Of the many strengths of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the most important is arguably the easiest to overlook. Pullman’s thematic ambition, grasp of pacing, and deftness with character are all clear from the outset, but while these elements are crucial to the books’ success, the one that makes the first, and most important, impact is his talent for building a world without ever letting the audience see the strings. The Golden Compass introduces readers to a place where every person has a talking animal companion (a dæmon); where the Church is a dominating political force; and where studies into a mysterious substance known as “Dust” threaten to upend the entire social order. And yet it all more or less makes sense, the world feeling lived-in and real without ever needing to stop too long to explain things. The result is something magical—an immediately gripping tale whose ability to surprise and enchant never really flags.
His Dark Materials, the new television adaptation of the trilogy, is not quite so adept. Instead of trusting the audience to pick things up as they go, the first episode begins with a text crawl explaining the basics, going so far as to tell viewers that dæmons are our equivalent of souls and suggesting that there’s going to be a “child of prophecy” in play. Still, as far as opening exposition goes, it could’ve been worse, and for the most part, the series does an admirable job of presenting its story without getting tangled up in lore. Characters and organizations are introduced with enough sense of presence and scale for you to understand the basic idea of them even before the details become clear, creating the suggestion of larger forces at play without ever getting entirely bogged down by them.
It’s an admirable achievement, but not an entirely successful one. In adapting the books to television, writer Jack Thorne attempts to start laying the groundwork for later entries in the series early on in the story of the first one, paralleling Lyra Belacqua’s (Dafne Keen) adventures in discovering her place in the world with the actions of others that will presumably become relevant later. The decision makes some sense, as it reshapes Compass’ structure (starting small and then expanding as Lyra discovers more and more about her world) into a more conventional television drama’s, but it also robs reveals of a lot of their power. It’s evident even from that introductory text; in the novels, the relationships between the humans and their dæmons was something that was uncovered over time, and it was a while before anything about “prophecy” came up. One of the pleasures of Pullman’s work was that starting small meant every development and expansion in scope felt exponentially important. Here, it’s all simply pieces presented with equal weight to be integrated eventually along with other pieces, losing that feeling of dangerous, unexpected discovery almost entirely.
Spelling it out from the start makes it easier to grasp what you’re getting into, but it’s unclear if that clarity is a worthwhile goal. Compass worked in part by marrying its more outlandish ideas to a familiar “young girl goes on an adventure to save a friend” fantasy plot, allowing readers to ease their way in while still offering more conventional thrills. His Dark Materials leaves most of Lyra’s story intact, at least in the first four episodes, but it adds in side scenes and subplots with other major characters. Some of those scenes, like the one that introduces a traveling Egyptian community’s ritual for welcoming young men and women into adulthood, add a welcome texture and vitality to the series. Others, like a running background plot about a man investigating things, are less successful, largely existing to introduce intrigue for intrigue’s sake. By treating the narrative as information to be delivered to the viewer, rather than as a story that benefits from specific, deliberate choices of perspective and focus, the show feels consistent but rarely surprising; accurate but lacking in a sense of wonder.
Several curious casting choices also serve to undercut the story’s impact. Dafne Keen is an excellent Lyra, bringing all the murderous energy she showed in Logan to someone who actually talks (and shows considerably more emotional depth). But while both James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson do solid work as Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, respectively, neither of them is quite suited to characters who were designed on the page to be larger than life. They bring a down-to-earth intimacy to figures whose ambition and passion should necessarily border on mythic. Clarke Peters seems lost as the Master of Oxford, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s turn as the roguish Lee Scoresby is, well, Lin-Manuel Miranda: charming as ever but not particularly convincing as a battle-scarred adventurer.
It’s possible these actors will grow into their roles as the series goes on, and considering the potential scope of the material, it makes a certain sense to downplay events at the start. At the very least, it allows room to build up to the point where things get truly crazy. As adaptations go, His Dark Materials is a credibly faithful one, and the show is never clumsy or outright bad; anyone familiar with the Golden Compass film can take comfort in knowing this version is considerably more thoughtful and comprehensive. The effects work, particularly the expression of multiple talking animals, is largely convincing and impressively unobtrusive, and while the direction could use a little more panache, it’s never difficult to follow what’s going on. By the end of the four episodes shown for critics, His Dark Materials has started to build up what could be called a head of steam, and even if future episodes never manage to rise above the bar the show sets for itself here, the original novels are strong enough that a faithful retelling of them by competent artists will have its pleasures. It’s a good story, told with restraint and respect. Pity about the magic, though.
Experts reviews (for those who have read the books) by Myles McNutt will run weekly beginning November 4.
Newbies reviews (for those coming into the series fresh) by Lisa Weidenfeld will run weekly beginning November 4.