ALL PLOT AND NO PASSION? ADAPTING HIS "DARK MATERIALS" FOR THE STAGE
Philip Pullman’s novels, Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), make up the hugely popular His Dark Materials trilogy. Appealing to both adults and children, the books have sold in their millions, been translated into more than thirty languages, and in December 2003, started 3 months of performances at the National Theatre in London as two three-hour plays, adapted by Nicholas Wright (well-known as a playwright and adaptor in the UK) and directed by Nicholas Hytner, who is also overall Director of the National Theatre and one of the UK’s most successful theatre directors. The combination of venue, director and adaptor places the adaptations of His Dark Materials firmly in the UK cultural establishment.
Unusually, the performances sold out before the first preview - before they had been reviewed by the press - and in the course of the run, it was agreed to bring them back for the 2004/5 season. This would suggest that the adaptations have been successful, but I want to question this assumption by interrogating the decisions that determined what kind of adaptations these were and why they were handled as they were.
There are many likely reasons for the adaptations’ box-office success: two that seem particularly relevant are the general rise in the popularity of fantasy in the run up to the end of the twentieth century and start of a new millennium (characteristically times of cultural anxiety, in this case exacerbated by warning about possible electronic catastrophes and millennium bugs), followed by the September 11 2001 attacks on the USA and subsequent conflicts and terrorist incidents. These set a cultural scene in which fantasy is likely to thrive: it has long been noted that optimistic societies do not produce great fantasies. An additional and related factor is the recent and ongoing commercial success of other fantasy publications, films and ‘spin-off’ products, headed by two British texts adapted for the screen: the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series.
Like Rowling’s and Tolkien’s texts, His Dark Materials has also been adapted for radio and audiotape, and playwright Tom Stoppard is currently working on film versions of the three texts. This paper, however, focuses on the way the trilogy was adapted for the stage, the particular cultural and performance issues associated with that medium, what the adaptations reveal about attitudes to childhood and children’s literature, and the interactions between commercial needs, adaptation and Pullman’s texts.
The trilogy follows the adventures and the growing love between Lyra, a girl from a world which, as Pullman says in Northern Lights, is ‘like ours but different in many ways,’ and, from volume II, Will, who is a fugitive from justice in ‘our’ world, since he has accidentally killed a man. The Church, a corrupt institution, is seeking to prevent Lyra from becoming ‘the new Eve,’ because her ‘Fall’ (which will involve not only eating a fruit but also a sexual relationship with Will), unlike that in Genesis, will be a means of freeing the world from the arbitrary and life-denying strictures of ‘The Authority’ (a term corresponding to God, claimed for himself by an elderly angel) and, in his name, the Church itself. Lyra succeeds in fulfilling her prophesied role, but at the end of the saga, learns that for the enduring happiness of the living and the preservation of the dead from a prolonged empty existence in a kind of limbo, she and Will must forever be apart.
These are probably the biggest issues that the texts deal with, but there are also archetypal elements to the story lines, dealing with creation, freewill, life after death, the battle between good and evil (however these are defined), and relationships between parents and children. Additionally, and what many critics have identified as Pullman’s most original idea in the series, it represents is the relationship between characters in the two worlds visited that are not our own (Lyra’s world and the world called Cittagazze where she and Will first meet) and their daemons. Put simply, daemons are humans’ animal companions, but they are more than this. Each person has a personal daemon, which seems to combine elements of the soul and aspects of the psyche, ranging from what we might call the super-ego through characteristics familiar from Jung’s idea of the anima and animus. Thus the companions of males are female, females’ companions are male, and homosexual characters have daemons of the same sex. Daemons are externalised forms of attributes that in our world are normally internal and invisible, so Will does not have a daemon. The relationship between humans and their daemons goes beyond intimate to the most intense level of love and interdependence imaginable. How to perform this relationship and the transformative nature of children’s daemons that captivated readers posed the biggest challenge to those involved in the adaptation process; before looking at this in detail, however, it is necessary to say a bit more about Pullman’s trilogy.
Pullman’s texts are full of action: quests, battles, escapes, murders and more. Yet much of their success derives not from what happens, but what it seems to mean. Meaning is manufactured through a combination of powerful intertextual relationships, especially to the work of John Milton and William Blake, but also to such things as scientific theories and German writer Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’. The extra layers of meaning laid over Pullman’s texts by these associations is crucial to their critical success since they invite readers to project meaning into the novels and open up debates that are only partially developed in them. These debates - and, indeed, reaction to the novels - reveal a great deal about contemporary British culture, its values and anxieties.
Arguably, the success of the trilogy (and here I mean the books as distinct from the adaptations) lies not just in the books’ ability to engage readers in an extraordinary and powerful imaginary journey, but also because together they address deeply-felt cultural needs such as:
In many ways, the belief these texts register in the possibility of taking action and the necessity to assume responsibility for creating the self are what set them apart from many of the most famous children’s books, including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the Chronicles of Narnia, all texts that have been successfully adapted for the stage and are regularly performed to Christmas audiences. While these earlier texts depict growing up as the loss of innocence and the end of the golden age of childhood and so trap their protagonists in a perpetual state of childhood, His Dark Materials has quite a different attitude to growing up. To survive and become a moral, responsible adult, capable of functioning in the world is the goal it sets Lyra and Will, who are role models for its readers. Growing up is the ultimate adventure in Pullman’s books. It isn’t easy; indeed, in their case it will include loss, separation and betrayal as well as love and friendship and the many pleasures that come with experience. Like William Blake before him, Pullman shows readers that life can’t tolerate perpetual innocence; experience isn’t diminution, though it is change. The books encourage readers to embrace the challenges that lie ahead and to be excited by the opportunities they have to make an impact on the world around them, while in the process constructing identities of which they can be proud.
As I hope this overview has shown, these texts pose huge challenges for adaptors, not least in creating the various worlds, finding ways to create daemons on stage, and showing the growth through action of the two child protagonists. Incorporating at least some of these issues and elements would seem to me to be crucial to any successful adaptation. It is my contention that the process of transforming Pullman’s trilogy for the stage did two important things. First, it made visible several significant aspects about the place of children’s literature in British culture; second and more importantly, in what the adaptations were unable to do, they exposed strengths and weaknesses both in the books themselves and in the adaptation process. Limitations of space mean that it is not possible to look at both the impact on the texts and the adaptation process in detail, so I am going to concentrate on the adaptation process. Without pre-empting my conclusions, I think it is fair to say that those elements in the texts including the issues raised, ideas explored, and most importantly gaps into which readers and indeed Britain’s intelligentsia interjected philosophical, ethical, and personal content - the aspects of the texts that have excited most discussion, debate and imaginative engagement - tended to be what were lost in the translation to the stage.
Adaptation inevitably involves change, and so it should. The finished product must work in its own terms, in the new medium. However and perversely, when a novel or other piece of writing is adapted, whether for stage, screen or other media, one of the first issues raised by critics and audiences is about its fidelity: how faithful is the adaptation to the original text? Having compared adaptations of adult and children’s texts over a number of years, I have observed that fidelity tends to be taken more seriously with adult texts than with works for a juvenile audience. Indeed, there are many examples of children’s texts in which adaptations are only very loosely based on the original, Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins being obvious examples. Perhaps a better comparison here is with adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland for, though like Pullman’s trilogy, both the Alice books are given high cultural and critical status, when being adapted for a juvenile audience, huge liberties are taken with the texts. This is most obvious in the way the two books (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) are often treated as one, with characters, episodes, and verses from Looking-Glass being yoked into Wonderland more to suit the ideas the adaptor has about the needs of the medium and audience than the dictates of fidelity.
When adapting texts for the young, faithfulness to the original’s plot, mood, tone and meaning seems to be less important than the need to create family entertainment that makes everyone feel good so that they want to repeat the experience in as many ways possible - from returning to watch it again, to buying associated books, toys, clothes, music, filmed versions and even food based on the adaptation. This ‘feel-good factor’ is nowhere more evident than in the Disney adaptation of Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’; Disney changes the ending to allow her to marry her prince, have a big wedding and even to be reunited with her family instead of becoming a spirit of the air in a kind of purgatory dependent on the good behaviour of children.
The need to feel good is also related to another key factor in the adaptation process: when, where, why and for whom the adaptation is being made. It is very often the case for children’s literature that when the adaptation will be performed affects every other aspect of the adaptation. In Britain, Christmas is the traditional time for taking children to the theatre, and what audiences expect to see at this time of year falls into three overlapping categories:
Some texts seem to open themselves to adaptations that combine all of these elements, which is why the Christmas season features a small number of texts performed all over the UK, notably Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and a range of folk and fairy tales. Recently C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and a small number of other post-war children’s texts, which share a particular view of childhood and have been designated ‘modern classics’ have become part of this seasonal repertoire. From these examples, it is clear that British adaptations of children’s books generally have very traditional ideas about what is suitable for children; how to perform childhood; who plays the parts of children (almost never actual children), and what the relationships between adults and children should be. Moreover, because most have been illustrated a number of times and adapted for stage and screen even more often, they have become part of the cultural heritage. Though His Dark Materials was only completed three years before it was adapted for the stage, Pullman’s trilogy was firmly placed in the small canon of children’s books that have become part of national culture - have in some ways become institutionalised - when Nicholas Hytner decided that it was to be the centrepiece of the National’s Christmas schedule.
My emphasis on Pullman’s acceptance as a writer of classic children’s literature is deliberate, because while the novels that make up His Dark Materials have been designated as belonging to what Sandra Beckett has called ‘crossover’ literature, and their multivalency is consistently acknowledged as central to their appeal, the decision to direct the adaptations at a young audience was one of a number of key decisions, made before the practical processes of adapting the texts had begun, that significantly affected how the texts were performed and what they were able to do.
Foremost among these early decisions were:
The reasons for the changes were not primarily about budget, space or technical expertise: the intention was to create the most spectacular theatrical event in the theatre’s history, using pyrotechnics, film, and technology to create the various worlds, battles and supernatural events the books depict. In my reading of the production, pace, spectacle and virtually every other aspect of the adaptation process were dictated les by Pullman’s work, and more by the needs of the National Theatre, so it is worth exploring what these needs were.
For many years the National Theatre’s audiences (and this problem is not unique to that theatre) have been aging: audiences are literally dying out. To address this problem, when he became Director, Nicholas Hytner introduced a number of changes and initiatives, including targeting performances at particular kinds and ages of audiences. In some cases this meant replacing the bread-and-butter works (Shakespeare and company) with more adventurous, unknown material. BUT, the unfamiliar doesn’t necessarily attract audiences in the first instance, so there has to be a balance between recognised names and new material. His Dark Materials offered precisely this balance - it had never been performed on stage, the trilogy had received every possible form of literary recognition, and it had a huge fan base. Of particular importance to Nicholas Hytner, many of Pullman’s readers were that most elusive sector for theatrical audiences, young teenagers, including teenage boys. By scheduling the adaptations to run over the Christmas season, the theatre hoped to attract traditional family audiences (grandparents, parents and children), AND the real target audience for these adaptations, usually disaffected 15-year-old boys coming because they knew and loved the texts.
It is interesting to note that these boys were not the main audience for the many linked events that took place before and during the performances; these were directed more at the adult audience that had embraced the novels. For instance, Philip Pullman twice engaged in public debates with the Archbishop of Canterbury: once on national television, and once as part of a series of lectures and events organised by the National Theatre. Perhaps equally significant is the fact that of the many merchandised products on sale at the theatre, the bestseller was the women’s T-shirt.
So, a crossover effect was maintained in the activity surrounding the adaptations, though this was largely sacrificed in the adaptations themselves.
Crossover writing is familiar; a different kind of crossing over takes place in most adaptations of children’s texts for the stage, and His Dark Materials is no exception; adult actors perform the roles of the children in the trilogy, creating a crossing-over from one age group to another. There are practical and financial reasons for using adults (legal restrictions on the numbers of hours children can work make using them in leading roles in a stage production on the scale and in a run of many weeks makes costs and logistics in practicable), but the effect can usefully be compared to Judith Butler’s metaphoric use of drag.1 Butler is concerned to disentangle the biological, social and subjective aspects of gender so that it is revealed as ‘a performance, a set of manipulated codes, costumes, rather than a core aspect of essential identity.’2 While childhood itself has undeniable physical, historical and social characteristics, even in the young these are subject to many forces; when childhood is performed by adults, with adults dressing and attempting to behave like children, a series of tensions that are conveniently rendered invisible by prevailing discourses and myths about childhood become visible. Like Pullman’s daemons, once visible, these tensions demand to be recognised and heard, making this both a problematic and an enriching aspect of the productions. Central to the ambivalence around the girl-woman Lyra and man-boy Will is the mediation of the action and issues that the adult actors inevitably interject; they are not blank slates unaware of their destinies but experienced performers in possession of their scripts. Although ultimately, like Lyra and Will, their movements are not their own - the director, choreographer, machinery and script together determine where they will be, what they will say and the consequences that ensue - the actors were not powerless in the rehearsal process. Collectively and individually they researched and debated topics such as child abduction and war while developing their characters, and the resulting performances add layers to the productions that feed back into rereadings of the trilogy.
This enrichment is a bonus, and there are other equally powerful by-products of having adult actors play child characters. Just as drag reveals much about how gender and those who operate at its margins function and are constructed, so adult performances of childhood expose the clichéd thinking based on a normative idea of childhood that requires ‘childhood’ to become a universal, essential and mythologizing term, denying the fundamental contributions of circumstance and biological inheritance. While the production does not escape such thinking, making it visible illuminates key components of the text. For instance, in Pullman’s novels, the characters of Will and Lyra are fictional ciphers capable of conveying any amount of material; on stage they are limited by the corporality of their characters, which are suddenly more susceptible to the constraints of age, sex, family and responsibility than they are on the page. Whereas the conventions of children’s literature render these limitations largely irrelevant and invisible, the adult parody of childhood revitalises them; this may be a corrective, but it significantly alters the power dynamics and intellectual engagement with the plot and issues. Theatre may often require the willing suspension of disbelief, but literary fantasy activates this device more effortlessly and effectively. It remains to be seen how the film versions will negotiate these issues.
The idea of using puppets as daemons may seem well suited to the stage. In performance, however, the puppet-daemons lack metaphorical resonance, and there is much that seems incompatible in having separate puppet handlers for the ‘star’ puppets. In the National Theatre productions, the puppets were unsatisfactory in many ways; especially in Part I where, for instance, the Master of Jordan College’s daemon is a stuffed bird tacked onto his shoulder. Since he is not a desiccated scholar but a moral and responsible man who loses his life through his efforts to protect and empower Lyra, there is nothing appropriate in the symbolism, if this is what it was meant to be. Puppets were never going to be able to effect the instantaneous transformations that delighted and spoke to readers on the page, and arguably alternative ways, including a variety of approaches to rendering daemons, could have been employed. There are eloquent moments that come through the decision to use puppets to play the daemons, notably in the Land of the Dead when thepuppet handler controlling Pan removes his mask and identifies himself as Lyra’s death. This marks a rite of passage in Lyra and provides a rich metaphor for engaging with aspects of the self. Overall, however, the use of puppets diminishes the potency of Pullman’s most engaging and perhaps also his most insightful creation.
Adaptation is inextricably bound up with metamorphosis, and with the image of constantly changing daemons in mind, there is something deeply appropriate in the impulse to transform Pullman’s trilogy into new media. At the same time, fiction on the page effects such transformations intellectually and imaginatively - there are no strings, no handlers, no tricks and no illusions. While the endeavour - and indeed the effect - of the adaptation exercise is to create pathways by which a powerful and significant narrative finds its way through culture, the effect on the books’ original manifestations as children’s literature is profound. By replacing the children and daemons at the trilogy’s centre with adults and puppets who perform their roles, the issues, and more importantly the narrative gaps that engender curiosity and foster debate, are necessarily reduced to readings shaped by adaptor, director, a team of designers and, pre-eminently, by the dictates of pace and spectacle.
Confronted with these limitations it is tempting to recall the concerns articulated by Walter Benjamin many years ago when contemplating ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. For Benjamin, the problem in mechanical reproduction is that when a work of art ceases to be unique and exclusive and is implicated in the commercial nexus as a consequence of mass sales of reproductions, ‘the aura of the work’ and its potential for ambiguity wither; its mystique and eloquence are diminished.
Despite the criticisms of aspects of the National Theatre productions voiced here, they have succeeded in bringing audiences and generating debates around children’s literature at unprecedented levels in culture. They have tackled powerful issues, and frequently found innovative ways of fusing theatrical and mass media solutions to adapting texts for performance. If, in the productions taking place in 2003-4, some of the initial problems are addressed, then between them Philip Pullman and the National Theatre will have provided the theatrical equivalent of an Amber Spyglass through which adaptors - whatever their medium - of the future can look when transforming children’s texts into performances that in turn open new worlds for readers, viewers and players.
1. Rosemary Johnston makes a similar point in "'All the World's a Stage': Children's Literature in Performance' in Kimberley Reynolds (ed) Children's Literature and Childhood in Performance, Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing, 2003, pp. 57-68. [back]
2. From Gender Trouble cited on <http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/butler.html> (02.11.2005). [back]
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Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. December 8, 1997 <http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/butler.html> (accessed 02.11.2005).
Butler, Robert. The Art of Darkness: Staging Philip Pullman’s Trilogy. London: National Theatre/Oberon, 2003.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985.
Johnston, Rosemary. ‘All the World’s a Stage’: Children’s Literature as Performance’. // Kimberley Reynolds (ed). Children’s Literature and Childhood in Production. Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing, 2003.
National Theatre: Bookshop: His Dark Materials publications and gifts <http://www.nt-online.org/?lid=6411> (accessed 02.11.2005).
Pinsent, Pat, Nicky Gamble and Kimberley Reynolds. His Dark Materials: teacher’s workpack. London: National Theatre, 2003.
Reynolds, Kimberley (ed). Modern Children’s Literature: An Introduction. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Stagework <http://www.stagework.org.uk> (accessed 02.11.2005).
Wright, Nicholas. His Dark Materials: Playscript based on the novels of Philip Pullman. London: Nick Hern Books, 2003.
САМО СЮЖЕТ И НИКАКВА СТРАСТ? - СЦЕНИЧНА АДАПТАЦИЯ НА "ТЪМНАТА МАТЕРИЯ"
© Kimberley Reynolds