Ever since my younger years, I’ve had an innate fascination with the fantasy genre. To be able to slide into other worlds with their very way of doing things and sets upon sets of magical attributes has always been an exhilarating escapade for me, whether that comes from books, movies, or television shows. “His Dark Materials” falls into the first and third camp, being the newest HBO high-budget epic, based on the young adult trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman.
The show is very loyal to the plot of the books—almost too loyal at points. The basic premise is this: a young English girl named Lyra, living in an alternate Oxford where our souls manifest as animals called daemons, embarks to find her kidnapped friend Roger. In our world, a boy of around the same age, Will, discovers that forces from Lyra’s world have been monitoring him in order to find his explorer father, who was actually born in another world and may have the key to delving into the Multiverse.
As a fantasy, “His Dark Materials” checks every single box there is. As if the idea of daemons and a sinister alternate Oxford in an infinite Multiverse isn’t quite enough to quench the needs of viewers, the show throws in a kingdom of polar bears, an alternate world led by all-powerful witches, a balloon voyage, prophecies, a clan called the Gyptians, and just about everything fantastical you can think of. The real snag is the constant underlying religious undertones, which become overtones by the final episode. They were my problem with the books, and it looks like they will have the same effect with the show. Basically, an invisible entity called dust that ties everything and everyone together is what’s used to express the religious themes like original sin and a kingdom of Heaven. It gets pretty confusing at points, and for non-religious people, it will feel bloated. I hoped the show wouldn’t lean too much into these sections of the books, not removed completely but shaved down for a general audience. It looks like that won’t be happening, which lessens my anticipation for future seasons slightly.
Though I mentioned the show was loyal to the books, the episodic nature allows for it to extend certain characters and side narratives.The first film adaption of the trilogy, “The Golden Compass” was incapacitated for not being able to squeeze everything into a two-hour movie, but “His Dark Materials” fixes that. There do inevitably come flaws with the longer runtime, even if it lets the pace run smoothly and encompass everything it needs and more. The showrunners oddly decide to give too much focus on what ultimately end up being only unimportant, and juxtaposing them with the main two stories with Will and Lyra can confuse non-reader viewers from the sheer bulk of threads to keep track of.
Jack Thorne wrote the screenplay for all the episodes, and due to his awful butchering of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” I was pessimistic of how his take would change certain characters, especially Lyra and Will. I’ve since realized that Thorne can actually be a formidable writer when he actually understands and cares about. Lyra is fundamentally different in some ways, less egregiously innocent and more subdued. The vital pieces are still there and come out when they need to, like her magnetism towards adventure and scheming her way out of danger. The rundown is that anyone who grew up on these books and with Lyra will not be dissapointed. Will, who originally debuts in book two “The Subtle Knife” but gets some time to shine in the first season, is an idyllic take of the conflicted character-turned-protagonist.
Rising child star Dafne Keen (Laura Kinney a.k.a. X-23 in “Logan”) plays Lyra with a certain conviction and diligence that someone her age has no rights to be able to give off. After a heartbreaking twist in the last episode, she completely breaks down and mourns, and Keen’s performance is crushing. Amir Wilson is Will in another stellar, near faultless acting job. After them comes James Cosmo as the Gyptian leader Farder Coram, who’s as good playing a mentor to Lyra as he is the former lover of a witch. Unknown actor Joe Tandberg voices the armored bear Iorek Byrnison, a kindly unlikely paternal figure to Lyra. All of the above phenomenal performances may be overshadowed by Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, who, suffice to say, slips into the part of the malevolent and falsely sweet figure so easily that it’ll be hard to distinguish Wilson from Coulter in any of her unrelated future parts.
You’ll hear some people out there calling “His Dark Materials” the next “Game of Thrones,” and while that may not exactly be true, it has the potential to break out. If it continues dutifully following the source material, seasons two, three, and perhaps even four will be coming with an even grander scope and fantastical world. No matter what happens, “His Dark Materials” cannot be missed by fans of Philip Pullman’s books and is a surefire watch for anyone with the slightest interest in fantasy.
This story was originally published on West Side Story on January 21, 2020.