He thought his epic tale of two 12-year-olds would appeal to a few clever kids and a few adults. Then it sold 15m copies and was turned into a blockbusting film. Robert Butler goes for lunch
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, December 2007
He had written fairy tales, detective stories, melodramas, thrillers and fantasies. But when Philip Pullman embarked on his trilogy, "His Dark Materials", he went back to the most fundamental story of all: the one with the snake, the apple and the fig leaf. He recast Adam and Eve as a 12-year-old girl and boy living in parallel universes, who meet, fall in love and spend the night together. This time God, known as the Authority, fades away and dies. "I thought there would be a small audience," Pullman says, "a few clever kids somewhere and a few intelligent adults who thought, "That's all right, quite enjoyed it.'" Well, he got that wrong.
The books have been translated into 40 languages and sold 15m copies, and that's only the beginning. In 2003 and 2004, a stage version was a big hit at the National Theatre in London. This month the phenomenon goes to another level with the release of the film, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. It's produced by New Line, which brought us "The Lord of the Rings" 1, 2 and 3. By the time New Line has worked its way through the trilogy, Pullman's rewrite of Genesis 3 will have gone far beyond its bedtime-reading, Waterstone's-shopping, theatre-going constituency. It will have become a story known by people who may not even read.
"His Dark Materials" has its origins in the writings of Milton, Blake and Kleist, but if that sounds literary and erudite, don't worry, it won't show: this is a big-budget fantasy movie playing at a cinema near you, and near pretty well everyone else. Its main characters--Lyra, Mrs Coulter, Lee Scoresby--will shortly be as famous as Dumbledore and Gandalf. But there's a difference. Pullman has written an epic with the entertainment value to capture a mass audience, which simultaneously taps into the same profound themes as Homer and the Bible. It's a story with a dark and powerful undertow: a creation myth for the 21st century.
Its author sits in the study of his farmhouse near Oxford surrounded by books, Black & Decker woodwork equipment, and a rocking horse that he's making for a grandchild. Two pugs, Hoagy and Nellie, run in and out. Next door, our photographer and her two assistants are transforming his kitchen into a photographic studio. ("I've never been on a front cover, have I?" Pullman says to his wife, Jude, who greets this invasionary force with warm and unconcerned tolerance.) During the shoot, his broad face and high-domed forehead change dramatically when he dons a wide-brimmed hat (a little reluctantly) and a beret (more enthusiastically): as an author, he would rather be cast as a Paris intellectual than a Tory squire.
On the dining-room table next door, a pile of new publications and spin-offs sits next to a picture of Pullman with the new James Bond. "His Dark Materials" comprises three books, "Northern Lights" (1995), "The Subtle Knife" (1997) and "The Amber Spyglass" (2000). It's "Northern Lights" that has been made into the movie, called "The Golden Compass"--the name of "Northern Lights" in American bookshops. Genesis 3 runs to 24 verses; "His Dark Materials" weighs in at 1,300 pages. Pullman spent seven years in a shed at the bottom of his Oxford garden, doing his three pages a day (no more, no less). About one in ten pages made the cut. The mathematics alone is impressive.