I read all the His Dark Materials books back in high school and loved the first two immensely, though I had some conflicting feelings about the third one. I likewise had really mixed feelings about The Golden Compass movie that came out back in 2007. I remember thinking that the cast was well chosen, and that it had visually captured every aspect of Pullman’s fantasy world perfectly, but still… there was something missing.
The film reached its climax and it had changed one detail that was so fundamental to the story’s theme that I couldn’t ignore it. (Those of you who’ve read them will know exactly what I’m talking about.) I realized the problem. The film was entirely too optimistic. The novels are stories about how random and cruel the world can be. It’s about how your ideas about adventure and exploration are never as grand or noble as you thought and grownups almost never have your best interests at heart. The movie had been turned into something safe that could be targeted at the Harry Potter demographic of young adults. It’s a fine film in its own way, but it wasn’t anything like the book that it was based on, so it was no surprise when New Line Cinema didn’t complete the series. How could they when they weren’t willing to follow the dark places that the source material went? Pullman’s novels were, in fact, a critique of exactly the kind of story that the movie decided to tell.
The new HBO series is a much truer adaptation.
The first season of His Dark Materials has just been completed, covering the events of the first novel and introducing a few of the characters from the second. Lyra is a young teenage girl who was raised in a fantasy Oxford, in a world where people’s souls live outside their bodies in the shape of animals called daemons. When children start going missing however, she must go on a journey to find them.
I’m not going to go on and on about how dark and gritty it is. You probably already got the idea of what the show looks like the second I mentioned that it was made by HBO, but I will say that the world feels more real. Film makers have a tendency to pump up the vibrancy and color when they want to create something for children. Everything sparkles and shines, looking clean and new.
I have always maintained that His Dark Materials is a series that features a young adult protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that it is intended for a young adult audience. The series explores themes of moral relativity, deconstructing fairy tales and questioning authority, (particularly that of organized religion.)
I want to be clear. I don’t think adaptations need to be 1:1 replications of everything that happens in a book. Visual media has a different tool set. Sound, set design, costume design, the actor’s performances and camera direction can all portray information in their own unique ways. Sometimes altering the details of how a story is told can be beneficial to adapting it to a new style, but you shouldn’t change what the story is fundamentally about. At that point, you’re simply capitalizing on a name and deceiving your audience.
This adaptation remains faithful to that same spirit.
It’s also just a joy to watch.
Dafne Keen plays a brilliant Lyra. This character is supposed to represent someone who doesn’t just believe what she’s told without question. She’s suspicious, but also adventurous, empathetic and loyal to her friends. Keen gives her the perfect ratio of innocent child and wild, untamable liar. By that same token, Ruth Wilson plays Mrs. Coulter in such a way that she feels genuinely unstable. The character is rooted in a deep self loathing that manifests both in idealistic zealotry and downright psychopathic sadism. Wilson captures this tone so well that you can feel a physical tension whenever she is in the same room with Lyra because you know in your gut that she isn’t safe. The way Coulter seems to hate her golden monkey daemon is an excellent way of showing her psyche to the audience without ever directly addressing it. It would have been amazing to see that technique utilized in other ways, but you can only ask for so much in a single season.
Lee Scoresby has a Doc Holliday-esc charm that works better than I would have expected in a series like this. Ma Costa and Farder Coram are both exceptional (making me tear-up on more than one occasion.) Iorek Byrnison is played in a way that feels more bestial and less like a human in a nine foot tall polar bear’s body.
I don’t know if HBO will continue down this path, but I hope they do and I hope enough people are watching this show that it continues to be made. I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about it in the wake of The Mandelorian and The Witcher, but I really hope it gets the attention it deserves.
Seriously guys, give it a shot,