HBO’s His Dark Materials starts from the semi-enviable position of “At least it can’t be worse than the movie.”
The first attempt at adapting Philip Pullman’s cerebral, dense, beloved fantasy novels was The Golden Compass. The lush 2007 feature film, based only on the first book in the original trilogy, was plagued by studio meddling, and by related charges that its secularist heart had been “” by pressure to dial down the menace of the Magisterium — the oppressive church that functions as the story’s true antagonist — out of fear it would alienate certain U.S. audiences.
Needless to say, the film was not well loved, and the news that a post-Game of Thrones HBO would be pouring its fire-and-blood money, and prestige, into getting on board a long-planned BBC production was welcomed.
But of course, HDM is also now in the less enviable position of being cast as the next GoT: An epic fantasy show based on beloved but not quite mainstream books, given the full HBO treatment with a big-name cast to match and a couple of lush trailers that had readers’ hopes high, might be in serious danger of not being allowed to be its own thing, despite all that makes it unique.
In HDM‘s alternate version of our world, human souls take the form of an animal companion called a daemon (pronounced “demon”). A title card at the beginning of the first episode positions the “sacred” human/daemon relationship — deeply, physically and emotionally connected, and unable to be more than a few feet apart — as central to the story.
We’re first introduced to Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), sneaking into Oxford to deliver a baby girl and her daemon Pantalaimon to the safety of Jordan College. When we next see Lyra Belacqua, she’s 12, a ward of the college, dreaming of being an explorer and begging the mercurial Asriel to take her on one of his scientific (and possibly heretical) expeditions. When children begin to disappear — mostly from the outcast, canal-based traveller community known as the Gyptians — Lyra and Pan leave Oxford to search for her missing friends, and quickly discover that she’s at the centre of a long-hidden war between the Magisterium and something bigger.
With Tom Hooper at the helm for the first two episodes, the show starts a little slow as it sets the table in Oxford and London. (HBO made the first four of eight episodes available to critics.) Lyra’s Brytain has electricity and helicopters and pinball, but also airships and talking bears and no phones. The production design is a lived-in, occasionally incoherent but largely unobtrusive mishmash of early to mid-20th century British dreariness and class divides. Characters refer to far-flung locations like “Constantinople” and ten-year-old orphan boys can have jobs.
Dafne Keen, last seen stealing Logan from Hugh Jackman, is a perfectly fierce, sharp-eyed, endlessly watchable Lyra: kind and shrewd, precocious but never cloying, believably distracted by shiny new possibilities as she learns more about her world, but with a bullshit detector that serves her well as adult agendas and complex loyalties shift in all directions around her.
McAvoy’s Asriel is a cipher, but then he is less of a presence in the first half of the season than Ruth Wilson’s compelling Mrs Coulter. The glamorous, wealthy explorer who sweeps Lyra away from Oxford in the first episode isn’t the coldly cruel villain I remembered from the books, but is no less terrifying for it — she’s a fraction less ruthless, more vulnerable and unhinged, and Wilson lets her sneer tremble and her icy facade shatter in key moments.
The world and the performances feel lived-in, with the possible exception of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby, a Texan aeronaut with a smart-mouthed hare daemon, who was played by Sam Elliott in The Golden Compass for good reason. Miranda’s sunny smartass-for-hire comes across as a fraction broad and stagey at first, like he hasn’t quite shaken off the Mary Poppins vibe. But then he does arrive on the scene in episode 4 amidst the first major expansion of Lyra’s world: a brighter and more fantastical shift after three episodes of dim studies and barges in grey Oxford and London, that still manages to spin its wheels frustratingly even as it introduces beloved key characters.
Crucially, the CGI daemons and other creatures are, for the most part, seamless and completely believable, even when children’s daemons, who can change animal forms at will, do so mid-flight. Pantalaimon, voiced sweetly by Rocketman’s Kit Connor, spends a lot of time as a white mink, looking both realistic and so adorably expressive that PSAs about not buying pet minks on the internet may be required.
It’s clear from the sweeping score and (not unjustifiably) clockwork-inspired title sequence that HBO won’t exactly be mad if anyone calls HDM the new GoT. Familiar faces pop up too: James Cosmo, who played Ser Jeor Mormont in another life, and Luciano Msamati (Sallador Saan, remember him?) are just two steady presences as Gyptian leaders. And the ancient mythologies, supernatural elements, and constant references to ~The North~ will certainly hit the spot for some fans looking for their next fix of mystical intrigue and happy to take it with the violence toned down a few thousand notches.
So much depends, though, on how the show builds on Pullman’s vision. It has more material to draw on — not only the original books, though the first season does weave in an arc from second volume The Subtle Knife earlier than expected, but also new trilogy The Book of Dust — and also new contexts for its philosophical ponderings.
It would be a rich addition, for example, for the show to tease a new dimension of this world out from , and explore beyond the curious binary where humans and their daemons are almost never the same gender. It’s also set in a world controlled by an oppressive religious institution that works actively to restrict public access to scientific knowledge and exploration, and a mysterious authority-sanctioned force snatching poor and vulnerable children off the streets — nobody expects this to be Watchmen, but it would also require real effort not to acknowledge how the audience’s world has changed since Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) kicked things off in 1995.
The show’s producers have already taken pains to reassure audiences that the show is not anti-religion, but if the show is brave enough to make the Magisterium more than just a bunch of creepy dudes in sharp black frocks, this relatively innocuous start carries a message more relevant to our times than a slightly foreboding weather forecast.
As a fan of the books since childhood, I kept looking for things that bothered me in this adaptation and came up short — and yet I wouldn’t describe it as uncompromising. For now, at least, His Dark Materials is playing an absolutely straight bat. It’s a canny, gorgeous, well-cast and gently paced telling that gives the mythology of this world space to breathe. And with a second season already confirmed (and all the books already written so no rogue showrunners can take liberties), book fans can breathe easy too, assured that Pullman’s vision is in safe hands. But, hopefully, not too safe.