Not Just for Children; Adults Can't Get Enough of Tolkien, Rowling and Now Philip Pullman. Are We Immature-Or Is 'Kids' Stuff' Simply Better Entertainment?

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Byline: Tara Pepper

Onstage at London's National Theatre, flying witches and howling harpies--not to mention two brave and stalwart children--journey among parallel worlds that include a warm beach, the snowy Arctic and the rooftops of Oxford. Many among the unusually young and spellbound audience already know the story of this brooding, intelligent fantasy: "His Dark Materials" is a two-part, six-hour, $1.4 million adaptation of Philip Pullman's award-winning trilogy of children's novels of the same name. It tackles such timeless themes as good versus evil and the meaning of faith. The initial run of the two plays, through March 27, sold out so quickly that the National has scheduled a return engagement for next Christmas. And the screenplay for a movie version, written by Tom Stoppard, is due in 2005. Indeed, "His Dark Materials" seems poised to go the way of "Harry Potter" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

There was a time when children's entertainment was for children, and no one expected it to make much money. Not any longer. First-rate works for children are now breaking new artistic ground and drawing huge audiences of kids and grown-ups alike. "The Lion King," which opened on Broadway in 1997, won six Tony awards and is still playing to packed houses, proving that a heart-stopping spectacle about a lion cub struggling to find his place in the world after his father's death could have universal appeal. And children's fiction is scooping up awards intended for grown-up books; in Britain, Mark Haddon won this year's Whitbread prize for fiction for his captivating story about an autistic teen, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." (Pullman earned the same honor in 2001 for "The Amber Spyglass," the third book of "His Dark Materials" trilogy.)

Increasingly, adults even look forward to going to the movies with their kids. Disney and Pixar's 1995 "Toy Story" heralded a new era of classy, animated movies with dual appeal. Films like "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and last year's "Finding Nemo" dazzled kids with technical tricks and silly humor while keeping adults engaged with fast-paced banter and double entendres. No wonder they ranked among the top-earning films of each year. "The quality of the animation and the fact that filmmakers put in a lot to keep adults happy means people are more willing to go even without kids," says brand consultant Rebecca Hamblin. Filmmakers also have figured out that a good soundtrack can go a long way with baby-boomer parents: the witty (and soundly middle-aged) Randy Newman wrote the catchy tunes for "Toy Story," and "Shrek 2," due out next spring, features an alt-pop soundtrack that promises to be just as adult-friendly as the first one.

The 1997 publication of J. K. Rowling's first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," sparked the current craze for crossover entertainment. Selling more than 250 million copies in 55 languages, it "changed everything," says Victoria Wells Arms, editorial director of Bloomsbury USA Children's Books. "Adults became aware of children's books in a way they never had been." Scholastic president Barbara Marcus believes the industry is seeing a fundamental shift in how novels are produced and marketed. "Historically, there have been books published for children that crossed over [to adult audiences]," she says. "What happened after 'Harry Potter' is that this became the rule rather than the exception." Separate editions of Rowling's and Pullman's books with more sophisticated covers lured adults who otherwise might have been embarrassed to read kids' books on the Underground. …