Though we’re no longer surprised by news of our most cherished books becoming TV shows, the pressure and expectation when it happens is always just as prevalent. Tell us that you’re adapting one of our beloved childhood favorites and the stakes get even higher. Yes, it makes so much sense to put Philip Pullman’s fantasy epic His Dark Materials on screen, but we fans have been burned before. Forgive us for treading carefully this time around.
In 2007, we had The Golden Compass. Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards starred in the film, which was based on Northern Lights (the first book in the Dark Materials trilogy) but fell short of delivering the magic of the novels. You can only do so much in a couple of hours, of course. So when the BBC and HBO announced its eight-episode TV series, we hoped that more ground would be covered this time. And friends, the show does not disappoint.
Dafne Keen stars as Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan living at Jordan College in Oxford under the watchful eyes of academics. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) stops by from time to time. When we meet him he’s just come back from another expedition to the north, where he’s been investigating Dust. We’re not told explicitly what Dust is, but we do know that it makes the scholars of Jordan College very nervous – nervous enough for The Master to poison Lord Asriel’s whisky before he has a chance to share his findings with the rest of the university. Spying from a window, however, Lyra spots the poison being added to her uncle’s drink and is able to intercept when he goes to take a sip.
Lyra lives in a world parallel to our own. It looks and sounds very similar except here human souls take a physical form as animals, known as 'daemons'. Later on we'll learn that the connection between the two is the root of much of the story’s conflict.
Here in Lyra’s world, everyone is under the rule of The Magisterium, the theological powerhouse that governs the country. Lord Asriel is accused of heresy when he presents his scientific discoveries about Dust – and a shocking ability to detect other worlds connected to this one – to the scholars of Jordan College. Lyra overhears and is fascinated by the whole thing. She begs her uncle to take her with him when he heads off back to the north (he knows he can’t stick around much longer before The Magisterium gets wind of his discovery and tries to stop or kill him) but he declines.
Beyond the college walls is the Gyptian community, nomads who live on riverboats and are primarily traders. After a ceremony to mark Tony Costa’s transition from child to man (this happens when your daemon settles in one form; in childhood, daemons can transform into any animal they need or want to), his younger brother Billy goes missing. Word spreads and it’s eventually worked out that he’s been taken by the Gobblers, once assumed to be a scary myth told to children but now clearly a reality.
It’s not long before Lyra’s best friend and Jordan College kitchen hand, Roger, is taken too – just as Lyra is introduced to the mysterious, beautiful and unnerving Ms Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a respected and seemingly feared woman who holds a lot of power among the scholars in Oxford (and much further afield). She’s dangerous but we don’t know why. She’s also in town to offer Lyra a job as her assistant and accompany her to London. It feels strange and untoward but on the promise that London is her best bet for finding Roger, Lyra agrees and boards an airship with her new guardian, thus starting an important journey that she doesn’t quite realize she’s on.
"She has a part to play in all of this, a major one," the College Master tells one of the scholars before sending Lyra on her way with Ms Coulter. "The irony is that she has to do it all without realising what she’s doing."
And so in one episode we’re thrust into a universe on the cusp of conflict, with the fate of more than we realize resting in the hands of a young girl. The beauty of this adaptation is not only the length – with an hour per episode, there’s much more space to delve into the complexities of Pullman’s writing – but what’s on screen. The imagery is gorgeous, the characters are just as rich as readers will remember, and the sense of anticipation that drives the narrative for viewers who may not have read the books is wildly compelling. In a nutshell it’s a well-crafted coming-of-age story intertwined with politics and good old-fashioned adventure. But Pullman fans will already know that His Dark Materials is so complicatedly more than that. On first look, this TV adaptation seems poised – finally – to convey that accurately.
His Dark Materials airs on HBO Mondays at 9 PM