His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials Review

by E. McDonnell

*** 3 Stars

The pilot shows great promise and introduces a captivating world with a fantastic story to come, however, the pilot episode fails to deliver on it’s promises and establish its main characters.

Director: Tom Hooper (written by Jack Thorne)                                                                         Actors: James McAvoy, Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Clarke Peters, Anne-Marie Duff                                                                                                                                                           Adapted from Philip Pullman’s best selling trilogy of novels, His Dark Materials follows a young girl called Lyra who was left at an alternate Oxford by her uncle and explorer Lord Asriel. Lyra’s life is turned upside down when her long-absent uncle returns from the frozen north to tell his fellow professors of a new discovery. Lyra learns that the finding is the existence of parallel worlds, tied to the mysterious substance of ‘dust’. This puts Asriel at odds with many powerful enemies that want to silence him…..

Adapting a beloved property is a difficult task. You have to make smart adjustments to the source material accordingly, justify the changes you make- sometimes for the better, AND keep the original soul of the world and characters that the source material has created. And if an adaptation has already been attempted before to infamously disappointing results – then the new adaptation has to fix the issues that the first adaptation suffered from.

Such is the unique problem facing His Dark Materials, HBO’s new drama series based on Philip Pullman’s popular fantasy novels. The 2007 film The Golden Compass, took on the first book of the trilogy and boasted a spot-on cast with groundbreaking (and expensive) visuals. However, the adaptation couldn’t capture the spirit of the dense book itself and tried to cram in too much; consequently, sequel plans were abandoned. As with many books, the movie’s limited run-time could not contain the plot of The Northern Lights, let alone the world-building that have made the His Dark Materials books so compelling since that first instalment was published almost 25 years ago.

The shift from movie to an ongoing drama gives the 2019 HBO version — translated to the screen by writer Jack Thorne and director Tom Hooper — an immediate advantage, as the events of The Northern Lights will be told during the space of eight hour-long episodes rather than just two hours. This should mean that the series has time to establish the world and characters and do them justice, without changing too much. It also, like the movie, features a great cast including Logan breakout Dafne Keen playing Lyra, James McAvoy as her enigmatic guardian Lord Asriel, and Ruth Wilson as the part of the mysterious Mrs. Coulter.

The first episode, in all its steam punk-ish glory, gave every sign that the potential is to be realised. The special effects here are brilliant. The daemons look very good and they feel very natural, although the voices, take some getting used to and continuity is a problem because of the fact they aren’t always present, whether that be in speech or on screen while their human counterparts are. The clever aesthetics, great visuals and feel to the show, the camera work, editing, music and opening titles are all great- the whole thing looks beautiful and you are really drawn in to the world of the characters although all of those things could not make up for the poor dialogue and wooden acting, that meant that you don’t really feel invested in any of the characters.

After watching the first episode, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, there is a strange flatness to the show itself. It jumps between story-lines without much structural purpose, as if they planned how they wanted to start and end the episode without thinking too much about the events in-between, with some scenes feeling rushed and others feeling extremely slow.

Lyra’s character confuses me, one minute she is likeable and funny, with a mischievous charm, but in other scenes she seems wooden and rude, or even reckless. James McAvoy’s character too, is as Asriel is meant to be, although I found it hard to be approve of his tough love approach to Lyra. The dialogue between the two creates a sort of disjointed chemistry between the main characters. With lines such as “Is that how my parents died?”- With absolutely no context. And, “Everybody is special” which is just cheesy.

Another aspect is Miss Coulter’s character introduction which is extremely rushed although Ruth Wison gives a fine performance. The gyptians were also a highlight of the episode but scenes that should be fiery and characters who should be commanding, like the gyptian leader John Faa (Lucian Msamati) and the matriarch Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), are underplayed and oddly flat. The kidnapping of poor Billy, and later Lyra’s best friend by the mysterious ‘Gobblers’, didn’t seem to have as big of an impact on me as the build-up insinuated ; the episode needed this for the characters to begin their journey.

I could not help comparing this to the movie, telling myself that the overall story will be worth the watch – the knowledge that I have of the books makes me excited to see the events of the story play out. However, all the talk of prophecies and expeditions, and characters not present, was maybe a little confusing to follow for people new to the world of Lyra & co, with the show runners setting up future adventures at the expense of establishing characters. Good things are sure to come and overall, this should be an exciting series. However, as a singular episode, the show fails to establish its key characters or plots – only the world they find themselves in.

His Dark Materials is currently available on BBC iPlayer and was rated 12A by the BBFC.

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