Series Adaptation ‘His Dark Materials’ is a Lavish Retelling Told in Broad Strokes

In a much awaited co-production between HBO and the BBC, His Dark Materials is the latest fantasy to brighten these dark Sunday nights. With Game of Thrones completed, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings on the way, and Netflix’ excellent takes on Anne of Green Gables and A Series of Unfortunate Events, Philip Pullman’s much-loved novels fit right in this wave of mini series. 

For newcomers, everything is spelt out from the first frame, “This story starts in another world, one that is both like, and unlike your own. Here, a human’s soul takes the physical form of an animal, known as a daemon.” The remainder of this caption could be gleaned from careful watching, setting a precedent for the clumsier aspects of this adaptation. 

Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a boisterous twelve-year-old, runs wild amongst the ageing academics of Oxford with her best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd), and her daemon, Pantalaimon. The carefully constructed oblivion around her quickly crumbles when her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) returns from the North, with proof of other worlds in the sky, and the Dust that brings them within reach. 

The events that transpire springboard from Pullman’s first book The Northern Lights, which tells of Lyra’s incredible expeditions, all through the lens of her curious mind. But, the series doesn’t remain upon the steady course charted by the novel for long, carefully dancing around the trilogy’s format, abandoning finer details of her story to reveal the stories paralleling her own. 

For those up-to-date and keen to understand these choices can find articles like that of the RadioTimes, which delve into the diversions made every episode. For this review, which I intend to keep spoiler-free, let it be known that plot lines in the second volume, The Amber Spyglass are introduced much earlier, and run alongside Lyra’s. It is a bold move from the writers, one that sacrifices certain elements of anticipation for character insight, and which may or may not pay off once the show is completed. 

To make up for this more removed perspective, the style is indisputably excellent, and elevated by Lorne Balfe’s epic soundtrack. From the Lyra’s rooftops of Jordan College, the clinical Magisterium, to the warm, crowded Gyptian community, down to the intricacies of the alethiometer, the world-building is fascinating to watch. 

As for those who populate these worlds, the casting is tried and tested. Dafne Keen brings more of the fire within her Logan character with every scene and Lin Manuel Miranda answers to his customary scruffy and angry casting call. The most magnetic of them all is Ruth Wilson, bringing her intimidating serial killer energy from Luther to the beautiful Mrs Coulter. The best of this reshuffled storytelling comes from this performance, seeing her manipulative psyche and unadulterated rage behind closed doors.

The portrayal of daemons is up for debate, and errs on the side of caution. The CGI is lovely, and the voice-casting is brilliant, with the adorable Kit Connor as Pan, alongside the likes of Helen McCrory and David Suchet. Pantalaimon is definitely a character in his own right, a voice of caution in Lyra’s ear.

However, certain bits of book accuracy like Serafina’s goose daemon are rather cowardly replaced for the aesthetic. With details like this, it can’t be denied that the series isn’t brave enough in showcasing these unique pairings. Instead, what should be seen and felt is somewhat crudely pointed out. Though the Gyptian coming-of-age ceremony immediately gives the bond a spiritual importance, and pain is mirrored between the two, exclamations in conversation are mostly used to explain the full impact of separation. Despite the accumulated run-time of 5 hours thus far, the show has yet to bring this side of the mythology to its full actualisation. 

By drawing the focus away from Lyra, we inevitably lose the minutiae of the personality that otherwise jumps off the page with imagination, anger and courage. But as is the style of BBC mysteries, often weaving a portrait from several angles, we see what she could not in the books. Whether the whispers and hints of darkness square up to seeing it first-hand remains to be seen, the comparison certainly brings much more to see from this world. Either way, book-lovers will be debating His Dark Materials for some time to come, but it’s a definite improvement upon the film and an intriguing, attractive watch in the run up to Christmas. 

You can catch up with His Dark Materials on BBC iPlayer


by Fatima Sheriff

Fatima is a third-year Biomed at the University of Sheffield. For insight into her personality, her favourite films are: Bright Star, Paddington 2, Taare Zameen Par and Pride & Prejudice and in 2017 she listened mostly to the Hidden Figures soundtrack.  She loves TV shows with original concepts, witty writing, and diverse casting. Examples include Legion, Gravity Falls, and Sense 8. Her Twitter and TVShowTime are both @lafatimayette.

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