“A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.”
Last night I went to see a truly dire adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Part II, no less, comprising the whole of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, which feels like a bad mistake, since the latter really needs a whole play to itself at least. Though it was billed as a standalone, I honestly have no idea what someone who had never read the books would make of it, since it featured Serafina Pekkala as a flowers-in-her-hair hippy, the Authority being carried onstage in a washing basket, and a tacked-on epilogue about Dust that apparently had no functional relationship with the rest of the play. Though I did like that it played up the relationship between Roger and Lyra, and Roger’s jealousy of Will, which is latent if unspoken in the books, by the last half hour I was reduced to staging The New Albion Guide to Analogue Consciousness in my brain, a favoured procrastination technique. The fact that this was apparently based on the National Theatre’s script – that is, the script used in a professional playhouse that actual real people (meaning, not students) went to watch – makes it all somehow worse.
Anyway, its awfulness only pointed up the complexity and ambition of Pullman’s original narrative. The adaptation cuts out Mary Malone and the mulefa episode, which is understandable, because that particular plotline has little interaction with the main one – except that thematically it’s vital for explaining the importance of Dust and thus of Will and Lyra’s love: Serafina rocking up and announcing that everything is fine because Dust is back does not somehow have the same effect as us getting to see the slow waning of a vibrant and developed culture occasioned by the loss of Dust. A large part of the Cittagazze sequence – including the history of the subtle knife – is cut, which means we never quite get an appreciation of what the Spectres are, and why it’s important that Will doesn’t make any more of them. And it’s even more obvious in the play that Pullman’s reasons for keeping Will and Lyra apart are ferociously contrived: “But can’t we – ?” “No.” “Why?” “Because Dust.”
Probably the narrative, warts-and-all approach to adapting Pullman is the wrong one: the play would have been much better if it had been a little cleaner; if it had pulled in its focus a little, stuck to one storyline and allowed it to breathe a little more, instead of being so crowded with characters and concepts that nothing takes on any kind of importance. Novels can do crowded. Plays can’t. So if you’re going to adapt a novel like Pullman’s, your approach probably needs to be a bit more creative than: “we’re going to take EVERYTHING and put it all in the script”. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, worked fantastically well as a musical – even though The Lord of the Rings: The Musical sounds utterly stupid as a concept – because someone realised that the original continually foregrounds song as a form of communal storytelling (Middle-earth, after all, was created in song). I’m not saying Andrew Lloyd Webber should sit down and start writing His Dark Materials: The Musical, although seeing Iorek Byrnison singing “Let It Go” would be a treat; just that adaptation, which is coming round again as a dominant paradigm for the cultural success of a narrative, needs to be seen as a creative effort, not a mimetic one. Maybe Hollywood and the West End should take a leaf from Shakespeare’s book, seeing as he is simultaneously the greatest plagiarist and the greatest dramatist in English. But I fear they won’t, because Shakespeare isn’t cool anymore. Not like armoured bears and atheism are, anyway.