: a multiverse of alternate worlds full of a wild diversity of civilizations both like and unlike our own.
It’s a move that puts His Dark Materials in the same category of modern, mainstream multiverse drama alongside Everything Everywhere All at Once, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s headlong jog toward Avengers: Secret Wars.
Thorne credits this multiverse of multiverses to the current moment as well.
“Why are we drawn to the multiverse? What is it about the time we live in now that we want the possibility of the other? Uh, you know, yeah, I can think of several reasons why we might. Our time is so — it feels like we’re living through something quite profound. I don’t think we’ll realize quite what a revolution it’s been until we’re at the other side of it. I think it is a young-person-driven revolution, and it is about identity at its heart. And when we work it out, at the end of it, that stuff — the His Dark Material books, and the Avengers films, and everything — will seem like they exist in a new context.”
With the new season kicking off this week and production on it done and dusted, Polygon asked Thorne if he felt he had a different perspective on Pullman’s books now than when he began the show.
“We used to say, right at the beginning of the process, ‘We’re doing a Ph.D. in Philip Pullman,’” he recalled. “And I feel like I’ll never quite finish that Ph.D. And with The Book of Dust he is challenging things that I thought were the case, even now. He guided us through this whole thing, and there was nothing we did that contradicted where his universe sits. But at the same time, his universe is so multifaceted that we’re constantly playing a game of catch-up with his ridiculous intellect.”