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Josh Reviews His Dark Materials Season One

Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials was originally published between 1995-2000.  The first book, The Golden Compass, had previously been adapted into a mediocre movie back in 2007.  Now, the BBC and HBO have adapted that first book, The Golden Compass, into an eight-episode TV series.  I recently read the His Dark Materials novels for the first time and was interested to see HBO’s adaptation.  I enjoyed it!

I must confess, first off, that while I enjoyed reading the His Dark Materials novels, I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan.  There was a lot that I liked about the books.  I loved the complexity of the world-building.  I enjoyed the strongly-formed characters.  I appreciated that Mr. Pullman had a lot to critique about organized religion, though I do not nearly share what seems like his deep dislike/mistrust of all religion.  Additionally, I sometimes felt those criticisms of religion, and what felt like an atheistic worldview, got in the way of the story for me.  I also sometimes felt the books were a bit too complicated for their own good, with characters coming and going at rapid speed, whereas I would have enjoyed spending more time with them and getting to know them better.  But I loved what an original and unique series this was, and I was surprised how adult in tone it was.  I was certainly excited to see what this might look like translated on screen.

HBO has clearly spared no expense with their production of His Dark Materials.  (I’d imagine that HBO is quite eager to find their next Game of Thrones…)  This series looks incredible.  There are a huge number of different locations in the series, and each one is beautifully realized.  I never felt claustrophobic or that I was watching actors on cheap sets.  No, this world felt huge and immersive.  This is the epic canvas this story deserves.  There’s all sorts of epic action — fighting armored bears, flying zombie-things called Cliff Ghasts, witches, and more — and it all looks great.  (The character animation on the bears, in particular, is magnificent.)

And then there are the daemons.  One of the hardest aspects of bringing this story to life on screen must surely have been the daemons that every character in Lyra’s world possesses; an animal bonded to each human being.  These talking animals, each with a distinct personality of their own, could only be brought to life through top-notch (and surely expensive) visual effects.  I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it was to create and realize all of the many different daemons seen throughout this first season.  I’d suspected the show would try to find ways to avoid showing the daemons.  If they did, they did it seamlessly, because I was very impressed how well all of the different daemons were brought to life.  The two stand-outs were easily Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon, and the golden monkey daemon belonging to Mrs. Coulter.

The cast of the series is extremely impressive.  Dafne Keen (who was so great as the young mutant girl Laura/X-23 in Logan) is terrific in the lead role of Lyra.  Lyra is a complicated kid in the books; she’s stubborn and challenges authority but she’s also extremely brave and loyal.  Ms. Keen brings the many different sides of Lyra to life, and even more importantly she never loses track of Lyra’s emotional journey.  The audience has to invest in Lyra in order to get on board this fantasy adventure with her.  Ms. Keen makes that look easy.  Ruth Wilson (so impressive as the psychopath Alice in Luther) is perfectly cast as the fierce, icy Mrs. Coulter.  She makes Mrs. Coulter a dangerous villain while never losing sight of her humanity; not an easy task.  James McAvoy (Professor X in the X-Men: First Class films; Split; Glass) is great as Lord Asriel.  Asriel is an enigmatic figure in the books, and Mr. McAvoy is perfect at playing Asriel in a way that he might be the heroic lead, and he also might be the villain.  I love that.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is a delight as the “aeronaut” Lee Scoresby.  I always felt that I was supposed to like Lee in the books more than I actually did.  The character totally came to life for me in Mr. Miranda’s hands.  (Mr. Miranda’s Texan accent might have been occasionally uneven, but I loved how charismatic and lovable and heroic his Lee was.).

I was delighted to see Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme) as the Master of Jordan College.  This was a minor character in the book who was enjoyably expanded in the series.  I hope they find ways to keep this character involved in the story in future seasons.  James Cosmo made a strong impression on me as Jeor Mormont in Game of Thrones, and he was terrific here as Farder Coram, the friendly Gyptian elder who helps Lyra.  Speaking of Game of Thrones, Lucian Msamati had a very small role as Salladhor Saan; he has a lot more to do here, and is great, as the Gyptian leader Lord John Faa.  (I was pleased to see the color-blind casting in these important supporting roles.)  Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians of the Galaxy, Spy, The Tick) is wonderful as the voice of Iofur Raknison, the armored bear.  And Anne-Marie Duff is great as Ma Costa; she’s excellent in several emotional scenes that made me care about Ma Costa a lot more than I ever did when reading the books.

The behind-the-scenes team is also impressive.  All eight episodes of the season were written by Jack Thorne, who also wrote the stage play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  The first two episodes were directed by Tom Hooper, who directed The King’s Speech, the 2012 version of Les Misérables, and The Danish Girl.  

Overall, the series is an impressively faithful adaptation of The Golden Compass.  The season ends on the same cliffhanger moment the novel does.  (That moment, by the way, is shockingly dark.  It really took me by surprise in the book.  I can understand why the 2007 film version of The Golden Compass entirely eliminated that whole final stretch of the novel — despite the fact that those scenes were apparently filmed.  I don’t love this twist in the book, but it’s a hugely important plot point and if you’re going to adapt this book, you’ve got to be prepared to do the ending.  So bravo to HBO for sticking to its guns here.)

Probably the most significant change made is that Will, who is a main character in books two and three, was brought into the story in this first season.  That was a smart change!  If you haven’t read the books, this first season will leave you wondering how the story of this kid in our “real” world connects to everything happening in Lyra’s world.  But because Will will be so important as the story continues, it makes perfect sense that they introduced him here in season one.  Amir Wilson is great as Will (and here too, I love that they cast a young man of color in this major role).

The other main change is actually the main element in season one that doesn’t work for me.  There are a number of scenes in this first season that weren’t in the book, that focus on the villainous members of the Magisterium, the analogue of the Church in Lyra’s universe.  We see a lot of scenes of mean men in robes talking, including Father McPhail (played by Dafne Keen’s father, Will Keen!), and Charles Latrom/Lord Boreal (played by Ariyon Bakare), who has designs on Will.  I thought the series came to a screeching halt each time we cut back to these guys.  I like the idea here: let’s flesh out the villains so that when they enter the story, they’ll be more effective and memorable.  Great in theory.  But in execution, it didn’t work, because the series never actually gave us much information regarding who these men were and what they wanted.  It just wound up being a lot of boring, repetitive scenes of evil-seeming people talking about murky plans that we don’t really know about.  (I’m reminded of the way Star Trek: Picard gave us scene after scene, in its first season, of the evil Romulan siblings.  It was the exact same problem.  Rather than developing the villains, the scenes were boring and one-note.)

I’ve read that this season has incorporated elements from Mr. Pullman’s new trilogy of novels set in this world.  I haven’t read those books, so I don’t know… but I’m wondering if the “great flood” seen in flashback scenes (which I don’t at all recall from the books) is from that new trilogy?

What else did I enjoy in this first season?  The gorgeous visual effects that brought Iofur Raknison and his fellow armored bears to life.  The cool look of Lee’s balloon.  The beautiful design of the alethiometer.  Lots of other moments here and there that brought this world and these characters to life.

Overall I enjoyed this season.  It doesn’t all work.  There’s a lot of exposition that I often wished could have been presented in a smoother, more organic manner.  Some aspects of Lyra’s world, and certain character motivations, are over-explained while others are left too murky to be easily understood.  There is occasionally a coldness and distance to the story-telling that kept me from fully engaging with the story that was unfolding, but I think that is somewhat baked into the source material.

This series is not going to be Game of Thrones.  I don’t see any chance of it becoming the monster hit that was.  This is a much weirder, more idiosyncratic fantasy creation.  But I quite enjoyed seeing the first His Dark Materials novel brought to life on my TV screen, and I’m definitely on board for season two/book two, whenever that might arrive.

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