Until the BBC, in league with HBO, decided to tackle Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it remained one of the greatest, unfilmed epic adventure stories in modern literature.
There was, granted, an attempt in 2007 with The Golden Compass, directed by Chris Weitz, but despite starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and a host of talented thespians in support, it failed to capture enough critical acclaim & audience imagination (and crucially box office) to warrant adapting not just Pullman’s first novel, Northern Lights, but the subsequent two sequels – not to mention launch the career of star Dakota Blue Richards, playing central heroine Lyra Belacqua. On the face of it, His Dark Materials should be a slam dunk as a success story; a plucky heroine, a quest narrative, magical realms, talking bears, witches and megalomaniacal villains. Except it isn’t quite that simple.
Though this kind of genre may lend itself to family friendly entertainment, a Harry Potter-esque story of good vs evil, Philip Pullman’s books are incredibly dense, complicated and challenging pieces of world-building crammed with the kind of philosophical ideas that your JK Rowling’s or George Lucas’ do not touch. His Dark Materials, over the three books, goes to some seriously dark places – the climax of Northern Lights is built on such a moment. Adapting these books is not nearly as easy as they may look from the outset, bucking convention in the ideas Pullman presents. The Golden Compass proved one film was not enough space to pull this off. The BBC’s His Dark Materials suggests even an eight-part television series might not be up to the challenge.
As despite the fact Jack Thorne’s scripts put everything from the first novel (and a bit from the second) on screen, the first season of His Dark Materials lacks the key component present in Pullman’s writing: magic.
Ostensibly, everything the show needs to work is up there on the screen.
There is enough of a budget to provide some solid visual effects and bring to life Lyra’s world, particularly the northern regions of Svalbard where the second half of the season takes place, particularly noble bear-King Iorek Byrnison. The cast is strong, with Dafne Keen a plucky Lyra, James McAvoy (who bookends the season) as the fanatical Lord Asriel, the big shot of Lin-Manuel Miranda bringing charm & swagger to Lee Scoresby and principally Ruth Wilson who is near-perfect casting as Mrs Coulter, outside of Lyra the truly memorable character in the saga; a slippery, somewhat psychotic agent of the Magisterium, this world’s fusion of corrupt government and maniacal church. Around them are plenty of other familiar faces from British TV to keep the wheels on track.
Almost immediately, however, as we see Lyra in her home of Jordon College in Oxford, having fun with her soon-to-be-abducted friend Roger, you sense something is *off*. An early question my wife (who has long loved the books and even wrote a university thesis on them) and I had was whether this adaptation of His Dark Materials could work in greater detail to people who hadn’t read, or had a connection, to Pullman’s book, because knowing where Lyra’s quest is going made for something of a flat experience.
Everything happened largely in step with the story in Northern Lights, with some early moments of The Subtle Knife weaved in to introduce Lyra’s future companion Will Parry, but very little of it *impacted*. Purists also may raise an eyebrow as to the inconsistent use of the ‘daemons’, forms of internal consciousness given form as literal spirit animals, and the placement of two key personal revelations for Lyra, which differ from the book. Personally, for me, I understood why Thorne revealed those when he did for the purposes of a TV structure.
That’s the key to remember with this adaptation: structure. His Dark Materials has to take a fairly straightforward story and thread it across eight hour long episodes, when at times it could have been done in six (particularly in the first half of the season). While there is a huge amount of mythology within Pullman’s books, as there was world-building in equivalents such as Rowling, George R. R. Martin or even historical inspirations such as Frank Herbert or J. R. R. Tolkien, the actual narrative quest of Lyra looking for Roger while returning her magical, truth-telling aleithiometer to Asriel is relatively straightforward.
Pullman manages to explore some of the deeper philosophical ideas that deep root his saga—faith, heresy, objective truth, and primarily Original Sin—in the context of Lyra’s journey, ending Northern Lights with quite a shocking gut punch that His Dark Materials here just doesn’t deliver. If Asriel’s final action at the end of season finale Betrayal resonated with you, as a book fan or not, please tell me, because it sums up how Thorne’s version of this story feels lacking in substance, even when it works to flesh out aspects of the universe and create at times an ensemble feel to, in Pullman’s book, a story entirely driven by Lyra.
There could be innumerable reasons for this. His Dark Materials ultimately is straddling production realities. Though it may inhabit a post-Game of Thrones space, where audiences expect a deeper level of mythological world-building to their genre television, at the end of the day it is a prime-time, Sunday evening BBC production designed to appeal to families. It can’t be too dark. It can’t be too weird. It can’t even get too deeply into the frankly controversial ideas in Pullman’s work about organised religion (though they primarily sit in his last book, The Amber Spyglass).
It wants to attract a similar audience to fans of shows such as Doctor Who, with a mix of science-fiction fantasy and high adventure, but there is a push pull in the narrative that prevents it being either rich enough for adult audiences or sprightly enough for the teenage market. It’s often quite dour, knotty, filled with sub-plots that will pay off down the road, and struggles as a result to be compelling episode to episode as a piece of drama.
This makes me wonder about whether adapting His Dark Materials in a straightforward manner is the best approach. If you look at Watchmen recently, which avoided directly putting on screen the seminal graphic novel and chose to craft a sequel that honoured the spirit and the universe of that original book, the end product was far richer and more fulfilling. Pullman’s text, like Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, is a rich piece of work which is difficult to translate; the aforementioned The Golden Compass proved this, as did Zack Snyder’s technically proficient but unmemorable, almost direct page for page take on Watchmen a decade ago. His Dark Materials proves that translating a piece of fiction so beloved, so in the minds eye of millions of readers for decades, is no easy task to resonate for all audiences.
This is partly perspective. There is little technically wrong with His Dark Materials. It is well produced, decently acted, and relatively well written, even if the pacing feels out of tune with Northern Lights – though it does improve in the latter half of the season. For a show with high ideas, powerful character journeys, and challenging concepts about religion and scientific discovery, it simply didn’t make me feel anything. Lyra’s journey felt passive when it should have been as involving, daring, disturbing and ultimately as dark and tragic as in the source material. That power is lost in an adaptation that works hard to be inclusive in its reach, but ends up lacking the power it needed to work as it does on the page.
It will almost certainly get two or three more seasons to conclude the trilogy and hopefully, in time, His Dark Materials will capture what Phillip Pullman originally gave us. Time, or maybe the aleithiometer, will tell…