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“Lyra’s Jordan” gives His Dark Materials readers hope the second time’s the charm (experts)

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Welcome to The A.V. Club’s “Experts” reviews of HBO’s His Dark Materials. It is written from the perspective of someone who has read all three books in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and intended for an audience of viewers who have also read these books. While the main review will not actively spoil details from future books, there will be a spoiler-specific section at the end of the review, and the conversation in the comments will feature spoilers from all books in the series. For those who wish to avoid these spoilers, please visit our “Newbies” reviews.

In hindsight, the idea of adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as a series of films in the 2000s reads as a mistake: the first installment, The Golden Compass, struggled at the box office, weathering a boycott by the Catholic Church and entering the annals of “failed franchises” amid mixed reviews.

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But when I was rereading the first book in Pullman’s series this summer, I was reminded why I believe the producers behind that film weren’t wrong to give it a (Jordan) college try. It is, on a basic level, a story of a girl who dreams of adventure, a tightly focused narrative that takes her from the cloistered world of Jordan College to a world bigger than she could have ever imagined. As Lyra’s universe is opened up, so too is the audience’s, creating a natural progression into the complexities of the familiar yet distant world Pullman introduces in his first novel.

Now, The Golden Compass objectively failed to accomplish this, hampered by a scaredy-cat studio unwilling to replicate any of the creative risks that Pullman afforded himself by sticking to such a simple narrative structure. And yes, as we’ll be discussing, the remaining two books in Pullman’s trilogy are considerably less straightforward, and we’re better off not knowing what they would have been mangled into in a studio blockbuster. But I still understand why they mistakenly believed this could have been a film franchise instead of a television series: as written, His Dark Materials is not a new Game Of Thrones, a sprawling fantasy epic spread across continents with myriad characters fighting for our time and attention by pulling us in various directions. Even as the books expand their focus, there is always the throughline of a quest narrative, something that probably could have been translated into an effective trilogy of fantasy adventure.

But would it have truly been an adaptation of Pullman’s trilogy in that form? Alas, we’ll never known for sure, but this BBO and HBO co-production is a second chance to get it right, arriving with high expectations from those familiar with Pullman’s books. With television budgets and production values rising to match its relative narrative freedom, His Dark Materials has nothing standing in the way of telling this story except for that nagging suspicion that—even without the pressure of being “the next Lord of the Rings” over their shoulder—writer Jack Thorne and the creative team might still struggle to commit to the often audacious and fundamentally heretical story being told here (as my colleague Zack Handlen got into in his pre-air review of the first four episodes). And so while the series will face the same criticisms of any adaptation—casting quibbles, missing moments, etc.—there are some significant big picture questions that the show will need to grapple with sooner than later.

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This premiere, though, mostly sticks to the familiar and solid ground of Pullman’s first novel in order to launch the aforementioned quest narrative. There’s a bit of additional material in the opening of “Lyra’s Jordan,” like a scene of Lord Asriel delivering Lyra to Jordan College that’s from Pullman’s ongoing prequel series The Book of Dust, but the prologue is told primarily through efficient chyrons, swiftly clarifying the existence of daemons and the overbearing force of the Magisterium in this world. This allows the episode to focus attention on Lyra herself, logical given the close third-person perspective of the books. In truth, I had remembered the books as being more closely tied to Lyra’s perspective than they are: at first blush, a month or so removed from my reread of The Golden Compass, I instinctively thought the private conversation between the Master of Jordan College and the Librarian was an addition for the show, leaving Lyra’s perspective to drop some exposition and establish crystal clear stakes for the quest ahead of her. But the scene is ripped straight from Pullman’s novel, as he was just as disinterested in leaving the reader in the dark on what’s at stake: he wants us to know that Lyra is destined to go on a journey, she can never truly know the stakes of that journey, and by the end she will have betrayed someone. Both in the opening chyrons and this conversation, the “prophecy” about Lyra is never in doubt. The suspense of the show comes from discovering what it means and, more importantly, how Lyra is going to react to her place in something much bigger than her life at Jordan College.

This is not to say that the pilot doesn’t retain Lyra’s perspective: it still uses her journeys across the roofs of Jordan College and her race through the grounds with Roger as key anchors in establishing its world and our relationship to these characters. But the episode, overall, shows an interest in presenting Lyra’s journey as one of many, in order to bring the show closer to the expectations of a “complex” television narrative in the vein of the HBO fantasy megahit it is ostensibly replacing. This means we see Lord Asriel taking the photos of dust in the north that he eventually presents at Jordan College, for example, along with a drop into the Magesterium and Lord Boreal (who doesn’t show up for quite some time in the books) to confirm that word of Asriel’s heresy has spread as he expected. And while the series still rushes past some of the day-to-day of Jordan College and the exposition about the world found within, it replaces that with a more focused look at Gyptian culture, introducing the cast of characters—the Costa family, John Faa, Farder Coram—early on and creating a parallel journey to London to Lyra’s. While not nearly as sprawling as Thrones, with each of its stories connected in fairly direct ways (the Gobblers, for example), there’s still a clear desire to frame the threats hanging in the air as something that will affect people outside of Lyra’s orbit in addition to those closer to her. This is all work that the book does eventually, but the television format affords them the opportunity to lay that groundwork earlier, without going so far as to start introducing other characters—the aeronaut, the armored bear—that have been prominent in the marketing of the show but logically won’t show up until later in Lyra’s journey.

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Photo: HBO

That means that the premiere is primarily an introduction to three of the story’s central figures: Lyra, her uncle Lord Asriel, and the beguiling Mrs. Coulter. Dafne Keen’s work as Lyra is solid, although in rereading the books I was struck by how much of a pure force of nature the character is as written, and Keen’s take is a touch less precocious than I’d have probably preferred. In some ways, it’s an impossible role to fill from a book reader’s perspective, as any screen adaptation of a story told internally (albeit in this case in third person) will lose something when it pulls away from that character as it does here. Unsurprisingly, given her work in Logan, Keen’s strength lies in her ability to capture Lyra’s physicality, which will become more important as the story unfolds. But at times in the books she reads as a tween Eliza Doolittle, and there’s very little of that energy here. But as with any younger actor, especially this early in a show’s run, there’s room for growth alongside the character’s own growth, so consider no judgment rendered.

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As for Asriel and Coulter, it’s hard to get a fair read on these performances until television viewers are given a better sense of who these characters really are. In the case of Asriel, we get a decent amount of setup here, and a lot of time is spent focusing on the contrast between Lyra’s version of Lord Asriel and the man who arrives to convince Jordan College to support his expedition. Asriel carries no warmth toward Lyra when she saves him from the poison, and he sticks her in a cupboard without any kind of smile. The only moment where you feel like he was ever the man she admires so much is when he carries her to her bed, and he sees the wall where Lyra has imagined the world beyond Jordan, and pictured herself joining him on his adventures. McAvoy’s Asriel has no exaggerated qualities: he’s frantic without being manic, calculated without being moustache-twirly, pragmatic without being paranoid. His advice to Lyra never to trust anyone applies as much to himself as it does to the rest of the characters she encounters, and the way he leaves Lyra behind—emphasizing that she is no more special than anyone else—reinforces that he is not the man she believes he is, even if there’s some mystery as to what kind of man he is in the end. All told, I think it’s good casting, but the real test of that is some ways down the line.

Photo: HBO
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We get significantly less time with Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter, who is introduced swiftly as a beacon of hope for Lyra’s journey north. She’s very consciously presented as the only female character with any power, walking into a room of entirely male scholars, and spoken of in whispers as “her” by her colleagues at the Magisterium as they conspire to keep the truth about Asriel’s presentation from her. That said, I don’t think Wilson’s performance or the script are designed in a way to actually present Coulter as a force of pure good in Lyra’s life. There’s no moment where we’re given direct reason to distrust Coulter, but Wilson’s manner is just a bit too practiced, channeling the energy of her skeptical and observant monkey daemon who definitely notices when Lyra adjusts the alethiometer in her pocket. It’s not really a spoiler for any “newbies” wandering into this review to say that Mrs. Coulter isn’t all that she initially appears, but in truth I don’t believe someone without knowledge of the books would ever read her presence here as anything but another uncertainty in Lyra’s life. That’s a testament to Wilson’s ability to channel parts of the character that will be critically important as the show moves forward.

Anchored by these solid performances, “Lyra’s Jordan” is a productive entry point into this world, which sounds like faint praise but was probably inevitable given the amount of worldbuilding to be done. Tom Hooper’s direction is effective without being as showy as his oft-mocked closeups in Les Misérables: I especially liked the way the opening chase between Lyra and Roger is paralleled when Lyra searches the grounds for her friend after he fails to show up to say goodbye, and how Asriel’s arrival in the flood in the flashback uses the same locations as his departure from Oxford in the present. Everything else about the production design and the worldbuilding feels resolutely solid. There’s no one shot that wowed me with its beauty or blew me away with its production value, but the show sells the scale of the world while still feeling real and lived-in. It reminds me of the early seasons of Game Of Thrones, where there wasn’t yet the kind of budgets that would deliver wild spectacle but there were no scenes that gave away any kind of limitation. There appear to have been no shortcuts when it comes to building this world for the screen, and that’s a testament to how far television production values have come in the past decade.

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However, what the show is decidedly missing is a “wow” moment that makes you realize this is something more than a simple quest narrative. The book doesn’t have a big “plot twist” in its early pages that could serve this function, but it does use its worldbuilding to launch a direct critique of organized religion, which is something the show—like the movie—is clearly tiptoeing around. I entered this adaptation wary about comments made during the show’s summer panel at the TCA Press Tour, where all parties involved kept insisting that it wasn’t necessarily a critique of religion. To me, His Dark Materials is a foundational text for the efforts to help people understand that critiquing organized religions is not the same as attacking the very idea of faith, and this adaptation represents a very clear opportunity to articulate that directly. But while the scholars throw out the word heresy, and there’s reference to a Cardinal, in general the religious elements of the story feel muted without the backstory provided by Pullman, with the Magisterium generalized to an authoritarian force without clear connections to faith. Could this change in the future? Absolutely. But it’s the one part of this that feels rife for an unnecessary compromise, despite having more time and space to articulate Pullman’s alt-history exploration of organized religion’s place in society. And it robs the story of a clear indication that the ideas at stake here are bigger than the abstraction of “dust” suggests, which robs the story of some of its power.

Photo: HBO
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His Dark Materials is a big story, but Lyra’s world is initially small, and it’s important that this premiere sticks to that. It’s an episode named after the world she knows, not some grand prophecy, and while there is a clear effort to introduce a wider range of story threads it doesn’t feel bloated or dramatically diluted from the story as written. “Lyra’s Jordan” doesn’t trip over itself trying to create stakes beyond its reach, nor does it slow things down to the point it feels like exposition and little else. It trusts the bones of the story its telling, creating an effective if not necessarily breathtaking entry point into the world at hand.

Stray observations

  • First and foremost, I need to acknowledge Dr. Andrea Schwenke Wyile, my professor at Acadia University who assigned The Golden Compass as part of her Fantasy Literature class that I took thirteen-ish years ago. Maybe I would have stumbled onto the books when the movie was being released, but she provided the door into Pullman’s world, for which I am most appreciative. I’m curious to know how other readers landed on Pullman’s trilogy in the comments.
  • Most of the explicit changes from the books are subtle ones. One character change is that we don’t get to see Lyra interact with the Gyptians personally (although it’s established she knows Billy Costa), keeping those two story threads separate, and one timing shift is Roger being abducted after Mrs. Coulter’s arrival instead of before, which I’ll get into a bit below in spoiler territory. The first change makes sense efficiency wise, but I missed the bits about Lyra’s rambunctious past run-ins with the Gyptians, and wish it had stayed in.
  • It makes sense to introduce John Faa and Farder Coran earlier, if only because it will take some time to get used to the show coming right out of the gate with two Game Of Thrones actors in such close proximity to one another (even if Thrones never did know what to do with Lucian Msamati’s Salladhor Saan).
  • I’m glad to see that there’s much more diversity in the show’s casting than there was in the film. However, for the most part this seems to be blind-casting (in which actors are cast regardless of their race or ethnicity), which I will admit to finding frustrating in a case like this: the show is quick to frame Mrs. Coulter through the lens of gender, but to not then also consider how issues of race inflect the Master of Jordan College, or Lord Boreal’s place within the Magisterium, or of course the othering of the Gyptians within society rings false. It’s obviously important that this isn’t just a fantasy world made up entirely of white people, but to subsequently strip that world of the politics of race offsets much of the value provided by surface-level diversity. As with the issues of religion, there’s a chance this comes up more as the series goes on, so we’ll put a pin in it until later.
  • I liked Lyra’s map as a way of signaling her dreams, but I thought the puppet theatre scene was a bit on the nose. Just a slight step too far on that one.
  • One clear advantage the show has it that it doesn’t have to worry about finding reasons for people to refer to the alethiometer as a golden compass to justify the movie’s title.
  • Overall, I like the show’s opening title sequence, and its theme song from Lorne Balfe, which got suitably stuck in my head as I went through screeners. That said, I think it’s interesting that the sequence itself goes so far beyond the current point in the story: it almost feels like a spoiler if you’re paying too much attention, or if you’re trying to understand it in more detail.
  • At one point Lyra suggests reporting Roger’s disappearance to the “State Police”: who, precisely, is this? Is it just the Magisterium? The show has made no clear distinctions between the state and the Magisterium, so I’m a bit perplexed by this evocation.
  • It’s interesting that we didn’t get more time with just Lyra and Pantalaimon: it makes sense that there’s not a big exposition scene about their relationship, but the choice to focus more on Lyra’s relationship with Roger means there isn’t really a chance to focus on the dynamic between human and daemon, and Pantalaimon as a “character” in his own right.
  • I’d forgotten that the first book in the trilogy was a “Sorcerer’s Stone situation,” likely because unlike with Harry Potter, the change from Northern Lights to The Golden Compass was consistent across North America, whereas we Canadians got Philosopher’s Stone just like the rest of the world.
  • For the record, I started watching screeners for the first four episodes in the midst of my reread, which I’ve since finished before diving in to finalize my thoughts on those episodes. As noted above, as with the early Game of Thrones reviews, I’m going to be writing from the perspective of this reread and analyzing the show through this lens, but I will only be discussing outright spoilers from future books in the below “Spoiler” section. However, just as a note to anyone planning to read alongside the series: without saying too much (I’ve seen the first four episodes), I will say that there is definitely some significant material from future books that will be popping up this season, so if you’ve read the first book and are waiting until this season to end to read more, that may not necessarily be a sound strategy if you’re trying to keep from having things spoiled for you. We’ll deal more with that topic next week.
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Through The Amber Spyglass [Warning: Explicit Book Spoilers]

  • Whereas Roger is framed as a random victim of the Gobblers in the books, here the shift in timing strongly implies that Coulter actively chose to have Roger kidnapped in order to avoid having to follow through on her promise that he could travel to London with them. Even if you don’t know that she’s the one leading the Gobblers, the way she resists the idea of Roger joining them in London is a key moment where her motives becomes suspect, and the choice to end on his captivity pushes us to consider that connection more strongly.
  • I had honestly forgotten that Lord Boreal is an example of a literary device that the series was never going to be able to evoke: brought to life, the audience can never be made to forget his face like Lyra does, and so the whole section of The Subtle Knife where she doesn’t recognize him in Will’s world was always going to play very differently. It’s the same issue that Game Of Thrones had with “Arstan Whitebeard,” so choosing to add to Lord Boreal’s role a bit makes sense given how he’s going to return to the picture.
  • As always, I’m super curious how different readers are approaching this differently, so I’d love to know in the comments what moment from the series you’re most anxious about seeing brought to life. And yes, “every single thing in The Amber Spyglass, basically” is an acceptable answer.
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About the author

Myles McNutt

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.