‘Having to deal with controversy is an appalling waste of time,’ says Philip Pullman, but the author seemed to do little else on his visit to the United States prior to the release of The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of Northern Lights, the first part of his best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy.

 

The American press seized on reports of Pullman’s atheism and in consequence discussion of the epic was often reduced to examination of its stance on religion, as though Pullman’s raison d’etre in writing His Dark Materials had been to create an anti-religious tract rather than a wonderful story. American Catholic groups exhorted viewers to shun the movie, even advertising the boycott on Google. Pullman views the spectacle with a certain amount of resignation.

It's a sign of the very strange and intense and troubled relationship many Americans have with religion. It obsesses them, it excites them, it rouses them to frenzies of hysterical ecstasy and fear and hatred.

The author points out that the reaction of the church merely serves to support his argument about organised religion. ‘I couldn't hope for a more perfectly judged demonstration of the truth of what I'm saying than the attack carried out in the US by the Catholic League, and echoed by the Vatican itself in L'Osservatore Romano’. Perhaps surprisingly, when Pullman wrote His Dark Materials he thought that it would be unlikely to attract attention. ‘I was surprised that the book was any kind of a success, anywhere,’ he says.

I think (at first) many people just didn't notice it because they don't take children's books seriously - including those Catholic school libraries on whose shelves it happily sat for eleven years until the recent hoo-ha. They didn't think a ‘children’s’ book could have anything serious to say. And Harry Potter was scaring them witless with all that Satanic evil witch stuff. What exciting lives these poor people live!

Of course, His Dark Materials is not only for children: the allusive and intellectually challenging text appeals to readers of all ages. ‘There are plenty of adults who don't get the allusions and complexities, and plenty of children who do. Those who don't get them don't worry about it, because the story is still going on, and I took great pains to make that as clear as I could.

 

‘If you're reading a book, it doesn't matter if you don't understand why something is happening, as long as you understand what. Readers who don't get all the other stuff know that Lyra doesn't get it either, and she's right in the middle of it, but she's damn well going to find out. So they are content to go along with her.’

 

For the author, a major challenge was managing the multiple strands of the epic narrative. He famously kept the structure under control with the aid of stacks of Post-It notes, writing down the summary of a scene and reordering the paper as necessary.

 

For the writing itself, he simply followed one character at a time. ‘When I got to a difficult bit with one character I just left them and went to another, and by the time I'd got to a difficult bit with that character I'd worked out what to do with the first one, and went back to her or him.

 

‘You can keep going for a long time like that, but eventually you have to tie things up. And if you've left enough loose ends lying around it's not too hard to do that, either.’

Some characters turned out to be more important than I thought they'd be - Iorek Byrnison, for one. That was usually quite helpful because it gave me another character to skip to, but they would also, some of them, dig their heels in and refuse to do things I wanted them to do.

‘Mrs Coulter was particularly difficult. But then she is a star. Her redemption is real. It's absolutely genuine, and she fights against it every inch of the way until she has to give in helplessly to the love for Lyra that's been growing and growing. If they decide not to make the other two films, the thing I'll be sorriest of all to miss is Nicole Kidman giving Mrs Coulter's final speech.’

 

All of the characters are favourites of the author in different ways, but Iorek, he says, is ‘one of the top ones. It was when Lyra met him that I realised something basic about storytelling, which is that you should never be afraid of the obvious.

 

‘It was obvious that he should be the true king of the bears, and that Lyra should help him regain his throne - so obviously it was a cliché, and my finely-tuned literary antennae shrank away from it. But my storytelling antennae said “No - go on - do it. Don't be afraid of the obvious.”’

 

Pullman often worried that in the end the book would fall short of his expectations, and modestly claims that his fears were justified. ‘I was right, because of course every big project, like every political career, ends in failure and disappointment. Still, the ruins of it are quite commodious.’


He hopes that young readers will finish His Dark Materials having gained the understanding that trusting one’s own thoughts and feelings is an essential part of self-discovery and growing up.

 

‘That would be one of the things I most hope readers will take away. Another is the sense (articulated by Will in connection with the angels) that this material world, where we have senses and nerves and muscles and skin and consciousness, is an infinitely precious place, and we don't value it nearly highly enough.’

 

After all the controversy, the book’s stance on institutional religion has in the end been watered down in the film of Northern Lights, in favour of a generalised critique of authoritarianism. The change has prompted some critics to claim that the heart has been taken out of the work. ‘I don't necessarily agree,’ says Pullman. ‘Many things have to be left out when a book is filmed. But more observant critics, I think, have noticed that the film is still a good, exciting, beautifully made story.’

 

Although the author is known to have been keen to have Nicole Kidman play Mrs Coulter and expressed approval of the casting of Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, his involvement in the film was fairly limited.

I was very happy with those two, and in fact the casting throughout has been perfect. I watched some of the shooting, I gave the odd word of advice or opinion when it was asked for ... 

‘But don't forget that this is far from being the only, or even the first, version. There were two runs at the National Theatre, with different casts; there was a radio dramatisation; there was the full-cast audio recording.

 

‘It might not be the last, either. There might be a graphic novel in due course. If there's a remake of the film in 25 years' time, Dakota can come back and play Mrs Coulter.’