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‘His Dark Materials’ Doesn’t Reach the Heights of the Books—but How Could It?

Such is the challenge of adapting a fantasy series with an expansive, immersive world and a demanding, discerning fan base

HBO/Ringer illustration

“Objective criticism” is already an oxymoron, but it’s especially impossible to have any distance from a project like His Dark Materials. Philip Pullman’s epic fantasy trilogy, originally published between 1995 and 2000, builds an indelible world with all kinds of knots and grooves for a child’s imagination to latch on to: magical companion spirits called daemons, whose animal form reflects their human’s personality; a malevolent institution that steals children and suppresses freedom; and a mysterious Arctic filled with shamans, flying witches, and armored bears. Over three volumes, Pullman uses these elements as a segue into weighty themes from religion to free will to coming of age. Such ideas are both new to many young readers and especially relevant to them as they transition into adulthood, and those readers reward Pullman’s generosity in turn with lifetime devotion. I personally count His Dark Materials among the most formative works of art I’ve been privileged to encounter, and judging by its enduring appeal, I’m far from alone. A new sequel was published just this fall, with at least one more to come.

Such intensity of feeling can be a double-edged sword to potential adaptations. In their treatment of the series, HBO and the BBC—coproducers of the television series that premieres stateside Monday night—have spared no expense. His Dark Materials is in fact the most expensive project in BBC history, which suggests that players like director Tom Hooper and writer Jack Thorne understand the commitment necessary to do this story justice. Yet the fierce attachment of its fans carries a lofty set of expectations along with automatic interest. Not helping matters is the infamous artistic failure of 2007’s The Golden Compass, which whitewashed much of the book’s portrayal of organized religion while further compressing its already dense plot to fit into a feature film. Pullman’s fans have already been burned once; they’re justifiably wary of being disappointed again.

Accurately replicating a touchstone’s appeal for its acolytes and conveying it to newcomers is a difficult task, but it’s not an impossible one. Whatever its later-season failings, Game of Thrones first volumes masterfully translated George R.R. Martin’s complex web of perspectives and mythology; the Harry Potter films may be underrated for their superlative casting and immersive world-building. And with Logan’s Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua, a 12-year-old orphan raised among scholars at Oxford before her destiny comes calling, His Dark Materials gives itself a head start in capturing Lyra’s pure-hearted determination.

The resulting season (or the four out of an eventual eight episodes HBO screened in advance) is not the disaster some have been taught by experience to expect. It does, however, fall short of the sky-high standards it brings upon itself by invoking Pullman in the first place. The show makes significant improvements on the movie by giving the story enough space to unfold and making clear the Magisterium, a sort of hybrid church and police state, is a religious institution, not a generic stand-in for authority. (Its members wear modified ecclesiastical garb, answer to a cardinal, and at one point ransack an office in search of “heretical” material.) But being not-bad isn’t the same as being great. His Dark Materials is faithful, yet it fails to be as artful or innovative in its adaptation as Pullman was in his invention.

His Dark Materials takes place—at least, as its epigraph slyly hints, to start—in a world like our own, but not of it. There’s a vaguely steampunk vibe to its technology, which lacks electronics and relies on zeppelins for air travel; the Arctic is still the quasi-mystical frontier evoked by black-and-white photographs of adventurers on sleds. Its ethic is equal parts Dickensian and Manichean, pitting an upstart orphan and a band of misfits against an entrenched power that preys on children to mysterious, though doubtless evil, ends. (What moral ambiguity there is will come much further on.) And then there are the overt bits of magic, guided by wonderfully evocative ground rules. Children’s daemons change shape at will until they settle into a final form around puberty; Lyra’s “chosen one” status, later confirmed by reveals about her true parentage, is indicated by her ability to interpret a baroque instrument called an alethiometer (the titular Golden Compass) by instinct, while adults need years of training to do the same.

Disappointingly, the detail and specificity in Pullman’s saga is precisely where His Dark Materials suffers most. The show struggles to organically convey key bylaws like the details of the human-daemon relationship. And for all His Dark Materials budget, reportedly spent in large part on CGI, the daemons look strangely simplistic, more like cartoons than expressive outgrowths of someone’s soul. Many background players don’t appear to have daemons at all, and Lyra’s companion Pantalaimon—Pan for short—spends almost all his time in a single guise, despite symbolic flexibility supposedly being a hallmark of this universe’s youth.

For all the attention given to higher-profile tasks like writing and direction, the most telling aspect of His Dark Materials might be its production design. There’s a smooth, sanded-down quality to the series’ look, lacking in the texture one expects from an alternate reality this meticulously conceived. Lyra’s native Oxford feels like a bland facsimile, devoid of the sense of ancient knowledge or idyllic luxury that makes British academia (and, say, Hogwarts) so alluring to Americans. When Lyra is taken to London by the suspiciously enchanting Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson, a veteran villain bringing wicked charm), her new bedroom in a luxe Art Deco apartment feels as anodyne as a hotel, though she responds to it with unconvincing enthusiasm. When Lyra finally reaches the north that’s enchanted her all her life, the town she arrives in looks like the extra-mobbed soundstage it is.

The departures His Dark Materials makes from its source material are largely structural, and often understandable. To expand the story and show us as much as possible, the narrative is no longer limited to Lyra’s point of view. Mrs. Coulter gets her own scenes, as do members of the Gyptians, the Romany-esque nomadic people who take Lyra in. While disorienting to readers, the shift ultimately makes sense. Other tweaks fall into the category of choices that will rub the viewer wrong simply because they don’t align with what they envisioned while reading the books, unfair nitpicks that are nonetheless inevitable in such an undertaking. James McAvoy, for example, is fine as Lord Asriel, the trailblazing explorer who deposits Lyra at Oxford and periodically checks in on her. Still, he lacks the dangerous, sexy-in-a-coded-for-preteens-way air of the character in the books, and delivers a more earnest rendition of the character. (Lin-Manuel Miranda, on the other hand, is manifestly miscast as a swashbuckling air balloon pilot from Texas. Just because you have the Hamilton guy in your production doesn’t mean he has to sing!)

His Dark Materials problems lie not in how it changes the books, but in how it strains without success to preserve them. Funnily enough, the opening credits—grand and enticing in a way few series bother to be these days—capture some of the scale and sense of possibility the show itself thus far lacks. There’s potential for the show to pick up steam in later episodes or even an already-shot second season, when the story opens up even further and starts to intersect with some of Pullman’s more substantive ideas. For now, His Dark Materials feels like My Brilliant Friend, another recent HBO adaptation of a beloved novel featuring children: an adaptation caught between fidelity to the source and an identity of its own.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.