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His Dark Materials proves TV is the right place for epic fantasy

  • "The plot of His Dark Materials is a fusion of ripping adventure yarn and coming-of-age story; neglecting the latter in favor of the former, on the misapprehension that action pleases audiences more than character, is a mistake this production does not make," says Laura Miller of the BBC and HBO Philip Pullman adaptation. "The expanse of eight episodes makes it possible to do justice to both sweeping quests and intimate conversations." Miller adds: "Pullman fans adore the gruff Iorek, and in truth, this battered, self-doubting warrior is an impressive presence in the series’ fourth episode. But what stuck with me was a quiet scene in the hold between Lyra and Coram van Texel, gray-haired adviser to the king of the Gyptians. Played by the Scottish actor James Cosmo, Coram tells Lyra that decades ago, he fell in love with a witch, the queen of an all-female, not-quite-human people living in the lands of the north. The pair had a son who died in an epidemic, and the loss split them apart. 'It was a long time ago,' he tells the dewy Lyra, Cosmo’s eyes wet amid his wrinkles. Unlike so many similar exchanges in countless movies, this one is rich with the breadth and depth of those years, the expanse of a life lived fully, in all its joy and sorrow. These are the moments that give His Dark Materials its ballast, that keep it from floating off into a fantasia of artificial eye candy. Without the span of eight episodes, such moments would almost certainly be lost, or truncated beyond all recognition. Instead, there is room for both sweeping quests and intimate conversations, dazzling vistas and the human face."


    • His Dark Materials disappoints with its generic mysterious world, telegraphed twists and strange flatness: "Adapting a beloved property is as delicate a task as it is unenviable," says Caroline Framke. "You have to justify the shift of mediums, make smart adjustments to the source material accordingly, and perhaps trickiest of all, have an eye for keeping the spirit of the source material without defaulting to slavishly recreating it. And if an adaptation has already been attempted before to infamously disappointing results…well, good luck threading that needle without stabbing yourself along the way. Such is the unique problem facing His Dark Materials, HBO’s new drama series based on Philip Pullman’s wildly popular fantasy novels. A splashy 2007 film (The Golden Compass) took on the first book of the trilogy with a spot-on cast including Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and Daniel Craig. But its bloated visuals couldn’t capture the spirit of the book itself, and sequel plans were abandoned. As with many books dense with twists and mythology, a movie’s limited runtime could only barely contain the plot of The Golden Compass,” let alone the kinds of world-building flourishes that have made His Dark Materials so compelling since that first installment was published almost 25 years ago. Not even its CGI commitment to the universe’s 'daemons' (i.e. animal companions that act more as an external conscience for every human) rang true, thereby undercutting one of the book’s most potent threads."
    • His Dark Materials is a deep, rich brew delivered via a ripping yarn: "Whatever flaws may develop as the eight episodes unfold, the show has vehemently eschewed repeating those of the dismal 2007 film, which (after much supposed studio interference) excised most of the questioning of the church and other such tricky subjects that don’t traditionally play well in the US," says Lucy Mangan. "Despite the new series being a BBC co-production with HBO, it looks so far as though these ideas will not be compromised this time round."
    • Being not-bad isn’t the same as being great: "His Dark Materials is faithful, yet it fails to be as artful or innovative in its adaptation as Pullman was in his invention," says Alison Herman, adding: "Disappointingly, the detail and specificity in Pullman’s saga is precisely where His Dark Materials suffers most. The show struggles to organically convey key bylaws like the details of the human-daemon relationship. And for all His Dark Materials’ budget, reportedly spent in large part on CGI, the daemons look strangely simplistic, more like cartoons than expressive outgrowths of someone’s soul. Many background players don’t appear to have daemons at all, and Lyra’s companion Pantalaimon—Pan for short—spends almost all his time in a single guise, despite symbolic flexibility supposedly being a hallmark of this universe’s youth. For all the attention given to higher-profile tasks like writing and direction, the most telling aspect of His Dark Materials might be its production design. There’s a smooth, sanded-down quality to the series’ look, lacking in the texture one expects from an alternate reality this meticulously conceived."
    • His Dark Materials shows the fundamental problem with remaking adaptations: "As a His Dark Materials stan, I am one of the masses who awaited this new adaptation with baited breath. But honestly? It failed to deliver," says David Levesley. "While Ruth Wilson’s performance as Mrs Coulter is both inspired casting and phenomenally realised, the rest of the show has an odd lightness to it: it feels more like an episode of Doctor Who than it does an episode of an auteur-made show like The Handmaid’s Tale or Legion. Pullman’s world is odd and murky, where the very laws of physics and chemistry are slightly askew from what we know in our own. To make it seem so ordinary is tonally weird. The demons, too, feel more like something out of The Animals Of Farthing Wood than out of a high-fantasy takedown of religion. Twee is not a word I would have have applied to the books, but it’s exactly what this show felt like...Which begs the question: is there ever a good way to adapt His Dark Materials? I would argue yes. There must be. It’s good material, exciting material....(But) simply adapting it again in the same way, just on TV instead of film, doesn’t seem to have pepped it up that much."
    • It has a strong cast and decent effects, but the books' intellectual subtext is missing: "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," says Daniel Fienberg. "You won't often see me asking for a TV series to be more pretentious, but Pullman requires more pretense."
    • His Dark Materials is a disappointing adaptation: "The series awkwardly pauses scenes to explain convoluted plots but remains hard to parse unless you've read the books, a cardinal sin for any adaptation," says Kelly Lawler, adding: "There are more than 500 TV shows on the air right now, and this one  tests the patience of even Pullman's loyal fans.  Given the choice between the HBO series and the trainwreck of a movie, I'd take the new one, but that's an extremely low bar to clear."
    • This is a beautiful, brooding vision of Pullman’s universe: "The challenge with adapting Pullman’s books is not in weighing them down with pathos and menace, which must be tempting, but in retaining the fantastical energies that keeps them rollicking along," says Ed Cumming. "Amid all the thoughtful allegory and metaphysics there are plenty of things to look at: snow leopards, lumbering airships, armoured bears, and the new series doesn’t forget these simpler attractions. But while the 2007 film was lovely to watch in parts, too, it ultimately felt underpowered because it held back on some of the books’ anti-theocratic messages, for fear of spooking American audiences. No such anxieties are on display in His Dark Materials. The drama is all the richer for it. Adolescence wouldn’t be much fun if you didn’t get to question your gods."
    • There are a lot of Game of Thrones influence in His Dark Materials: "It’s clear from the sweeping score and (not unjustifiably) clockwork-inspired title sequence that HBO won’t exactly be mad if anyone calls HDM the new GoT," says Caitlin Welsh. "Familiar faces pop up too: James Cosmo, who played Ser Jeor Mormont in another life, and Luciano Msamati (Sallador Saan, remember him?) are just two steady presences as Gyptian leaders. And the ancient mythologies, supernatural elements, and constant references to ~The North~ will certainly hit the spot for some fans looking for their next fix of mystical intrigue and happy to take it with the violence toned down a few thousand notches."
    • His Dark Materials is definitely a better show than a movie, quickly and clearly establishes Pullman’s rich, complicated world
    • His Dark Materials has its bright spots, but it's often unclear what the focus is
    • So far, His Dark Materials manages to conjure a spectacle (two words: armored bears) without burying the source’s ideas
    • Changes from the book should alarm only nitpickers, and additions, mostly in the spirit of the text, are to the good
    • His Dark Materials doesn’t transcend its genre—but if you love fantasy, it’ll cast a spell
    • "What are "his dark materials?": Here are all your His Dark Materials questions, answered
    • James McAvoy recalls joining His Dark Materials after two actors pulled out of playing Asriel
    • Writer Jack Thorne says dealing with Harry Potter fans prepared him to tackle His Dark Materials
    • Executive producer Jane Tranter's goal from the beginning was to bring “the depth, breadth and layers” of Pullman’s books to the small screen

    TOPICS: His Dark Materials, BBC, HBO, Jack Thorne, James McAvoy, Jane Tranter, Philip Pullman