Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is an acclaimed, ambitious, and controversial series of young adult novels. The TV series was equally ambitious, being the most expensive British TV series ever made.
In an alternative world that’s similar yet different to our own there is a young orphan called Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen). She lives under the protection of Jordan College in Oxford but longs to visit the Arctic, like her explorer uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). Lyra seemingly gets a chance to live her dream when she becomes the assistant to Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Lyra quickly gets sucked into an adventure involving missing children, waterfaring travelers, armored bears, and an authoritarian regime called The Magisterium.
I’m a huge fan of the novels, so this put me in a unique position when reviewing the series. I was excited to see the story brought to life, but I had a certain picture in my head, which would blur my judgment. So I may as well state some of the changes I wasn’t keen on. I preferred the industrial, Victorian world in the novels, then the 1930s art-deco look of the series, the de-aging of Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), the aging up of Will Parry (Amir Wilson), and the portrayal of Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Other changes, like Lyra’s hair color, is something I can overlook.
Every adaptation makes changes, that is the nature of the beast. Even faithful adaptations I liked such as A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games series, and the first few seasons of Game of Thrones which made changes. There were two major aspects the His Dark Materials series needed to get right: the tone and the religious themes. And the series does get these parts right, mostly.
When the series moves northwards, it does turn into a darker story that experimentation on children death, children losing their souls, and betrayals. When the story moved to the North, it became darker and more engaging. The best episodes of the season were “The Lost Boy,” “The Dæmon Cages,” and “Betrayal” because they stuck to the dark tone of novels. These episodes include a child who escaped a secret facility without his soul, showing the horrors of Bolvangar and the tragedy at the end of the novel.
Philip Pullman is a vocal atheist and a critic of organized religion. His views influenced His Dark Materials. The 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass chose to underplay these themes so it could appeal more to Middle American audiences. This was a move that backfired because it upset fans of the novels. The TV series was much more overt about the religious element. The first episode introduced Father MacPhail (Will Keen), the leader of a powerful organization with the Magisterium, the church in Lyra’s world. The Magisterium figures did dress in religious clothing, and in the final episode of the series, Asriel points out that the Magisterium had been suppressing humanity for centuries. However, due to the art-deco look, The Magisterium comes across as an authoritarian, fascist government than an overarching religious organization.
The first season of His Dark Materials was eight episodes long, with each episode being around 55 minutes long. However, the first novel was only 400 pages long, so the series had to stretch and expand the story. The first three episodes of the series suffered because they really drag out the story. The length wasn’t used to showcase Lyra’s world, and many of these episodes were overly talky. The third episode, “The Spies,” where Lyra ends up in the protection of the Gyptians. The events in these episodes could have easily have been condensed into one or two.
The series improves a lot when the action moves to the Arctic. The story kicks up a gear as Lyra, and the Gyptians look for the meeting children, getting involved with the politics of armored bears, and saving Lord Asriel. The episodes in the second half of the season become more focus, like Lyra helping Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) get his armor back, finding the lost child, and having a whole episode set in Bolvangar.
There were some positive changes in the series. The series surprised audiences early on by showing characters who appear in the second novel, The Subtle Knife. The series established Will’s domestic struggles where he looks after his mother (Nina Sosanya). This was only told in passing in the novels. “The Dæmon Cages” expanded on the events in Bolvagar to great effort. There was haunting imaginary like the showing of the children who were severed from their dæmons. They became apathetic half-lives, and their dæmons acted like tortured animals. This episode was better at showing the nurses being odd than the books did.
The cast also took their time to grow on me. Dafne Keen’s Lyra started as a precocious child instead of the wild child she was in the novel. But as the series progress, she became more like the character she was in the novels: someone who’s smart, brave, and able to lie out of a situation, and showed she could handle the emotional scenes. McAvoy only got to shine in the final episode of the season, where he’s more willing to do horrific actions. Wilson was great at showing Mrs. Coulter as a dark and manipulative character, especially in the second episode, when she controls Lyra. But she also acted as a raged filled beast, which goes against the characterization in the novels. There was a great supporting cast with actors like Clarke Peters, Anne-Marie Duff, and Nina Sosanya. My favorite was James Cosmo as Farder Coram, a man who takes Lyra under his wing and tutors her. He had a powerful moment in the episode “Armour” when he tells Lyra what happened to his son.
While His Dark Materials was the most expensive British TV series, there were still limitations. The CGI for the dæmons and the bear were fantastic, and it needed to be. But some of the settings were clearly limited. When Lyra and the Gyptians arrived at Trollesund. It was obvious that the episode was filmed on a beach in Wales. Most of the action set in the North were filmed in a studio, and it showed because the CGI backdrops were obvious, and despite the characters standing sub-zero temperatures, there was no visual breath.
The first season of His Dark Materials was a successful adaptation that did stick close to the source material. However, it was at times frustrating because of the slow start and some of the changes the showrunners decided to make.