Dust to Dust

HBO’s ‘His Dark Materials’ Series is off to a Promising Start

This week the highly-anticipated television adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book series premiered on HBO. The big question for any fan of Pullman’s work is “will this series do right by the books?” From what I saw in the first episode, the answer is yes…mostly.

I have a soft spot for the first attempt to bring Pullman’s books to the screen, the widely-panned 2007 film The Golden Compass. Though it undeniably mishandled the material, the cast was excellent, especially Dakota Blue Richards as the young heroine Lyra, and the art direction and visual effects both deservedly received Oscar nominations. Most importantly, the world it portrayed intrigued me enough that I sought out the book series, which hooked me quickly.

Episode 1 of the HBO adaptation, Lyra’s Jordan, does a good job of establishing the world and setting the table for the story to come. An animated credit sequence set to propulsive music includes imagery that alludes to the three main novels—Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—and ends on an image of parallel worlds.

A Greedy Little Savage

A few screens of text explain that the story is set in a separate world similar to our own. One major difference from our world is that each person has a “daemon,” a part of their soul that takes the form of an animal companion. A governing body known as the Magisterium encompasses both church and state.

His Dark Materials introduces us to the orphaned Lyra Belacqua, first as a baby and then at age 12 or thereabouts. Her uncle, Lord Asriel, brings her to Jordan College in Oxford, leaving her there under the protection of “scholastic sanctuary.” Though some have described the show’s aesthetic as steampunk, to me the Oxford setting felt more like a version of the real Oxford circa the 1940s or 50s, if everyone traveled by zeppelin rather than car or train.

Described by Pullman in The Golden Compass as a “greedy little savage,” adolescent Lyra runs around Oxford half-wild, commanding a small army of local children to basically cause as much mischief as possible. As orphans go, Lyra is more Artful Dodger than Oliver.

Dafne Keen does a fine job as Lyra in this first episode, though she didn’t make a big impression on me. She runs around on rooftops and wears a truly unfortunate maroon jumper that is also somehow also culottes; but never reaches the almost feral affect of Lyra in the books. I hope that the subsequent episodes give her the chance to bring out the full spectrum of Lyra’s spunky, resourceful, and fearless personality.

 McAvoy’s Effective Grey Streak

We subsequently learn that Lyra is destined for a journey, and a betrayal. It may be related to Lord Asriel’s controversial research about “Dust,” elementary particles that gather around adults but not children, and the existence of other worlds beyond the Northern Lights. The boyish James McAvoy seems an odd casting choice for Asriel, a character described in the books as a tall and imposing man in his 40s or 50s. Though, I have to admit, he’s kind of pulling off that grey streak in his hair. There’s nothing wrong with McAvoy’s acting in His Dark Materials; he is just more inherently likeable than the savage, ruthless Asriel presented in the books.

We also meet the glamorous Mrs. Coulter, the series’ primary antagonist. We know Coulter is  up to something because Ruth Wilson plays her and the show styles her like Joan Crawford. Also, her daemon is a mute, beady-eyed monkey. Mrs. Coulter asks Lyra to come to London and be her assistant, the sort of proposal which seems blatantly false to an adult, but could feel plausible to a child.

Meanwhile, children have been disappearing and a mysterious group and the authorities blame a mysterious group called the Gobblers. Among the missing are Lyra’s best friend Roger and Billy Costa, a member of a nomadic community known as the Gyptians. As the episode ends, Lyra and Mrs. Coulter leave Oxford for London via airship, while a convoy of Gyptian boats also sets off to London in search of the missing children.

I feared His Dark Materials would rush through this section of the story at Jordan in order to get to the flashier bits—Armored bears! Witches! Daemon fights! However, the pacing of the first episode felt just right. The showrunners also seem willing to embrace the darker aspects of the story yet to come, something that the 2007 film version shied away from, to its detriment.

My biggest complaint is that I didn’t feel the presence of the daemons enough. In scenes with a lot of people, only the main characters had noticeable daemons. In the books, Lyra is constantly in conversation with her daemon Pantalaimon, who’s often the voice of caution when Lyra gets reckless. I hope that in future episodes Pan has a bigger presence, if only to demonstrate the close link between a person and their daemon.

Creepy Monkey

Random thoughts:

–Seriously though, how does Mrs. Coulter get anyone to trust her with that creepy monkey hanging around?

–His Dark Materials doesn’t contain many instances of clunky expository dialogue! Though Lyra asking Asriel if his airship looked like “the one her parents died in” was a bit sweaty.

–The Gyptian coming-of-age ceremony, which does not appear in the books, was a thoughtful way to explain that when a person reaches adulthood, their daemon takes on a permanent animal form.

–Lord Asriel’s strategy for securing additional research funding is unorthodox, but effective: admit you spent your previous funding on an unapproved project, present the severed head of a colleague, defy anyone to disagree with you. Funding granted!

–Lin-Manuel Miranda has been at the forefront of the marketing campaign, but I was pleasantly surprised that the show didn’t just shoehorn him into the first episode. I’m skeptical that he was the best choice for the part of Lee Scoresby, a battle-scarred airship pilot from Texas, but I like him as a performer enough to just go with it. (For comparison, Sam Elliott played this part in the film version.)

–The set is filled with Easter eggs for fans of the books. My favorite was a postcard from Asriel hanging on Lyra’s wall which begins, “Reports have reached me that you have stolen a Gyptian boat…” This refers to one of Lyra’s escapades with her gang of townie friends.

–The season preview at the end of the episode included a lot of action and plenty of glimpses of the character we are all actually here for: Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear.


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Lani Gonzalez

Lani Gonzalez has appeared as a guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies and occasionally writes about what she sees at Cinema Then and Now.

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