'His Dark Materials' Producer Jane Tranter Stays True To The Story

Oct 31, 2019
Originally published on October 31, 2019 4:08 pm

Turn on HBO this Sunday night and you'll see an epic adventure unfold: it's a perilous rescue mission set in a fantastical world, filling a Game of Thrones-sized hole in the network's programming with an alternate universe full of witches, polar bears, magical animal companions and one adventurous young girl.

Yes, we're talking about His Dark Materials — originally a classic trilogy of books by author Phillip Pullman. Adapting such beloved stories for the screen was no easy feat for producer Jane Tranter.

No matter whether or not you're doing a contemporary piece, or whether or not you're doing a big fantasy like 'His Dark Materials.' It's all about text and performance, and a really good story with something to say. - Jane Tranter

In yet another alternate universe, Tranter never ended up in show business at all. Back in 1985, she was about to take a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But then another offer popped up — secretary in the radio drama department at the BBC. "They were working with Arthur Miller at the time," she remembers, "and I thought, 'Oh my god, if I'm the secretary in radio drama I might get to pick up the phone to Arthur Miller.' So I took that job instead."

Tranter never did speak with the famous American playwright. But she also didn't answer the phones for long. She learned the art of dramatic production, and 34 years later she's one of the most prolific television producers around, responsible for rebooting Doctor Who and making hit dramas like The Night Of and Succession.

His Dark Materials might be her most ambitious project yet, and it required a deft hand to bring such a complex drama to life. "It's about staying true to the story that you're telling," she says. "No matter whether or not you're doing a contemporary piece, or whether or not you're doing a big fantasy like His Dark Materials. It's all about text and performance, and a really good story with something to say."


Interview Highlights

On the character of Lyra, the girl at the center of the story

She is a spirited girl, who will zig when everyone else is zagging, who is prepared to take the long way 'round because she thinks that's right. Who's prepared to stick up for what she believes in. But more than anything else, really one of the great gifts that Philip Pullman gave us in this adaptation was to create a heroine who is the age that she is. So he's created a heroine who is a 13-year-old girl.

So often in these kind of fantasy pieces, where you have a youngster at the heart of it, there are young children who are behaving like adults, who make adult decisions, or have a sense of understanding that is an adult's understanding. Lyra does what she does because she is a 13-year-old. Her decisions as to who to trust or who not to trust are essentially quite childish decisions. And I think part of Philip Pullman's ability to do that for us is because, at the time he was writing these books, he was a middle school teacher and was interested and inspired by this particular age group, and wanted to find a way of telling their stories.

On where His Dark Materials fits on the bookshelf

I would not categorize His Dark Materials as young adult novels. Philip Pullman always says about the novels that he has written adult novels that children should and could read. There are different levels of understanding that we have translated to the screen. So you can understand the novels as a fantastic rollercoaster adventure ride — or you can take it down a level and see that it's actually a story about a 13-year-old girl who literally goes through puberty during the course of the trilogy, which I certainly haven't seen before. And I think that's what's suggested to me that actually this could play out on HBO. I think the complexity of the piece, I think the provocation of idea and theme and topic of the piece all feels quintessentially HBO.

On whether she feels pressure to succeed where the 2007 feature film adaptation failed

You are right that we certainly do have our own kinds of pressure, but the film wasn't one of them. It was impossible to make a good film out of these novels ... I think that they're too big, they're too detailed, there was too much stuff left on the floor, and the plot had to be sort of generalized and you couldn't go into all the complexity and all the twists and turns. So therefore I felt quite confident about it. I have always felt that The Golden Compass was very suitable to television adaptation. It was just a question of waiting from 2007 to 2015 — when I got the rights — for television to catch up, and to suggest that that might be the case.

This story was edited for radio by Jolie Myers and Noah Caldwell, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Turn on HBO this Sunday night, and you will see an epic adventure unfold. It's a perilous rescue mission set in a fantastical world filling a "Game Of Thrones" sized hole in the network's programming.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIS DARK MATERIALS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I am the western king, and I'm asking you to ready yourselves to travel north, ready yourselves to fight and ready yourselves to bring our children home.

KELLY: "His Dark Materials" - it was originally a classic trilogy of books by author Philip Pullman. Adapting such beloved stories for the screen is no easy feat, and our co-host, Audie Cornish, spoke to the woman who pulled it off.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Hi. Ms. Tranter?

JANE TRANTER: Hello.

CORNISH: How are you?

TRANTER: I'm good. Thank you very much.

CORNISH: OK. In an alternate universe, Jane Tranter never ended up in television at all. Back in 1985, she was about to take a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But then another offer popped up - secretary in the radio drama department at the BBC.

TRANTER: They were working with Arthur Miller at the time. And I thought, oh, my God, if I'm a secretary in radio drama, I might get to pick up the phone to Arthur Miller. So I took that job instead.

CORNISH: Tranter never did speak with the famous American playwright, but she also didn't answer the phones for long. She learned the art of dramatic production and jumped to the television side, eventually became an executive. Thirty-four years later, she's one of the most prolific producers around. She rebooted "Doctor Who." She helped launch hit dramas like "The Night Of" and "Succession." "His Dark Materials" might be her most ambitious project yet, one that required a deft hand to bring a complex drama to life.

TRANTER: It's about staying true to the story that you're telling, no matter whether or not you're doing a contemporary piece or whether or not you're doing a big fantasy like "His Dark Materials." It's all about text and performance and a really good story with something to say.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that in a moment, but I want to get a little bit to the story itself, which is super complicated (laughter), in my opinion, to put on screen. You have this young girl...

TRANTER: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Lyra. She's at the center of the story. Her friend has been kidnapped, and this connects to a broader kind of conspiracy of kidnapped children. Can you describe what Lyra is like, this girl at the center of the story?

TRANTER: She is a spirited girl who will zig when everyone else is zagging, is prepared to stick up for what she believes in. But more than anything else, really one of the great gifts that Philip Pullman gave us in this adaptation was to create a heroine who is the age that she is. So he's created a heroine who is a 13-year-old girl.

So often in these kind of fancy pieces where you have a youngster at the heart of it, the young children who are behaving like adults, who make adult decisions or have a sense of understanding that is an adult's understanding - Lyra does what she does because she is a 13-year-old. Her decisions as to who to trust or who not to trust are essentially quite childish decisions.

And I think part of Philip Pullman's ability to do that for us is because, at the time he was writing these books, he was a middle school teacher and was interested and inspired by this particular age group and wanted to find a way of telling their stories.

CORNISH: I didn't realize that because - I have to admit - there were moments where her behavior took me back to that time, personally. Here's a clip in which she's having an argument with an adult caretaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIS DARK MATERIALS")

DAFNE KEEN: (As Lyra) How am I supposed to trust you when no one tells me the truth?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The truth is complicated. Some things you're better off not knowing.

KEEN: (As Lyra) I am so bored of being told that.

CORNISH: Now, I feel confident I can play that out of context because it applies to...

TRANTER: Yes, brilliant.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Literally any context when you're that age - and frankly, some days, as an adult, I feel that. But can you talk about this theme in young adult novels and in her answering by saying, I'm so bored of it - you know, not that I'm frustrated, but I'm bored with that answer.

TRANTER: Well, actually, the first thing I should say is that I would not categorize "His Dark Materials" as young adult novels. Philip Pullman always says about the novels that he has written adult novels that children should and could read.

So you can understand the novels as a fantastic roller coaster adventure ride, or you can take it down a level and see that it's actually a story about a 13-year-old girl who literally goes through puberty during the course of the trilogy, which I certainly haven't seen before. And I think that's what suggested to me that actually this could play out on HBO. I think the complexity of the piece, I think the provocation of idea and theme and topic of the piece, fulfills quintessentially HBO. And after "Game Of Thrones," I will...

CORNISH: I was going to say, there has to be some pressure there because people have talked about the future of HBO.

TRANTER: Yeah.

CORNISH: Did you feel that?

TRANTER: I did not feel that. I would have felt that if I was making an adult male fantasy, full-throttle sex and violence, battle and intrigue, thrills and spills piece in that "Game Of Thrones" vein. I would not want to step into the shadow of "Game Of Thrones."

CORNISH: (Laughter).

TRANTER: All I was doing was adapting "His Dark Materials."

CORNISH: You still have your own pressures, though. I mean, I know that there was this big-budget adaptation in 2007, movie, "The Golden Compass" - didn't do that well. Was that in the back of your mind at all as you were trying to create this series?

TRANTER: You are right that we certainly do have our own kinds of pressure, but the film wasn't one of them. It was impossible to make a good film out of these novels. They're too big.

CORNISH: Oh. Oh, OK.

TRANTER: I think that they're too big. They're too detailed. There was too much stuff left on the floor. And the plot had to be sort of generalized, and you couldn't go into all the complexity and all the twists and turns. So therefore I felt quite confident about it. I have always felt that "The Golden Compass" was very suitable to television adaptation. It was just a question of waiting from 2007 to 2015, when I got the rights, for television to catch up and to suggest that that might be the case.

CORNISH: Your description of the show and just talking about all the different elements in it, it's very clear this has all the elements of a good drama. I know you didn't get to meet Arthur Miller...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Or pick up the phone and talk to him, but, you know, going this many years on, do you feel like you've come a long way, you know, from secretary of the radio drama department (laughter)?

TRANTER: Yes. I mean, put like that - hugely. I'm not a person who's particularly prone to looking back and thinking about the journey. I'm normally sort of just too hellbent, driven on the journey that I'm on.

CORNISH: You sound like Lyra when you say that (laughter).

TRANTER: Well, I always think of - I mean, and certainly, I thought like this while making "His Dark Materials." I think that often in life. You know, it's like you're on a tightrope. And I am the sort of person - I get on that tightrope, and I will look ahead at the vision of what is there on the other side and call to everyone, get on this tightrope as well, but whatever you do, don't look down. So it's kind of exciting and terrifying at the same time. But I don't look back very much because I think if I did I probably would fall off that tightrope.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, Jane Tranter, thank you so much for telling us your story and - as well as the story of His Dark Materials. Much appreciated.

TRANTER: Thank you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNLOUNGER'S "SUNNY TALES [CHILL]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.