The most subtle undercurrent of Philip Pullman’s classic trilogy His Dark Materials is the distinction between the ways in which people seek to create a better world. Some people center themselves in such work, adopting an approach that is ego-driven and in pursuit of the greater good. That the greater good itself often ends up being whatever they think the greater good is and or ought to be and is treated as mere happenstance, a happy coincidence. Some center everyone but themselves, an egalitarian approach that can become messianic, selfish, and self-destructive. Yet others do neither and they do their part in creating a better world by simply choosing to do the right thing. Those choices can be difficult, gut-wrenching, and they often can require some sort of sacrifice. But it is also simpler to do the right thing instead of centering yourself in such a manner that the burden of the world and its people falls squarely on your shoulders.
The HBO and BBC adaptation of the trilogy, known better in North America as The Golden Compass series, is the second major screen adaptation effort after the disastrously reviewed film in 2007. The cast was superb and the film itself was gorgeous, but the dark undercurrent of themes such as the ones described in the preceding paragraph were missing (especially in its ending). The producers of the television series have stressed their desire to adapt the material faithfully and that requires an ability to adapt the darkness as well. His Dark Materials perhaps more than anything else is a series about a young girl becoming a woman and there can be no growth without encountering, understanding, and overcoming the darkness that is so prevalent in our world and in Lyra’s (Dafne Keen).
Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed-Child) has a difficult task in adapting a trilogy whose mythology is intricate and a little dense at times. The script has to make sure that the audience who has not read the books is largely able to follow the events even if the exact references and bits of foreshadowing are not entirely clear just yet. It also has to satisfy fans of the book, such as myself, who are devouring every piece and scouring every nook and cranny for all the details that we can find. Outside of a couple of clunky bits in the structuring of the script, the first episode is a faithful ode to Pullman’s novels while unspooling the mysteries bit by bit in a cinematic fashion.
The bits and pieces that were so enchanting in the novels are there. The illuminating expeditions of Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) are etched in just the right amount of detail and that critical bit about his self-absorbed nature is kept wonderfully intact. The Master (Clarke Peters) and the Librarian (Ian Gelder) form a sympathetic and intriguing pair, their lives intertwined with a poisoning plot yet retaining their genuine kindness and despair at even the thought of the deed. Their relationships to Lyra are etched with the right amount of effectiveness. Lyra loves her uncle but her uncle, as he says so bluntly, simply has no time for her. The Master and the Librarian dote on Lyra and she trusts them, even when her trust is shaken and her relationship with them seemingly closes with a request to keep a secret. Lyra and Pantalaimon’s bond is sketched neatly, his ability as her dæmon to be her more sensible voice translating wonderfully to the screen. Her relationship with her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) is just as developed, which makes his kidnapping at the end of the episode all the more devastating for Lyra and the audience.
The most intriguing relationship is the one that is formed between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter (played by the excellent Ruth Wilson). Instantly, with an iconic theme song to boot, Wilson establishes that Mrs. Coulter is a woman to watch, who in spite of being ensnared in male-dominated environments, is hardly going to be rendered inconspicuous by any of them. Wilson captures the grace and magnetism that helps define the character in the books and it is no wonder that Lyra falls in love with her so easily. She is bereft at being constantly abandoned by her uncle, she has a yearning for adventure that no one else seems capable of understanding, and she has is mostly surrounded by old men. Along arrives an explorer who is magnetic, charming, and genuinely seems to care for Lyra. She is seeking an assistant, Lyra jumps at the opportunity, and when Mrs. Coulter promises her that they were going to succeed in finding Roger, only then does Lyra agree to go with her instead of staying in Oxford to look for her friend. She nestles in comfortably with her dæmon, her secret alethiometer that can supposedly tell her the truth, and the journey begins.
+The opening scene is taken straight out of the pages of La Belle Sauvage, which is the first installment in Philip Pullman’s new The Book of Dust trilogy. The first installment serves as a prequel while the latest release, The Secret Commonwealth, is a sequel. Would love to see an adaptation of the subsequent trilogy as well!
+The Gyptian ceremony was excellently executed. You get the sense of their culture, their place in society, and their strong community bonds that have to be forged in a world that does not treat them with an expected kindness (their children are being heavily targeted by the “Gobblers” because, well, their lives matter less in this world). That community bond is essential, and touching, coming into play when they search for yet another one of their children who is kidnapped and later band together to go to London and rescue their children once and for all.
+Did you catch the mention of a hare martin?
+The score from Lorne Balfe is excellent, as are the easter egg-filled opening credits.
+The purpose of an alethiometer is to tell you the truth. Figuring our how it is going to do that for you is a slightly trickier part.
+The subtlety of the class distinction between Lyra and Roger is etched in a wonderfully understated way. That same sort of subtlety comes forward when Lyra is up in an airship with Mrs. Coulter while the Gyptians are going in the exact same direction but in their river boats below.
+Lord Asriel’s passionate request to uphold the sanctity of science ending in the word “funding” was absolutely hilarious. No matter what the world, academia rarely changes.
+Lyra talking to the alethiometer as if she were using Siri was excellent.
+The bond between humans and their dæmons is absolutely critical to this story. The importance of this relationship is nudged at just slightly in the opening episode but look to that becoming much more vital to the story as it continues.
+That fabulous entrance gown Mrs. Coulter was wearing? That’s how one shows up to brighten up an event where mostly straight men are all wearing the same version of a professional suit. Inspiring.
+The coat Mrs. Coulter has when she and Lyra depart for London? That’s how you marry functionality without losing sense of style, folks.