© Alex Bailey/Marco Grob
Philip Pullman’s surrealist, blasphemous novels are being brought to the screen by an all-star team, an attempt to rectify the mistakes made by a universally ignored film version. But the creators have proved there’s no point in taking another stab if you’re going to use the same knife
There was a long phase in Hollywood, and TV, where the only remit seemed to be: did people like it the first time? Well, then, they’re going to love it again. It wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon – remember when they remade Brief Encounter in 1974 with Richard Burton and Sophia Loren? No? That’s for the best – but the 21st century saw a renaissance of the belief if people liked The Wicker Man the first time, they’ll love it with more Nicolas Cage and bees. See also: Ghost In The Shell, Total Recall, the inexplicable Get Smart remake and, more recently, most live-action Disney films.
Now we’re entering a different phase, one almost definitely inspired by the arrival of Netflix and its realisation people want nostalgia and easy watching: why remake things that people really liked, and inevitably get a diminishing return, when we could rekindle something that never got a good shot?
There have been some misfires in Netflix’s love of the remake: its previous attempt to remake the beloved Japanese anime Death Note as a live-action movie immediately springs to mind. But generally, its sequels, spin-offs and revamps have been faithful and true. Netflix is currently in the process of doing a new live-action version of the animated classic Avatar: The Last Airbender, previously turned into a universally panned movie by M Night Shyamalan, to give it the second life it might well and truly deserve. I’m sure it’ll be a runaway success for Netflix, but not entirely necessary when the source material is that good.
© Alex Bailey
Currently in the process of helping everyone forget its last iteration is HBO’s Watchmen. Although TV adaptations of many films feel wildly unnecessary (NBC’s About A Boy show and Amazon’s remaking of the pitch-perfect Hanna are both particularly inexplicable), doing a TV reimagining of a graphic novel that had a deeply mediocre film rendition feels very savvy. There’s only a very small percentile of fans who were satisfied with what Zach Snyder did, which means a good – but not literal – reimagining of Alan Moore’s world feels not only exciting, but also cathartic to those edged to near completion by the announcement of a movie. Thanks to being a story set in the same world rather than the original plot, it also achieves a rare double whammy: it’s not only satisfying for fans, but doesn’t even have to compare with what came before. A shrewd move to realise that adapting a story soaked in the Cold War wouldn’t have the punch of taking its dark, caustic humour and applying it to American racism and police brutality. Finally we get to see something that was done dirty, done right and done intelligently too: it’s the perfect sell.
I was hoping the same could be said of the new His Dark Materials TV show: less a revisiting, like Watchmen, and more a literal attempt to right the wrongs of the past. The film version of Philip Pullman’s seminal Dali-does-the-Bible pageant of God killing, queer angels and alternate universes really didn’t do the sheer weirdness of the book any sort of justice. Now we’re back in the other Oxford with Lyra Belacqua et al with an all-star cast, and reactions have generally been positive.
As a His Dark Materials stan, I am one of the masses who awaited this new adaptation with baited breath. But honestly? It failed to deliver. While Ruth Wilson’s performance as Mrs Coulter is both inspired casting and phenomenally realised, the rest of the show has an odd lightness to it: it feels more like an episode of Doctor Who than it does an episode of an auteur-made show like The Handmaid’s Tale or Legion. Pullman’s world is odd and murky, where the very laws of physics and chemistry are slightly askew from what we know in our own. To make it seem so ordinary is tonally weird. The demons, too, feel more like something out of The Animals Of Farthing Wood than out of a high-fantasy takedown of religion. Twee is not a word I would have have applied to the books, but it’s exactly what this show felt like.
© Alex Bailey
Which begs the question: is there ever a good way to adapt His Dark Materials? I would argue yes. There must be. It’s good material, exciting material. But even reading the reviews of the National Theatre’s stage version suggested it might be a book that doesn't want to live elsewhere. But if time was the problem with theatre, but imagination of the original was not, one has to wonder why the immediate decision wasn’t to do an animated version – a world where abstract, magical oddities exist in odd and very particular ways, but in a lengthier format than even a diptych of plays can offer.
Simply adapting it again in the same way, just on TV instead of film, doesn’t seem to have pepped it up that much. While the sell is strong, the execution doesn’t feel far enough removed from the previous version to actually make for a significantly better product. Perhaps it’s a new version of capitalism that we should ready ourselves: slowly improving remakes of beloved properties that we keep coming back to, thirsty for more, only for it to always be a disappointment as we keep hoping that this time will be different.
But it also opens up the question of why we remake things at all: you don’t need to remake the things that worked the first time unless there’s something vital and interesting to explore by setting things in a new time or place. Equally, there’s no point in trying to make a silk purse rather than a sow’s ear if you’re still only willing to work with a pig. His Dark Materials deserves to be remembered as a strange, fantastical wonderland and instead it will simply become something they show every Christmas to keep the children happy. If that’s the best we can hope for from revisionist remakes, maybe it’s best that we leave our favourite books and movies be until someone more visionary can be called in.