'His Dark Materials': TV Review

Daemons and dust and dirigibles, oh my!
11/4/2019

A strong cast and decent effects help HBO and BBC One's adaptation of Philip Pullman's novels improve on the 2007 film, though much of the books' intellectual subtext is still missing.

At the current rate of improvement, the third time is likely to be the charm for filmed adaptations of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series.

Chris Weitz attempted a big-screen transfer of The Golden Compass in 2007 and audiences quickly discovered that it was impossible, in only 113 minutes, to make sense of any of Pullman's complicated world-building, much less give an iota of a hint of the philosophical underpinnings found in the books.

If "time" was a thing that movies lacked in 2007, television couldn't compete yet when it came to prestige allure or the money necessary to properly capture Pullman's vision of armored polar bears, soaring airships and chatty animal sidekicks.

TV is definitely ready for His Dark Materials now, and Jack Thorne's new HBO/BBC One adaptation surely tries hard to take advantage. From its not-quite-steampunk alt-world take on Oxford to the ritzy art deco high-rises of London to the seedy mining reaches of the North, this effort nails much of what makes the books pop, and both the special effects and a star-studded cast led by Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson are in fine form. What never fully worked for me in the four episodes (out of the eight-episode first season) sent to critics is the necessary feeling of narrative and thematic momentum. It's vastly better than the movie, but neither fun nor smart enough to quite succeed.

The story, for those who don't know, focuses on preteen heroine Lyra Belacqua (Keen), who roams an august Oxford college campus as something of an orphan while her adventurer uncle (James McAvoy's Lord Asriel) roams the North looking for information about the powerful and unknowable force referred to as "dust." The knowledge he seeks is extremely threatening to the Magisterium, a vaguely church-like governing body opposed to academic inquiry. When children start disappearing, Lyra makes an initial alliance with the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Wilson), but really this is just the start of an epic journey in which Lyra is a child of destiny torn between many powerful interests.

That description, of course, doesn't get into most of what is interesting in Pullman's world — whether it's the talking soul critters known as "daemons" that accompany each character, the whirling gears and symbols in the truth machine called an alethiometer, the nefarious abductors dubbed Gobblers, the boat dwellers named Gyptians and many, many more details that Thorne and early directors Tom Hooper, Dawn Shadforth and Otto Bathurst desperately want to make sure that they get into the series and make audiences understand without necessarily figuring out how to unload this avalanche of mythological data.

The show starts with onscreen text introducing the backdrop and several key concepts to viewers, and every time it feels like the story is about to really get going, characters stop for near-endless debriefs on Key Concepts to the Narrative, the sort of expositional onslaughts that simply work better on the page and needed to be better conceived here. It's a situation likely to yield confusion among nonreaders and disappointment among readers, except for those so pleased by improvement over the film that they're prepared to accept whatever theological scraps they're given.

The first episode, with Hooper's clear joy in tracking Lyra's childlike familiarity with the rooftops and crypts of Oxford, and the fourth episode, which introduces human adrenaline shot Lin-Manuel Miranda as an American aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (as well as the aforementioned armored polar bears), are the two that achieve real momentum. The middle two hours sit in a talky limbo, still filled with nice visual realizations and occasionally interesting concepts and yet never even getting close to tackling Pullman's crucial critique of organized religion or his approach to spirituality.

Yes, I know that the religious aspects of Pullman's books kick in most aggressively in the second and third installments, but I think it's fairly reasonable to imagine an uninitiated viewer being able to ignore or completely miss the vague whiff of subtext at play here. You won't often see me asking for a TV series to be more pretentious, but Pullman requires more pretense.

When I wasn't yearning for His Dark Materials to be both faster and slower — sorry to be conflicted here — I was at least enjoying most of the performances. In the wake of her magnificently feral work in Wolverine, 14-year-old Keen has launched her career with two of the most polarized lead performances one could imagine for a young actress. She's funny, clever and compelling throughout and does especially fine work opposite Wilson, whose nearly iconic curled lip — menacing one moment, sympathetically pursed the next — is perfectly tailored for the ever-enigmatic Coulter. McAvoy has what is closer to a cameo than a lead role, but he also layers in the gruff uncertainty as Lord Asriel. I appreciate that Miranda feels initially miscast as Pullman's paragon of cowboy American masculinity and then forces you to reconstruct an image of American manliness around him, making him exactly what the series needs. In supporting roles, I quite liked Clarke Peters, Ariyon Bakare and Will Keen who, thus far, shares no scenes with his daughter.

The digital characters work reasonably well, though I'm suspecting His Dark Materials will raise more questions about the nature of daemons than it answers. The clear standouts are Mrs. Coulter's golden snub-nosed monkey daemon and Lee's giant rabbit daemon, voiced by Cristela Alonzo. Iorek Byrnison, the alcoholic and scarred central polar bear, is a solidly realized digital effect, much closer to the character in the book than the Coca-Cola polar bears of the movie.

I was, throughout, generally impressed by how consistently HBO's His Dark Materials accomplishes things the movie wasn't able to do and didn't even attempt. It's a big enough leap forward that maybe we won't need to wait another decade for another attempt to get it right. Maybe Thorne and company will just need another, already ordered, season? Maybe these four episodes shouldn't be viewed as unable to grapple with the bigger ideas of the books, but rather as sometimes sluggish table-setting? We'll see.

Cast: Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Clarke Peters, James Cosmo, Anne-Marie Duff, Will Keen, Ariyon Bakare
Creator: Jack Thorne, from the books by Philip Pullman
Premieres:
Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)