It will forever be hard to argue that it’s impossible to adapt a series of dense, complex fantasy novels for the small screen. While the final two seasons of Game of Thrones certainly hurt the show’s reputation, we still have to give credit where it’s due: Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were able to turn George R.R. Martin’s sprawling text into one of the biggest phenomenons in the history of the medium. Benioff and Weiss might’ve shit the bed with the series’ haphazard and truncated ending, but Martin can’t seem to write one for his books, either. (We’re still rooting for you, George!)
Meanwhile, TV networks and streaming companies are continuing their (probably futile) quest to create “the next Game of Thrones.” In a television landscape that was dominated by Thrones, and with other emerging fantasy series trying to make their mark—Netflix’s The Witcher and Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings adaptation are two of the most high-profile ones out there—it’s completely understandable that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book trilogy has been given another onscreen life. Pullman’s first novel was infamously adapted into a 2007 film, The Golden Compass, one whose lasting legacy was reportedly being responsible for creating New Line Cinema’s dire financial situation. But the prevailing feeling among diehard fans of Pullman’s books (count me among them) is that His Dark Materials wasn’t given a fair shake on the big screen. The movie had many issues, but most prominently, it was hesitant to touch on the novels’ anti-religious themes; if an adaptation isn’t willing to engage meaningfully with the source material, it’s always destined to fail.
Unfortunately, a more faithful thematic adaptation of Pullman’s work has also run into its own problems. I was cautiously optimistic about HBO and BBC’s His Dark Materials coproduction, especially knowing that the companies were willing to spare no expense to make the show work. (You can’t really half-ass a series with armored polar bears, flying witches, and zeppelins equipped for warfare.) But the first season, which debuted at the end of 2019, suffered a fate that might be worse than being flat-out bad: It was just bland.
With the filmmaking embodiment of plain yogurt Tom Hooper (Cats, The Danish Girl, that adaptation of Les Misérables you fell asleep halfway through) directing the series’ first two episodes, His Dark Materials was burdened with a muted visual style antithetical to bringing a fantasy world to life. The scripts from Jack Thorne also had an unenviable task familiar of doing the work done in the early episodes of Thrones: balancing character introductions and dense plotting with the explanations of fantasy concepts more easily described on the page. Those concepts included the oppressive Magisterium, a cross between the Catholic Church and a police state; dust, a mysterious substance that may hold the key to understanding life itself; and daemons, a physical manifestation of a person’s soul that takes the form of an animal. (Daemons settle into a single form only when a person essentially comes of age, so children’s daemons can turn into many different creatures.)
While Season 1 did a decent job introducing our tween protagonist Lyra (Dafne Keen) and her trusty daemon Pantalaimon (or Pan for short), the series didn’t nail the significance of the human-daemon relationship. Part of the problem was, it appears, a matter of budget: While the daemons of the show’s main ensemble were rendered through impressive-looking CGI, many side characters simply didn’t have animal companions present. It’s easy to brush aside a couple of instances of a daemon not physically being on-screen—some of them are small, and could hide in a person’s clothing—but the more it happened, the more the show inadvertently sapped its emotional stakes. It’s a lot harder for a non-book-reader to understand the horrors of the Magisterium separating children from their daemons when most of the characters don’t appear to even have one:
In a stark departure from Northern Lights, the first book of Pullman’s trilogy, Thorne also chose to confirm the existence of multiple worlds—including “our” Earth—as early as the second episode. The decision, which had Pullman’s blessing, meant an earlier-than-expected introduction to Will (Amir Wilson), the series’ other protagonist who doesn’t appear until the second novel, The Subtle Knife. Since Will is from our world, perhaps Thorne hoped the familiarity would keep casual viewers tuned in, similar to how Benioff and Weiss (somewhat controversially) preferred to tamp down the fantasy elements of Martin’s text. But fitting Will’s story in before he meets Lyra amounted to plenty of redundant filler, a bizarre choice that deprived those tuning in of more scenes like a talking bear terrorizing Dudley Dursley.
As someone who’s been clamoring for a faithful adaptation of my favorite fantasy series from childhood, His Dark Materials was frustrating in part because the show came so close to getting it right: The production value was legit, the CGI armored bears and daemons that were created looked great, and the ensemble was almost perfectly cast. (Whoever decided that Lin-Manuel Miranda needed to play a grizzled Texan aeronaut should be tried at the Hague, along with Tom Hooper.) But while a middling adaptation of Pullman’s first book might inspire flashbacks to the 2007 film bombing at the box office so badly that any chances of a sequel were shut down, HBO and BBC granted the series an early Season 2 renewal before the first season even aired. If nothing else, His Dark Materials was afforded the opportunity to become the best version of itself. (The show hasn’t yet been renewed for a third season, but the creative team is already working on new scripts.)
In the second season, which picks up from the point in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will meet for the first time, the series widens its scope while also narrowing its focus. The two protagonists cross paths at Cittàgazze, an abandoned city in a world between their own, where ghoulish entities suck the souls out of adults. (Some children have Lord of the Flies’d themselves in the city; their leader is none other than Lyanna Mormont.) Lyra and Will spend much of the first five episodes traversing to and from Will’s world, a journey that eventually leads them to a knife that gives its bearer the ability to open and close doorways between worlds.
Meanwhile, the Magisterium is trying to consolidate power in Lyra’s world, waging war with the witch clans, while Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), Lyra’s steely mother, continues to try and figure out her daughter’s whereabouts. And the aeronaut Lee Scoresby (the woefully miscast Miranda) tracks down a mysterious shaman (Andrew Scott)—someone the audience already knows is Will’s missing father, John Parry, who was presumed to have died on an Arctic expedition. (John Parry’s daemon is voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, giving us an unexpected but nevertheless delightful Fleabag reunion.)
No longer burdened with explaining many of the dense concepts from Pullman’s universe, His Dark Materials feels much more assured in Season 2. The show excels when sticking to Lyra and Will’s journey—Keen and Wilson display an easy chemistry with one another, which is pretty crucial given where the story is headed. The other standout character is Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), the Magisterium spy living under a pseudonym in Will’s world. Thorne’s decision to expand Boreal’s role in the series—he’s the first character to hop between worlds in Season 1; in Northern Lights he only makes a brief appearance at a cocktail party—is a prime example of how deviating from the text can sometimes elevate a series.
Bakare’s Boreal is a wonderfully pompous antagonist. He decries the world he’s settled in as having a “culture of consumerism” while at the same time being obsessed with collecting artifacts, driving a Tesla, and flexing a top-of-the-line speaker system at his fancy estate. The way Boreal has comfortably acclimated into the world that’s not his own is not unlike The Americans’ KGB spy Philip Jennings slowly falling in love with all things America over the course of the FX series. But Boreal’s worldly obsessions are also a window into what could be a larger issue for His Dark Materials: The show is at its best when it isn’t leaning into the fantasy elements of Pullman’s novels.
That’s not a bad thing in and of itself: Thrones was never better than when a bunch of characters were talking, plotting, and politicking in castles. But His Dark Materials is only going to get weirder and grander the closer the show gets to its endgame. Pullman’s series—minor spoiler alert—evolves from a world-hopping adventure story into a retelling of Paradise Lost. When Fox News aired a graphic this summer suggesting that protesters wanted to “attack and dethrone God,” there’s a reason the ridiculous moment resonated with book readers. If His Dark Materials can’t even make a battle between the Magisterium and flying witches look better than a video game cutscene, as is the case this season, I shudder to think how poorly they’re going to handle literal angels and the Mulefa.
It’s possible that His Dark Materials is saving some of its fantastical firepower for the future, but even going back to Season 1, the highly anticipated armored bear fight couldn’t live up to the version from a much-maligned movie, a fairly low bar to clear. As great as its most understated scenes were, Game of Thrones became a global sensation because the series could also deliver on a blockbuster scale with epic battles, hordes of ice zombies, and giant dragons. His Dark Materials might be improving on the little things in its second season, but the plot insists that the show can’t stay grounded for much longer. (Metatron is imminent.) The more His Dark Materials underwhelms as a fantasy series, the more unlikely it seems that the show can reach the massive heights it’s aiming for.
Perhaps Pullman’s universe is as some book readers feared: so ambitious in its ideas and scope that it is simply unadaptable for the screen. That isn’t a slight to the author’s superlative work—Hollywood has struggled for decades to make sense of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and that doesn’t make it a bad book. But with nearly two seasons of material to judge, it might be time to accept that the small-screen adaptation of His Dark Materials, while a noble and well-intentioned effort, won’t be enough to attack and dethrone God.