His Dark Materials Review: A Cautionary Tale of the Difficulties of Adaption

October 28, 2019
Cole Sansom 4
TV, TV Recaps


This adaptation will likely be praised for its faithfulness to the books, but it’s a shame it couldn’t be faithful and exciting.

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This adaptation will likely be praised for its faithfulness to the books, but it’s a shame it couldn’t be faithful and exciting.

This recap of His Dark Materials Season 1, Episode 1, “Lyra’s Jordan”, contains some minor spoilers. 

If you’re looking for a cautionary tale of the difficulties of adaption, there are worse examples than His Dark Materials (before HBO stepped in, you could have also said Watchmen). The story is of a child named Lyra, set in a world like our own, but where every person has an animal companion called a dæmon. Philip Pullman’s book trilogy is a masterclass in genre-blending; fantasy with sci-fi, a coming-of-age narrative with an epic war story, religious revisionism with the canon of “literature”. Both approachable for children and challenging to adults, the books are (in my humble opinion), some of the finest pieces of writing in the English language.

It’s precisely this elusive nature that resists easy adaptation. That and the state of the film/tv industry, which necessitates that anything needing extensive effects must be broad as possible (and His Dark Materials both requires expensive effects and is very challenging). 

That’s precisely what went wrong with the 2007 film adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass. New Line Cinema, close to bankruptcy, was looking for its next Lord of the Rings. Even after removing the more subversive aspects of the source material, initial test screenings were baffled by the film’s ending, and the studio cut the last act (arguably the most important part of the narrative). The film thudded into theaters, well cast, visually adequate, but thematically and narratively neutered. Plans for a sequel languished.

Now, twelve years later, we have a new adaptation. The BBC, teaming up with HBO, promises that it will be more faithful to the book. Three seasons are planned, each covering a book of the trilogy, with the second already in production.

From the His Dark Materials Episode 1, “Lyra’s Jordan” (which airs November 3rd in the UK, 4th in the US, I saw an advance preview), the show superficially achieves the aim of being “faithful”. Yes, it looks like this new adaptation, from writer Jack Thorne (of Cursed Child infamy), will include all the story that Pullman wrote. But in striving for fidelity, something has been lost. There is no magic in His Dark Materials, no wonder.

A groan-worthy opening text sets the tone in “Lyra’s Jordan”; this is a show that is going to tell, not show (note: anything that begins with the phrase “in a world much like our own”, should be canceled immediately). Exposition is hammered down the audience’s throats in a way that will make viewers new to Pullman’s world more bored than confused. At least three scenes involve the characters explaining that dæmons fix forms when a child turns thirteen. Too much airtime is spent explaining why exactly Lyra lives in a college in Oxford, a question few viewers would think to ask in a tightly told story (the show answers it by repeating the phrase, “Scholastic Sanctuary”, each time becoming more meaningless.)

The show tries to be both the first Harry Potter movie and Game of Thrones (minus the sex and violence) but misses the mark at what makes them special. The former is aped in the show’s opening scenes, presenting a direct homage followed by repeated enunciations of how “special” Lyra is; the latter by globetrotting scenes that intend to produce several concurrent storylines that any book ready knows will soon converge. What worked in the first of Pullman’s books is how close it kept to Lyra, only gradually revealing the vastness of the story and the uniqueness of Lyra. The show attempts to push those elements to the fore, but in trying to tell a “chosen one” narrative and create a populated world, the show stutters.

None of these globe-trotting scenes hold up particularly well. The first concerns Lord Asriel (a miscast James McAvoy) in “the North”. The scene is meaningless to those who haven’t read the books, and uninteresting to those who have, and leads up to one of the least exciting cut-to-opening titles I’ve ever seen (the titles themselves feel like leftovers from the HBO factory).

Then, we are given glimpses of the “Gyptians”, nomadic canal traveling people who are presented in a scene that parallels the Dothraki wedding in Game of Thrones (again, minus the sex and violence). Over several scenes, the show tries to establish power structures within the Gyptian community, but none of it sticks — even the disappearance of Egyptian children doesn’t make their scenes any more interesting. And their dialect, with unique pronunciation within the original text, comes off false on screen.

Finally, the show commits another flaw the movie committed; depicting the Magisterium. In the first book, they exist as whispers, and their full power is not revealed until much later on. Pullman knows that they are not interesting villains so has them represented by characters such as Mrs. Coulter. The show, clearly looking for ways to artificially bolster the stakes, moves their background machinations to the foreground. In doing so, they are rendered dramatically inert.

Luckily, at least half of His Dark Materials Episode 1 focuses on Lyra. Played with requisite pre-teen anguish by Daphne Keen, she comes close to being the fascinating and complex protagonist that made the books so engaging. The show foregrounds her relationship with Roger, the college kitchen boy, in scenes that are the show’s most successful, simply because they are not trying to cram exposition down the audience’s throat.

Likewise, “Lyra’s Jordan” picks up steam when Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) arrives. Wilson radiates faux-charm, and her dynamic with Keen boosts life into the episode. Lyra’s relationship to her uncle, Lord Asriel, is sketched more haphazardly, with McAvoy doing his best to play a complicated character (the movie really succeeded in its casting, with Daniel Craig doing fantastic work as Asriel). The success of Lyra’s relationships with the show’s characters gives me confidence that it will succeed in hitting the right emotional beats, even if it misses the narrative ones.

But none of that will matter if the show remains as stilted as the first two-thirds of His Dark Materials Episode 1 are. Tom Hooper’s direction is somehow more boring than any of his previous work. It feels like he used all his energy on the set of Cats, and directed His Dark Materials half-asleep in an armchair. A majority of scenes consist of an initial wide shot followed by a shot-reverse-shot sequence of poorly written dialogue delivered by actors clearly struggling with the material. The visual effects, particularly the demons, look less convincing than they did in the movie, twelve years ago (proving that there is more to good CGI than advancing technology). And “Lyra’s Jordan” cuts to titles in a way that seems more perfunctory than dramatic.

As a devoted fan of the books, I will undoubtedly watch the show through to its end. I expect that this adaptation will be praised purely for how it sticks to the narrative content of the book. The film has set such a low bar and this adaptation will probably be more liked because of it. It’s a shame it couldn’t be both faithful and exciting. Perhaps in another world, there exists an excellent adaptation of Philip Pullman’s masterwork. In this world, however (with the exception of the National Theatre play), we will have to make do with this one.

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