Review: Can “His Dark Materials” Live Up to Its Promise?

The first episode of His Dark Materials aired in the United Kingdom on BBC One on Sunday, November 3 and in the United States on HBO on Monday, November 4.

The eagerly awaited series is an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy of the same name. It has a truly incredible cast and crew, which seems destined to pull in people from a great number of different fandoms – in lead roles, Dafne Keen (Lyra Belacqua) and James McAvoy (Lord Asriel) are having some form of an X-Men reunion, while I personally cannot wait to see Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) playing Lee Scoresby later in the series.

 

Stelmaria in "His Dark Materials". The character is voiced by Helen McCrory.

Stelmaria in “His Dark Materials”. The character is voiced by Helen McCrory.

 

From a Potter perspective, Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy) is voicing Lord Asriel’s daemon (animal companion/soul manifestation), Stelmaria, and Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley) will appear in Episode 4 as Syssellman. The biggest crossover, however, is behind the scenes: The series is written by Jack Thorne, who wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

To say Thorne’s writing for Cursed Child is a source of controversy within the Potter fandom would be an understatement, and there will be many a fan anxious to see how he handles adapting another beloved fantasy book series, especially when one considers how poorly the 2007 film adaptation The Golden Compass turned out.

I am pleased to report that all is well. It is a frequently recurring daydream/Tumblr post from Harry Potter fans for a TV adaptation of the series. There is a good reason for this: Telling a story over many episodes allows room for the details, character development, and subplots that so often get left behind in film adaptations. His Dark Materials is perfect for this; Pullman’s world(s) go beyond richly woven fantasy to the creation of their own laws of physics and branches of science.

Conveying this detail without overloading the show with exposition will be a big task, but so far, it has been quite skilfully handled, and I’m very happy that they are making the effort to include it. Perhaps wisely, the episode resorts to beginning with a text explanation of daemons.

The first episode focuses on Lyra in Oxford, which is such a beautiful city, it can’t fail to add to anything set in it. Following Lyra, as she dodges through the bustle of college, up and down stairs, and across rooftops, I felt included in the adventure of it all.

The show perhaps focuses a little more on Lord Asriel than the books. I don’t mind this, not least because McAvoy is excellent and I always thought Asriel was an intriguing character. In fact, the way Lyra’s story cuts in and steals Lord Asriel’s adventure story from beneath him works rather well.

 

Lyra & Pantalaimon look at the alethiometer in "His Dark Materials".

Lyra and Pantalaimon look at the alethiometer in “His Dark Materials”.

 

Dafne Keen is a very good Lyra, and I have great faith in her carrying off a series that must rely so greatly on one young actress. Meanwhile, Ruth Wilson conveys all the charming menace you want her to as Mrs. Coulter.

The series is meant to be the BBC’s most expensive show to date, and it shows. The CGI work on the daemons alone is amazing – Pantalaimon (Lyra’s daemon) is very cute, and Helen McCrory is the most practical snow leopard you ever heard. The costumes are also gorgeous, and frankly, hats off to the whole art department. Given all the work that has gone into it, you can see why the second season has already begun filming.

There is so much going for this series that it would have been horrible to be disappointed by it, but thankfully, after seeing this first episode, I am very excited for what’s to come.

The first season will cover the first book in the series, The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights – like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the name was changed for the American audience).

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Jennifer C.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the first film I watched in a cinema and was my introduction to everything Potter. This was swiftly followed by starting the books, which I grew up reading. I’m a proud Hufflepuff and an almost stereotypical Brit from near London (amortentia would definitely smell like tea to me).