‘His Dark Materials’ finally does justice to Philip Pullman’s work

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HBO premiered their new series based on the classic young adult fantasy trilogy of the same name in early November. The series comes 12 years after “The Golden Compass” movie, which focused on the first installment of the trilogy. The movie, featuring big names like Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, was surprisingly a huge flop. According to critics, the main reason for the film’s failure was its treatment of religion. While the book series did fairly blatantly critique the Catholic church, the movie tried to water down the religious content to not offend anyone, which ironically ended up offending everyone. There were a number of other issues, but the long and short of it is this fascinating, classic story was told poorly through film.  

So when HBO announced their own attempt at retelling “His Dark Materials,” fans were skeptical. This wasn’t a series that had to be botched on-screen again. Luckily, HBO seems to have gotten it right. Each weekly episode brings viewers deeper into Pullman’s world of dust, daemons and other dimensions.  

Starring Dafne Keen (Logan) as Lyra Belacqua, the story focuses on a fantastical world, not unlike our own, where everyone’s spirit lives outside their body and takes the shape of an animal. In this world, sinister forces are at work. The governing and religious body, the Magisterium, are trying to find the root of sin and maintain innocence. Meanwhile, the young heroine Lyra is on a mission to rescue her missing best friend and reconnect with her uncle, Lord Asriel (played by James McAvoy). Along the way, she acquires the mystical alethiometer (the golden compass) and discovers plenty of secrets and hidden dangers.  

The cast is star-studded, and the writing is certainly more true to the novels than the previous film adaptation. The audience is fairly immersed in the fantasy world of the story, and weekly installments keep the suspense alive. The producers of the series decided to use puppets during filming to create a more realistic relationship between actor and animal. When they edited in CGI animals after, it made for a more natural scene. 

Ruth Wilson stunned as the monstrous but beautiful Mrs. Coulter. Her character is truly evil, and does the unthinkable to Lyra and other children. Wilson tackled some very emotional scenes with ease, making for a truly scary viewing experience at times. Her heartbreak and simultaneous brutality are hard to look away from. 

While each episode has been enjoyable so far, there are still some flaws. Keen seems older than Lyra’s character is supposed to be, and I personally found it hard to remove her from her role in the X-Men franchise, especially with those stone-cold stares. Lin Manuel Miranda was not a good fit for the part of Lee Scoresby, the adventurous aeronaut with the Southern drawl. His acting seemed forced and clumsy in the episodes he has been in thus far. This first season seems to include some material from beyond the first novel, which makes some plot-lines seem a little jumpy, but time will tell if they manage to make this more cohesive. 

“His Dark Materials” is a daunting task to take on, and HBO was brave in doing so. For fans of the books, any adaptation is going to leave a lot to be desired. These were dense books. There is no way any on-screen version of this epic trilogy can encompass all of the minutiae. But HBO is certainly as close to perfect as audiences have seen thus far. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but the production team clearly have a good understanding of the novels. They remain true to Pullman’s original books, while creating some new fans of the series along the way. Episodes air every Monday night on HBO.  

Rating: 4/5  

Thumbnail photo courtesy of @darkmaterials on Twitter


Julia Mancini is the life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.mancini@uconn.edu.

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