In the Autumn of 2003 the National Theatre (NT) in London staged a two-part adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000); three long books were compressed into six hours. The performances were both a critical success and popular with audiences. Pullman himself was very happy with the outcome of his words as spoken and visualised on stage. The adaptations of Pullman’s novels attracted new, younger audience members to the NT, almost halving the average age from 70+ to 30 and demonstrating the potential power of adaptation. Subsequently the first volume of the trilogy was adapted for the big screen as The Golden Compass (2007) and by the BBC television in 2019. This workshop will draw on theories of adaptation to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the various adaptations. In preparation for the workshops you will need to familiarise yourself with the principles of adapting texts for performance.
Required advance reading
Pullman, Philip. (1995). Northern Lights. Any edition.
Hutcheon, Linda and Siobhan O’Flynn. Chapter 1, ‘Beginning to Theorize Adaptation’ in Adaptation. Routledge: London and New York, pp. 1-33. (blackboard)
Reynolds, Kimberley. ‘All Plot and No Passion: Adapting His Dark Materials for the Stage’. Available at: https://liternet.bg/publish15/k_reynolds/all.htm.
Preparatory task for all students
Combine your understanding of what adaptation involves with your creative response as a reader to adapting one scene of your choice from the first chapter of Northern Lights, the first volume of His Dark Materials. Come prepared to discuss the decisions you made and why you made them, especially in relation to issues of fidelity. Bring brief notes (max 300 words) about casting and set as detailed below.
First decide whether your medium is live performance, or television, and then consider the following as you carefully read and re-read the first volume of the trilogy.
Casting: In your mind’s eye as you read, what do the principal characters in the novel look like? Using Pullman’s text, make a list of facts about them. What age are they? Is their social class significant? Where do they live? How much power do they have in society?
Setting: When you read you imagine the location of the action, the shape, colour, and even weight of objects that form part of the story. In your adaptation, what kind of setting do you want audiences to see? How will you create Pullman’s alternative world in the scene you have selected?
Editing: The novel gives you many more words than you need! Performance works not just through speech, but through gestures, costumes, locations, lighting, sound effects etc. In editing your adapted scene, you should include directions for performers and indications about what they wear and any objects they will need. Ask yourself how your audience gets necessary information, how the mood and atmosphere is created, and, without any narration, how is the story told?
In undertaking this creative work consider the question of fidelity to the source text. How important is it to you to remain faithful to the original, and what does that mean in practice? Both the adaptations at the National Theatre and on BBC television state that they are “based on” the novels. What does that mean to you?
Saunders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation, pp. 1-9. Available at: https://english.nd.edu/assets/37354/sanders_adaptation.pdf
Assignment for students taking credits
Present an edited version of your scene. It should include
A. Information for the director and performers (max 350 words)
- A cast list for the scene
- A description of the set
- Information about costumes and props
- Suggestions for actors about the tone of the scene
B. Script (max 500 words). This will be the edited dialogue for your scene with any vital instructions for what actors should do at key moments.
Your task should be sent to Peter. Reynolds@ncl.ac.uk