2019 has brought us Avengers: Endgame and will be bringing us Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, but there is one ‘event’ that I’ve been looking forward to more than anything else this year. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy (and now the new trilogy set in the same world, The Book of Dust) mean more to me than Harry Potter (which believe me, is saying A LOT), more than Lord of the Rings and more even than Star Wars or the MCU. This is my fantasy series – the world of daemons, armoured bears, witches and Texan aeronauts. And now, finally (the final book in the original HDM trilogy was published in 2000) we are getting a TV series adaptation of this series, which means so much to so many. After an ill-fated attempt to launch what was presumably intended to be a film trilogy (Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass came out in 2007), we can finally sink our teeth into something which has the time it needs to dig into the complexities of the ideas in Pullman’s masterwork. And believe me, the ideas that Pullman wrestles with are not easily translated to a screen.
The film really had no hope of conveying the depth of the books and the first book is the most accessible, it only gets more complicated as it goes on. Something I will say for the 2007 film though, is that the casting was almost pitch-perfect across the board, which makes it even more of a shame that it went so badly wrong. Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter, Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby were highlights from a casting agent who really seemed to get the characters. This meant that the pressure is on this new TV series from Jack Thorne (the man behind the stage play The Cursed Child and the TV series This is England) to deliver the right actors for the right parts. Casting announcements for the TV show have been trickling out all year – with Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel and the extremely high-profile decision to cast Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scorseby. Something to look forward to in Season 2 (which will be based on the book The Subtle Knife) is Andrew Scott, going from hot priest to hot shamen John Parry.
So… to say that the level of anticipation was high, going into the first episode of His Dark Materials would be an understatement. But before I start digging into how it fares for an audience who have a love for the books, I will address those who haven’t read the books first of all. I’m afraid to say that from discussions with those going in cold, they have been confused and put off by the show. I think, regrettably, this will not provide a gateway into people discovering these amazing books. The fundamental concept of daemons are not introduced that clearly and even if you are familiar, the way the daemons are framed in mostly wide-shots with their human companions means that it is not always obvious that the voice you can hear is emanating from them. Of course, it’s difficult to achieve a balance between catering for noobs and for experts – and there are some introductory explanations on screen at the start which are good at laying a groundwork for those unfamiliar with the universe. But then, you have to give your audience a reason to care and you need to signpost significant characters or ideas somehow, so that the audience is aware of what they need to pay attention to. Unfortunately, I don’t think the first episode has provided a great hook for those who haven’t read the books. So, how does it work for fans of the series? [Iorek Byrnison is here to say: Spoilers Ahead]
Starting with the flood was a deep cut for the fans and one I appreciated – you will only really get this reference if you’ve read Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (2017). It does, however, immediately establish Asriel (McAvoy) as Lyra’s saviour and protector and the first episode, as a whole, is kind to Asriel – it puts a more positive spin on him than the books do. McAvoy is great though and I’m looking forward to what he does with the character in the future. I’m slightly dubious on Dafne Keen (best known for Logan) as Lyra so far, although she has such a long way to go and will be carrying the weight of being the protagonist for three seasons, so I will withhold judgment for now. Something this episode does really well and extremely economically, is develop the friendship between Lyra and Roger (Lewin Lloyd) – dare I say it – maybe even better than the books? The books don’t really establish enough of a relationship between the two, before Roger’s tragic end and doesn’t really justify the extreme lengths Lyra goes to, the sacrifices she endures, to make amends. The Gyptians are introduced nicely here, with a fittingly diverse cast. Anne-Marie Duff’s Ma Costa managed to produce tears from me and we’ve barely scratched the surface of the heartbreak to come. The casting of Farder Coram (James Cosmo) and Lord Faa (Lucian Msamati) is good and I’m looking forward to seeing more from both of them. The Magisterium is really well done – making it seem huge, imposing, all-seeing and all-knowing. Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter comes into the episode in the final third, but makes a big impression from the start, as of course she needs to. She comes across as extremely caring, full of humility and as having Lyra’s best interests at heart, which is exactly right for this point in the story.
I’m not completely sold on how the daemons are being handled thus far. Their voices seem oddly disembodied and the children’s daemons changing form is confusing and makes it hard to form an attachment to them. I completely get that it’s fundamental to the books that they do this, I just think it’s an aspect that does not easily translate to the screen. Another niggle is that Mrs Coulter’s monkey is more auburn than golden. I just pray they get Hester right. All in all, an encouraging start. We must accept that it’s an adaptation and it will never be able to do justice to certain elements of the books. This will only increase as we get to The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I’m looking forward to seeing episodes not directed by Tom Hooper, to see if that makes any difference. We all know that he will be directing the mulefa at some point….shudder. But we have episodes directed by William McGregor (Gwen) and Dawn Shadforth (Kylie Minogue’s Can’t You Out of My Head video!) to come. But for now, we can look forward to shortly meeting Iorek and Serafina and er…being completely destroyed by Billy Costa (representing Tony Makarios) and his Ratter…sob.
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Jack Thorne
Cast: James McAvoy, Clarke Peters, Dafne Keen, Lewin Lloyd, Gary Lewis, Ian Gelder, Patrick Godfrey