'His Dark Materials' Comic-Con Panel: Why It's Coming to TV, Tackling Religion & More

Michael Maloney
Comic-Con Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO

Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda and James McAvoy

Game Of Thrones is over and Big Little Lies is wrapping up, but HBO is more than ready to keep viewers tuning in to the premium cable network thanks to His Dark Materials, a gripping and lavish adaptation of novelist Phillip Pullman’s trilogy of books: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.

Executive producer Jane Tranter (The Night Of), writer Jack Thorne (National Treasure: Kiri) and cast members Dafne Keen (Logan), Ruth Wilson (The Affair), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), and James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past) took part in a panel for the show at 2019 San Diego Comic-Con’s famous Hall H to discuss the highly-anticipated series.

The story tells a “coming of age” tale of youngsters Lyra Belacqua (Keen) and Will Parry (Amir Wilson, The Letter for the King), as they journey through parallel worlds. Unique to this saga are the presence of daemons. Each person has one, which represents their true inner beings.

Also, characters tend to lie, but Lyra comes into possession of the alethiometer, which is capable of answering any question.

Read on to hear the highlights of Thursday’s panel at Comic-Con.

On why this classic fantasy is coming to TV now: “I like a challenge,” EP Jane Tranter said. “I thought it was time for the books to be liberated in a space which could do them justice….the real estate of contemporary television, being able to stretch those books out and really be able to sound every note that Phillip Pullman sounded in the novels [was very appealing]. I was very persistent, tenacious, and naggy around New Line Cinema and Phillip Pullman to give me the rights to adapt them to television. Eventually, they got sick of me and said okay!”

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'His Dark Materials' Trailer Teases a Battle Filled With Magic & Intrigue (VIDEO)

Armored polar bears and more set up the highly-anticipated series based on Philip Pullman's series of books.

On what it’s like adapting a beloved book to the screen: “I always describe it as doing a Ph.D.,” says writer Jack Thorne. “The first thing you have to do is a ‘Ph.D.’ on the author…to know everything and have it all inside your head. So, when you start adapting, you have the novel with you and a conception of the world inside your head. When you translate it to television, you’re constantly keeping that truth in your head. What I always loved about Jane and what she said she was going to do with the book was that she’d sound every note. I think that’s what we’ve done to the best of our ability.”

Dafne Keen (Courtesy of HBO)

On acting alongside a daemon: “The daemon is the more sensible, more responsible part of you,” says Dafne Keen. “There’s a beautiful relationship Lira has with Pan [her daemon, aka Pantalaimon]. They have amazing scenes. It helps you as an actor because it helps you see the interior life of the character. It shows Lyra’s love to herself.”

“I have a guy named Brian who plays my monkey,” says Ruth Wilson of her character’s daemon. “He’s lovely. I knew this was a key to who [my character] was. Unlike everyone else, my daemon does not speak. I’m pretty cruel to my daemon and, in return, my daemon is pretty cruel to other people. We had to work out where that came from.”

On being cast as a Texan who flies around in a balloon: “Typecast! Again!” jokes Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It was very simple, actually. I was working on Mary Poppins Returns in London. Jane and Jack took me out for a drink. I didn’t know what it was about. I was a huge fan of the Harry Potter play. They said, ‘His Dark Materials’ and I said ‘Yes!’ I didn’t even know what the part was. I would have sharpened pencils for this!

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“I’m a huge fan of the books. When my wife and I started dating, we read these books together. It’s part of our falling in love story. There’s a love story in there. [The books] are in a really special place in my heart. I figured if they saw me [as Lee], I could, too. I love my daemon. I had this amazing arctic hare named Hester. It’s like we have our own ‘buddy cop’ movie in the middle of this show. I think Lee’s a lonely guy in the air so, we talk to each other constantly.

On having a snow leopard for a daemon: “When you’re a child before puberty, your daemon can change,” James McAvoy said. “When you reach puberty and you start to settle in on who actually you are, your daemon also settles on an animal’s form. The day Lord Asriel’s daemon settles as a snow leopard, he went, ‘Whoa. I’m totally bad ass and I’m a real loner.’ Once your daemon settles, you get to look at yourself and say, ‘I’m a subservient dog’ or ‘I’m a flighty sparrow’ or ’I’m a bad-ass snow leopard who walks his own path,’ you know what I mean? It’s a different kind of relationship you have with yourself. You can’t lie to yourself. It makes for interesting relationship dynamics.”

(Courtesy of HBO)

On whether or not she’d read the books before her auditioning for the role of Lyra: “They came out before I was born,” said Keen, who hastened to add. “That sounded really wrong. I didn’t really know about them. When I had my last audition with Ruth, I was only halfway through the book. I thought I’m not going to get it. I got it. I read all three books and I literally did not close [each] book until I finished all three of them. They’re so fun and entertaining and so good.”

“I thought you’d read the books,” Tranter said to Keen. “That convinces me you’re a better actress than I thought. Kudos to you.”

On dealing with the novel’s deeper issues related to philosophy and religion with a younger audience: “We fried each other’s brains, I think, and those of everyone around us,” Tranter said. “Phillip Pullman was our guide, really. In my experience,  children love dark, complicated scenes and big questions about who we are and where we are. Pullman never underestimates children either as the hero and heroine of his books or as its readers. Pullman has said he’s written adults books that children should read. I hope we’ve made an adult piece that children will watch.”

James McAvoy, Dafne Keen, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson (Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

During the Q&A portion from attendees, one fan asked Miranda why his character had a bunny for a daemon – and could he answer in a rap. “First of all,” Miranda clarified, “it’s an arctic hare, which are about knee-high. This ain’t Thumper. An arctic hare suits Lee because they’re scrappy survivors and so is Lee Scoresby.”

Another fan asked panelists what would be each of their daemons in real life.

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Tranter: “I’m going to say a wolf, coming from Bad Wolf [production company.] I’d be a bad wolf!”

Thorne: “I’m a woodpecker because I’m a very anxious person.”

Keen: “I’m one of those annoying, tropical monkeys, always bouncing around.”

Wilson: “A cat of some sort.” (Thorne suggested she’d be a Sphinx!)

McAvoy: “A sea otter. They’re exceptionally happy and playful. They play in large groups. They’re almost like water dogs. I’m up for that.”

Miranda: “Pizza rat. Ever seen the footage of the rat taking the pizza down to the subway platform? That’s my daemon. He’s got it all figured out.”

His Dark Materials, 2019, HBO