‘His Dark Materials’ review: A fascinating adaptation of Philip Pullman’s vision

A still from ‘His Dark Materials’

A still from ‘His Dark Materials’  


Season one of the show succeeds in acting, action, world-building and music, aided by an admirable cast

Shuttling between the Continent and Lyra’s multiverse is a jolly fun thing to do. The Secret Commonwealth, the second book in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust series is in stores, as is Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books — they were not so easily available till the show came out. On our screens we have Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia slaying monsters and bedding beauties in The Witcher and Lyra finding her destiny in His Dark Materials.

The Witcher is set in the medieval land of most sword and sorcery tales while His Dark Materials is set in lands familiar and strange. Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is an extraordinary journey through space and time, exploring diverse concepts including quantum physics, religion, and original sin. The three books — Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000) — tell of the adventures of two 12-year-olds, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. The first book in The Book of Dust trilogy, 2017’s La Belle Sauvage, tells the story of the great flood and how 11-year-old Malcolm saved the baby Lyra. The Secret Commonwealth is set seven years after the events of The Amber Spyglass.


Lyra’s world is recognisable but different — the biggest one being the people’s souls living alongside as separate identities, daemons. They are in animal shapes and a source of comfort and guidance to their humans. The bond between humans and their daemons is deep and losing your daemon is excruciatingly painful. Lyra’s world is a theocracy ruled with an iron hand by the Magisterium that comes down heavily on those who oppose them. Technology has not evolved to planes or cars. There are zeppelins and boats and clothes are Edwardian. Will’s world is like ours, Lyra’s and Will’s worlds collide when both discover portals.

Despite the heavy-duty concepts, Pullman’s trilogy moves at warp speed, with liquid prose zipping across the page. The feeling of familiar yet different is highlighted with the use of archaic or created words such as Gyptian or photogram.

His Dark Materials
  • Season 1
  • Episodes: 8
  • Run time: 60 minutes
  • Starring: Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Anne-Marie Duff, Clarke Peters, James Cosmo, Ariyon Bakare, Will Keen, Lucian Msamati, Gary Lewis, Lewin Lloyd, Daniel Frogson, James McAvoy, Georgina Campbell, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruta Gedmintas, Lia Williams, Amir Wilson, Nina Sosanya

So how does the show compare to the books? I do not wish to be like the goat that ate a reel and said the book was better. There are some things the show does exceedingly well. The acting is excellent. Ruth Wilson as the glacial Marisa Coulter, Lyra’s mother and powerful member of the Magisterium, is incandescent. She perfectly embodies the conflict, hurt, rage, razor-sharp intelligence, soaring ambition and love. Dafne Keen as Lyra evokes the curiosity, liveliness, wilfulness and loyalty of a 12 year old. James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, explorer, revolutionary and Lyra’s father is dashing and duplicitous.

The truth-telling alethiometer is square, probably to distinguish it from the round one in the doomed feature film, The Golden Compass (2007), which starred Daniel Craig as Asriel and Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter.

While the show follows the first book, The Northern Lights fairly closely including chapter titles for episodes such as “Lyra’s Jordan”, “The Idea of North”, “Armour”, “The Lost Boy” and “The Daemon-Cages”, one significant departure is introducing Will’s world in the second episode itself. The reason for that is not very clear. It cannot be for lack of action, as there is enough happening in The Northern Lights. There are the horrific experiments on the children overseen by Mrs Coulter, the kidnapped children Lyra sets out to rescue, her discovery of her parents, the magnificent-armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg), the witch Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) and the piratical Texan aviator Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

It also is not as if including Will’s world adds to the storytelling. Repeatedly showing Will’s ill mum, Elaine (Nina Sosanya) getting flustered by Lord Carlo Boreal/ Charles Latrom (Ariyon Bakare) doesn’t move the story in any new direction. Revealing that Will’s missing father, John Parry and the scholar Stanislaus Grumman are the same person also did not make much sense. Incidentally, Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s Moriarty plays Parry/ Grumman.

Written by Jack Thorne, who is also one of the executive producers along with Pullman, His Dark Materials succeeds in acting, action, world building and music (Lorne Balfe). The show also got the armoured bears right by not making them cute and cuddly, but rather a marvellous force of nature to be revered, respected and loved. Iorek does have a weakness for spirits, which is how he was tricked off his armour.

Where the show fails is in some of its storytelling choices and in visualising the bond between human and daemon.

His Dark Materials premiered on Indian television on Star World and streams on Hotstar

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 1:48:51 AM |

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