“His Dark Materials” on HBO
Having recently wrapped up its adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series after eight successful seasons, HBO was on the lookout for another literary fantasy to attract viewers’ attention. They found it in the form of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” novels. For all its sex and violence and plus-sized cast list, Martin’s books are traditional fantasy—sword and sorcery, wrapped up in medieval European trappings. Pullman’s books, however, are something else entirely.
Marketed as Young Adult literature—despite some heavy thematic material—the books take place in an alternate universe version of the United Kingdom. In this world an all-powerful church (known as The Magisterium) rules over the land and the souls of human beings exist outside their bodies in the form of animal companions (known as daemons). Also, there are warlike tribes of talking polar bears in the far north. And some witches. It’s a unique and imaginative world Pullman created—one that isn’t easy to explain quickly or to translate easily onto the screen.
In 2007 New Line Cinema tried to adapt the first book in Pullman’s original trilogy, The Golden Compass, as a feature film. Thanks to significant script changes, a number of recuts and the studio’s insistence on an “upbeat” ending, the film failed to capture much of the book’s philosophical spirit. Though the special effects were top-notch, and the film looked appropriately spectacular.
HBO’s adaptation—which will presumably work its way through Pullman’s books The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass—starts by introducing us to its 12-year-old protagonist, Lyra Belacqua. Played with a restrained feral energy and sharp precociousness by Dafne Keen (so excellent in 2017’s Logan), Lyra is an orphan who has spent her entire life at Oxford’s Jordan Collage. She was brought there as a baby by her adventurous uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), and remains there under the protection of “academic sanctuary” (making it one of the few places The Magisterium has no authority).
But when young children start disappearing all across the countryside, Lyra finds herself pulled into a dark conspiracy. Soon, Lyra and her daemon Pan (voiced by Kit Connor) are sent to London to live with the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Mrs. Coulter has a long and tangled relationship with Lord Asriel, who’s off in the far north investigating a mysterious substance known as “Dust”—which appears to hint at the existence of other, parallel universes. This is just the beginning of a story that becomes increasingly fantastical and complex by its conclusion.
HBO’s adaptation takes a number of liberties with Pullman’s novels. For starters, it removes the story from its steampunk Victorian setting and pushes it forward to modern-day England (although, for some reason, The Magisterium still employs dirigibles). This certainly makes the show cheaper to produce, but robs it of the instantaneous feeling of being in a whole other universe (something the film version actually accomplished well).
The series simultaneously beefs up the presence of The Magisterium and dials it back. Pullman’s books have a heavily anti-religious theme, which has made them a target of much controversy. (Pullman has denied that, but his books are a self-conscious inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, chronicling mankind’s journey toward Original Sin. Also, one of the main characters is essentially on a quest to kill God. So make of that what you will.) Like the ’07 movie, “His Dark Materials” tamps down a lot of the religious overtones, making The Magisterium more of an evil government than an evil church. The character of Lord Boreal, a shifty agent of The Magisterium’s General Oblation Board, is expanded. In the first episode, he’s there popping through a dimensional rift into “our” universe (which is a little confusing, since his version of England now looks exactly like ours—minus the animalistic daemons). This introduces the idea of parallel universes much quicker, but steals away the multiverse-building sense of discovery in the novels. Like televised adaptations of “Game of Thrones” and “The Expanse” before it, “His Dark Materials” presses the fast forward button on certain story threads, while slow-walking others.
All in all “His Dark Materials” is a seriously produced, professionally acted version of its source material. It’s intriguing enough to merit a full season of viewing. But until the show is forced to address the deeper theological themes and wilder cosmological implications of Pullman’s later books, it remains to be seen just how successful “His Dark Materials” really is.