When it comes to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, I’m most definitely not what you would call a super-fan. Hell, despite being a voracious reader of all things fantasy, I somehow completely passed by the trilogy of novels after they were published between 1995 and 2000 (blame Harry Potter). So it was that when I walked into the cinema in 2007 to watch The Golden Compass, the blockbuster feature film adaptation of Northern Lights, the first book in the series, I barely knew what it was about. And because of my lack of familiarity with the source material I can tell you unequivocally that The Golden Compass was a middling movie not just because it was a milquetoast rendition of Pullman’s iconoclastic texts. It was a middling movie because it was a middling movie on every level.
Now, it’s twelve years later and Pullman’s work is once again returning to the screen – this time small instead of big, courtesy of a BBC/HBO co-produced 8-episode series – and I still haven’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy. As a result, I still can’t tell you, beat by beat, if this is a more authentic adaptation of Pullman’s work than The Golden Compass. What I can say unequivocally is that it’s better. A lot better.
Okay, maybe I lied a bit earlier because I did glance at Wikipedia a few times while viewing the first four episodes of His Dark Materials that I had early access to thanks to Showmax. And this version, penned in full by Jack Thorne, definitely hits certain beats with a higher level of fidelity – this is particularly true of Pullman’s thinly veiled allegorical criticism of the Christian faith (in particular the Catholic Church) which is in full unfiltered swing here. There are also things that have been jimmied around, most noticeably Thorne updating the world’s overall visual trappings from a Victorian Age-inspired aesthetic to something a lot more modern, which may irk some diehard fans. One particularly impactful revelation has also not just been bumped forward in the timeline significantly but also changed up in a major way. Enough so that HBO made sure to ask those of us with early access to not reveal the details of this twist. So I won’t.
What I can tell you (for those of you like me who had never read the books) is that His Dark Materials is set in a world very similar to ours, but it’s one in which a person’s soul manifests physically as an animal companion known as a daemon. It’s also a world ruled by the Magisterium and their iron-fisted control of religious beliefs and scientific study into the fundamental nature of things. There are those who push the boundaries of what the Magisterium will allow though, like the rebellious explorer Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) who is on the verge of a dangerous discovery about the nature of the mysterious particle known as “Dust”. Then there’s Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), Asriel’s equally-rebellious, orphaned 11-year old niece who he left to be raised by the Master of Jordan College, but instead just raised hell.
The mischievous Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor) are about to embark on a globetrotting adventure of their own as she enters the care of the charming and impressive Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and is whisked away to the big city of London after Asriel leaves for parts unknown to pursue his mission. Mrs Coulter has promised Lyra she will help her search for her missing friend, Roger, one of the latest in a long line of children that have disappeared under mysterious circumstance, but she has her own agenda.
Like the migratory Gyptians, led by their wise king Jon Faa and whose children, in particular, have been taken, Lyra believes the shadowy “Gobblers” are behind the abductions. With a little help from the strange and forbidden “alethiometer” device that she can somehow use to find truths, Lyra’s search for answers will see her travel to far-away lands, meeting exotic people. People like the aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the witch Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), and Iorik Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg), the exiled member of a legendary race of armoured polar bears. Yes, armoured polar bears.
Pullman’s creation was always praised as a dichotomy of the familiar and the strange, of boasting both adult complexity and childlike wonder, and this TV series does a fantastic job of realizing that through some rich writing and blockbuster-level visual effects. Thorne and his compatriots – which includes Oscar-winning The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper who helms the first two episodes – turn in an intensely polished production.
They’re also helped along by a very game cast, led by Logan breakout Keen. The young actress occasionally has a thespian stumble but it’s nothing serious as she energetically barrels through the narrative. McAvoy has limited screen time but puts in a very solid showing when he’s there, while Miranda’s Lee Scoresby is a drawling delight. But much like she’s been in just about everything she’s ever starred in, Wilson is the true dynamo here; every grin of that physics-defying upper lip, every arch of her immaculately architectured eyebrows charging whatever scene she’s in till it crackles and pops. There are several other highly admirable turns in the cast (James Cosmo is always a treasure), but it’s Wilson that stands apart.
However, as good as the acting and the rest of the production values are, there’s still something missing in His Dark Materials. A vital spark that takes it from good TV to must-watch TV. Blindly crashing through Pullman’s work without allowing the narrative and characters to breathe was one of the many failings of The Golden Compass, so it’s great that Thorne and co remedy that here. But His Dark Materials may take things a bit too languidly at times. Midway through the first season and the narrative is only now starting to gain proper momentum.
Thus far it’s immensely intriguing and extremely well put-together and I really am hooked to see how the story turns out, but I would hesitate to call it an exciting show. There are big action set-pieces and it’s elicited not a few Oohs and Hmmms from me, but never an impressive Whoa! This is only the first half of the first season though, and admittedly, there was a lot of delicate world-building and narrative setup to get through (which I most certainly appreciate). If the back half of this season – plus a second season that’s already in pre-production – delivers on those promises though, then we’re in a for a hell of a ride. Hopefully on an armoured bear.
His Dark Materials will be available to stream first and only on Showmax in South Africa as from 5 November 2019.
Last Updated: November 4, 2019