For years, the novels of Philip Pullman have been dazzling readers young and old alike, and the series His Dark Materials was perhaps the most famed of all. Previously, it’s been adapted into both a theater production and a film which was met with mixed reviews. Pullman’s readers have been vying for a way to bring their beloved series and all of its magic to life in a new way, and with the release of HBO’s His Dark Materials television adaptation of 2019, it seems that they may get their way. A brand new fantasy epic saga that feels inspired by the likes of the later Harry Potter films and similar fantasy titles that hold equal intrigue for older children and adults has just awoken and holds definite promise. Our friends over at HBO were able to secure a preview containing the first four episodes for us to review before wide release, and it is so far a very engaging watch. I personally have never read the books that the series is based on and so cannot say much in the area of adaptational accuracy, but that does allow me to approach it with fresh eyes, able to give a less biased look at how the show stands on its own merit. But to be fair, if the rest of the season is this interesting, I may have to pick up the books after all.
Our story is set in an alternate version of the world we live in: similar in some ways, but different in many others. The time period is unclear, as it seems to combine many older elements from the 1900s-1950s along with futuristic aspects, creating a somewhat-steampunk stylization. In this world, when a human is born, a part of their spirit manifests as an animal that follows them for their whole life, able to speak and grow up with them as a reflection of who they truly are inside. These daemons are tethered to their human and can change form at will in childhood, but must choose an animal to stay as forever in adulthood. Our main character is the inquisitive and brash Lyra Belacqua, played excellently by Dafne Keen, still hot off of her successful performance as Laura in Logan and onto new great things. Her daemon is Pantalaimon, or Pan (voiced by Kit Connor), who most often takes the form of a cute little stoat and often acts as the voice of reasoning to counter Lyra’s impulsive nature. As a baby, Lyra was left at Oxford College by her enigmatic and erratic uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), and grows up there under academic protection to keep her safe from the Magisterium, a strict religious organization/government that controls its people and the flow of information with an iron grip. Not everything is explained about the plot immediately aside from necessary context, so it’s up to the audience to pick up on things as we go and keep all plot threads straight, which works well in some points but is a bit detrimental in others. Essentially, children are disappearing from all over England, and some people suspect Gobblers, a group so secretive that many don’t even believe that they exist. When Lyra’s best friend Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd) goes missing too, it’s up to her to find him while also protecting the artifact that was placed in her care, a golden compass that is mysteriously said to “tell the truth.” Along the way, Lyra and Pan meet a menagerie of colorful supporting characters that do feel right out of a whimsical children’s book, such as Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a confident scholar who is more than she may first seem, and Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), an eccentric Southern airship pilot, two standouts among many others. Lyra needs all the help she can get along the way, but must also be careful who she trusts.
His Dark Materials gives new watchers an interesting world to explore, one filled with influences of both Biblical and mythological roots enough to be familiar but still unique. We’re still left with many questions about how this world works, such as more details on the Magisterium’s rule and the realities of humans coexisting with their physical animal spirit guides, such as how if one dies, so does the other. Hopefully we’ll be able to learn more soon in the rest of the series to follow, as it gave us an attention-nabbing start. The story keeps you interested, although a few of the twists can be a bit predictable, especially for the genre of fantasy epics. Aside from that, the series is off to a solid start, with a great cast to carry it through. Keen gives us a convincing performance as Lyra, a very different role from what she did in Logan but she excels nonetheless. Wilson is also notable as the odd woman that acts as somewhat of a guidance to Lyra, and gets to really show her acting range and calculated mannerisms as the show progresses and she gets more screen time. And of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda is always a joy to see in any role, and he brings some lighthearted fun to the plot with his Texan troublemaking. The CGI on the animals is also very good, which is a notable feat since talking animals can often look unnatural in real life settings, they do very well at making it appear normal. The soundtrack of His Dark Materials is also fantastic, with the show opening especially featuring a great main theme and visuals, which, if the show succeeds, could very easily become an iconic tune akin to the Harry Potter theme or similar epic adventure orchestrations.
Even if not perfect in all aspects, the beginning of HBO’s His Dark Materials plants a solid foundation for a stellar show to be born. I look forward to seeing how the rest of the season plays when it releases and will definitely be keeping up with this show as it continues. It also has a wide potential viewing audience, as kids can watch it and relate to the main character as well as feel more mature watching because the show doesn’t talk down to them or shy away from darker things. But at the same time, teens and adults can also fall into the complex world and fun fantasy story that it has to offer. I can’t speak for readers looking for a faithful adaptation of the books (although it doesn’t seem to veer too far from what I can tell), as a viewer going in blind, I’m hooked on its charm and can’t wait to see how this all unfolds. If you’re a fan of tales from far-off mystical worlds that are a bit more grounded than a high fantasy like Lord Of The Rings, yet still hold a sense of wonder and magic, you’ll certainly want to take a peek at His Dark Materials, releasing on November 4 on HBO.
4 STARS (OUT OF FIVE)