Why the His Dark Materials Books Were Once Considered 'Dangerous'


Philip Pullman’s addictive His Dark Materials trilogy is getting its third shot at a live action adaption this week. HBO’s iteration—which stars James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Dafne Keen—debuts Monday night on the network. And while it may be hard to believe now—a movie which starred the then-brand new James Bond, Daniel Craig, and Nicole Kidman hit theaters back in 2007—Pullman’s books were once considered controversial, even dangerous.

The work of scientific fantasy takes place in a series of parallel universes and was marketed as children’s fare when originally released between the years of 1995 and 2000. It follows two pre-teens (Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry) on their occasional hunt for, and occasional run from, their respective parents. It’s a tale that involves angels and magical bears and ex-nuns and outer-body souls that accompany humans in the form of various animals called Daemons. Many of the plot lines about destiny, and whether we create it or embrace it, spurred controversy with Christian groups.

Lyra and Will must traverse several worlds, ages, and continents because some of those that they are chasing, like Lord Asriel, are working furiously to dismantle earth’s most prominent church, the Magisterium. They're also attempting to take down “Dust” (in Christian terms: original sin) while others, like Mrs. Coulter, work to maintain the church’s mighty power. That the god, here called The Authority, is a merciless tyrant and a fraud, certainly didn’t help.

In 2002, conservative UK journalist Peter Hitchens published an article about Pullman titled “This Is the Most Dangerous Author in Britain.” “He is the anti-[C.S.] Lewis, the one atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed,” he wrote. In 2007, as the film was nearing release, the Catholic League campaigned against the movie and source material. Pullman wrote, they argued, “to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism.” The following year, the series was second in the top 10 books that individuals and organizations tried to have banned across the United States, according to the American Library Association. It was No. 8 overall for the decade stretching from 2000-2009 on the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list. (The Harry Potter series claimed the top spot.)


Pullman’s public appearances did little to quell the uproar. Shortly after the final installment's release, he reportedly told the Washington Post that his aim was to "undermine the basis of Christian belief." In a 2002 interview with the Guardian, he said organized religion is necessarily corrupt. "Whenever you get a political structure, with ranks and hierarchies, you get corruption," he argued, "you get people who are more interested in progressing through those ranks than in doing good. Power corrupts." In a 2003 conversation with the Sydney Herald he summed up his plot: "My books are about killing god."

In 2005, at a lecture at East Anglia, in Norwich, England, centered around the subject of religion and education, he said, “Quite what prompted you to ask me to talk about religious education I can’t immediately see. . . . Given that I’ve voiced some criticisms of religion in the past, and that various Christian groups have expressed their criticisms of me, it might be that whatever I said on the subject would be hostile in any case." He continued, says the New Yorker, who had a reporter on site, "I don’t profess any religion; I don’t think it’s possible that there is a God; I have the greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’; but I think I can say something about moral education, and I think it has something to do with the way we understand stories."

Pullman's vindication, of course, came in the form of tens of millions of copies sold and a handful of illustrious awards. He has been declared one of the greatest writers in post-war Britain and in 2019, he was knighted for his contributions to literature. The books have now been translated into more than 40 languages and, a nod to Pullman's brilliant world building, are one of the few titles that can be found in both the children's and adult sections of bookstores.

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This story originally appeared on Esquire.comMinor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Madison Vain
Madison Vain is the Digital Director at Esquire; a writer and editor living in New York, she previously worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
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