Written by Jack Thorne
Based on Novels by Phillip Pullman
Music by Lorne Balfe
Full Cast & Crew: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5607976/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm
So I finally got around to watching the first series of His Dark Materials, HBO and BBC’s collaborative adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s fantastic trilogy of the same name, and it was thoroughly solid. The first series is a very faithful adaptation of The Northern Lights, the first novel in the trilogy, and it really does feel like a slightly expanded upon version of that story coming to life on the small screen. The events and main narrative thrust are ripped straight from the pages of the original novel, the locations are all brought to life through absolutely gorgeous CGI, and the characters’ daemons feel relatively tangible and real. There really is a lot to like about this show, even though it has some problems pertaining to its characterization. But that’s enough vague rambling, let’s get into the review.
WARNING: THIS IS A SPOILER REVIEW. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW OR READ THE BOOKS.
Easily the most impressive aspect of this show is its visuals, and although that may sound insulting, I do mean it as a compliment. Every shot is nothing short of beautiful to look at, and the visual mastery that this show has does a lot to heighten climactic or intense moments. Iorek Byrnison fighting for the right to his throne, Lord Asriel blowing a hole through the northern lights and opening a gateway to another world, the entire Bolvangar sequence, and even something as simple as a conversation taking place in a Magisterium building are all given a level of grandeur through the visuals of the show. Not to mention, a lot of excellent visual storytelling goes on throughout the show, all of which serves as a welcome substitute for the usual bland exposition. This is most noticeable during the Magisterium’s introduction, but is present throughout the show.
Another excellent aspect of His Dark Materials is the acting. The show boasts a number of well-known stars, including James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua, Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, and several others. McAvoy is an absolute standout in the show, carrying several of the strongest scenes on his shoulders. He has a monologue about Magisterium and religion in the final episode that is nothing short of brilliant, and despite his limited screen time, he carries a large portion of the show on his back. But don’t think that I’m discrediting Keen by saying that, because she also does very well. Lyra is her follow-up to the role that she played in Logan, and she does a really great job bringing to life the version of the character that these show-runners wrote. Her performance is very impressive, especially considering her age, and there was never a moment when I didn’t believe that she was Lyra. The actors playing minor characters also do very well, and this all contributes to a feeling that His Dark Materials Series 1 is a very well-made and technically masterful show. Even the cinematography has personality and looks far better than most television cinematography does. Especially the scenes in Magisterium churches use scale in a very effective and interesting way. However, you’ve probably noticed that while I’ve been praising a lot of aspects of this show, I have been very carefully avoiding talking about story and characters, and that’s because I have…..thoughts on how it handles them.
In my opinion, the hook of The Northern Lights is, in many ways, the relationship that Lyra has with Pantalaimon, her daemon. For those who don’t know, in the His Dark Materials world, daemons are personified representations of peoples’ souls. Everyone in Lyra’s world has a daemon, and they serve as their closest companions. Pullman does an excellent job portraying Lyra and Pantalaimon’s closeness. Their connection has a visceral feeling to it that is instantly compelling to read about. Their character development happens in tandem, because learning about Pantalaimon shows us something about Lyra, and vice versa. World-building also somewhat adds to this. From early on, it’s established that touching another person’s daemon is an immense social taboo, as doing so is akin to manhandling another person’s soul. As a result of all of this, when Lyra is brought to Bolvangar in the latter half of the book, and the surgeons there attempt to sever her connection with Pan, the scene is the most tense and viscerally terrifying one yet. The leg-work that is put into establishing that connection early on directly pays off multiple other times throughout the trilogy, and it is what gets you to care about the characters near the beginning. Notably, when defending the Magisterium’s program of cutting away children, Mrs. Coulter says to Lyra:
“Darling, no one would ever dream of performing an operation on a child without testing it first. And no one in a thousand years would take a child’s dæmon away altogether! All that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful. Forever! You see, your dæmon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty, the age you’re coming to very soon, darling, dæmons bring all sort of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in. A quick little operation before that, and you’re never troubled again. And your dæmon stays with you, only … just not connected. Like a … like a wonderful pet, if you like. The best pet in the world! Wouldn’t you like that?”
Oh, the wicked liar, oh, the shameless untruths she was telling! And even if Lyra hadn’t known them to be lies (Tony Makarios; those caged dæmons) she would have hated it with a furious passion. Her dear soul, the daring companion of her heart, to be cut away and reduced to a little trotting pet? Lyra nearly blazed with hatred, and Pantalaimon in her arms became a polecat, the most ugly and vicious of all his forms, and snarledThe Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman, Chapter 17: “The Witches”
The comparison of a daemon to a pet is treated by the text (and by Lyra) with disdain, and this offers an example of that visceral connection that Lyra and Pan have with each other. It really does serve as a large portion of the book’s heart, and that is why it’s so disappointing that the show does exactly what Mrs. Coulter describes. Pan in the show is capable of transforming into various creatures, and he’s capable of talking with Lyra, but he never feels like a part of her. He’s reduced to simply being her pet, and that reduction takes away from a lot of what makes Lyra compelling as a protagonist, especially early on in the story when she’s living in Jordan College before her call to action. This is not me complaining that the show is different from the books, because I don’t think that alone is a valid critique of an adaptations. Compromises must be made, and there are plenty of excellent adaptations that make changes for artistic or practical reasons, such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The issue here is that this change makes the show tangibly worse. Daemons are such an important part of Lyra’s world, and of the trilogy as a whole. There are so many important scenes that hinge on the relationship between a person and their daemon, and to neuter that relationship in such a way cripple’s the show’s emotional core.
I’m also not an enormous fan of the way Lyra is characterized. It’s important for fantasy stories to have a proactive protagonist — something that the books absolutely nail — and it feels like Lyra stumbles into the plot for a bit too long. She really only starts making proactive decisions around the time she tricks Iofur Rakinson and escapes from Svalbard, and that’s far too late into the show’s narrative.
With all of that being said, many of the characters surrounding Lyra are quite good. McAvoy’s interpretation of Lord Asriel is just as impressive and (at times) intimidating as Pullman’s character, Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter is every bit the manipulative snake that she should be, and the early introductions of Lord Boreal and Will feel very true to their characters as well. With that being said, Asriel, Coulter, and Boreal’s daemons all suffer from the same problem that Pantalaimon does, and I have a bad feeling that the daemon issue, if left unaddressed in series’ 2 and 3, will really bring the show down.
One change that I am in favor of is placing more import on Lyra’s friendship with Roger. That change does a hell of a lot to make Roger’s daemon-severing at Asriel’s hands feel like a true and proper punch to end the first series on, and I think it justifies the slower opening episodes that properly set up their friendship.
One nice little surprise going in was that Lin-Manuel Miranda was cast to play Lee Scoresby, and he did really well! He actually plays the swash-buckling hot air balloon pirate pretty well, and he appears to be getting a new arc within the show, relating to Serafina Pekkala and the Witch Clans, which I’m pretty excited for. It’s also worth mentioning that I love the design and portrayal of the Alethiometer in this. It truly does feel like a redemptive moment when compared to the abomination that was the 2007 The Golden Compass movie.
Overall, His Dark Materials Series 1 is a very solid television adaptation. In regards to plot and aesthetic, it more than does justice to Phillip Pullman’s masterpiece. It has an incredible cast, is filled with many excellent characters surrounding Lyra, and is visually gorgeous. It takes its time at the start, but in doing so, allows for all the complexities of Lyra’s world to be established without feeling rushed or relying on overly long chunks of exposition. To cap it all off, it introduces a few important characters from The Subtle Knife in, to make the transition between Series 1 and Series 2 flow a bit better. Despite having some pacing problems, failing to do the deamons justice, and having some problems in Lyra’s characterization, I enjoyed it enough to be interested in continuing into Series 2.
While far from perfect, His Dark Materials is a solidly good series of Television, and a competent adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s first novel. Its strongest moments are nothing short of fantastic, and its weakest moments, while a tad dull, aren’t insultingly poor either. I’d recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of the books, because you’ll likely enjoy seeing this many talented people working so hard to do them justice. With that being said, if you haven’t read the books, do not watch this show! The books are far, far superior, and I guarantee you’ll have a better time reading them first and then watching this than you would if you watched this first, without any context.
Written on 05/04/2022 – May the 4th be with you!