His Dark Materials, episode 1, review: “All the intricacies of the book and impressively ambitious”

Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy has always been a peculiar one to adapt to the screen, being both such a deep, complex narrative and a sprawling epic. In a post-The Lord of the Rings trilogy, mid-Harry Potter zeitgeist, New Line Cinema released The Golden Compass – an adaptation of Pullman’s first novel Northern Lights – which was plagued with controversy, re-shoots and a spectacular budget of $180 million. Alas, it wasn’t particularly well-received and despite modest box office success, the studio never saw a cent. Now that Game of Thrones has proven that fantasy epics can be explored on the small screen, it seems apt that New Line attempt another adaptation, one more accurate to the books. With Bad Wolf (spot the various Doctor Who connections), BBC Studios and HBO producing and distributing this new adaptation of His Dark Materials, can fans finally get to see the page-to-screen adaptation they’ve been clamouring for?

For the uninitiated, His Dark Materials is set in a world not unlike our own, but parallel. Every human has a life-long animal companion, a ‘Daemon’ who embodies their very soul. The series follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) who, along with her Daemon Pantalaimon, has grown up as an orphan in the halls of Jordan College, Oxford. Her peace and tranquillity are soon disturbed by a series of seemingly unconnected and strange events. Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) returns from his expedition to the North Pole with evidence of a curious substance named Dust and of the existence of a whole other world. The Magisterium – the all-powerful Church in Lyra’s world – send the enigmatic Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and her golden monkey to Jordan College, whom finds herself infatuated with Lyra. Meanwhile, children are disappearing – kidnapped by the legendary “Gobblers”. Then, when Lyra’s best friend Roger is taken, she must journey across the world to find him again but not without the help of an Alethiometer.

To go into too much detail would spoil the interesting directions and revelations in Pullman’s novel, but suffice it to say that this series has a huge and intricate story to play with, including Witches, Bears and Aeronauts. It’s an ambitious production for both BBC Studios and HBO, and by no means a cheap one. To create Lyra’s world, the production team have to conjure Daemons for every character, not to mention incredible landscapes and fantastical creatures. It’s no wonder that they’ve already committed to a second season, adapting Pullman’s second instalment The Subtle Knife.

Thankfully though, and I’m sure as a relief to all of the fans out there, His Dark Materials starts very well. There’s definitely a feeling that the story is only just beginning but the first episode manages to start the ball rolling, balancing its set-ups, exposition and world-building impressively. The first episode focuses on introducing Lyra to the audience, played impeccably by Dafne Keen. Keen, who already proved to be an amazing find in Logan, manages to capture Lyra brilliantly, whether it be in her running around the rooftops of Jordan College, talking to her CGI Daemon Pantalaimon or holding her scenes with McAvoy and Wilson as Asriel and Mrs Coulter, respectively. The show simply wouldn’t work without an actress as charming or as capable as Keen, and any doubts about a show so focused on its child actors can be quickly brushed aside.

McAvoy (another X-Men alumni, of course) plays Lord Asriel and is once again a fantastic choice. Asriel is a rather nebulous character in the novels, with vague motivations and very little ‘screen-time’ to play with. McAvoy gets a good portion of this episode dedicated to him, including the most important expository scene in the entire series, and manages to pull each scene off with a balance of dramatic flair and curious ambiguity. It’s a meaty part for any actor but with a performer as talented as McAvoy, it should certainly be a very engaging watch. Likewise, Wilson is introduced as Mrs Coulter. Wilson herself has been very open about Coulter’s questionable motivations and has promised to terrify a whole generation of children with her performance. We don’t get to see too much of her here, but Wilson captures the slightly sinister side to the character. If there is an issue with the character, it’s in the personification of her Daemon. The golden monkey is a fairly impressive CGI creation, but I couldn’t help but find that it looked a bit cartoon-ish, both on the promotional poster and in the episode itself. It’s not an issue I noticed with the episode’s other Daemons but the golden monkey didn’t quite look right. Perhaps the effect will work better in future episodes.

There are also a wide variety of other characters, with roles (I’d assume) that will naturally expand over the coming stories. To say too much about each would be giving away spoilers, but needless to say that the casting is very impressive all-round, and the show does a very good job at connecting various dots up without forcing in beloved characters such as Lee Scorseby, Serafina Pekkala and Iorek Byrnison in too soon.

As an adaptation of Northern Lights, Jack Thorne‘s script for His Dark Materials Episode one is practically perfect, knowing exactly what to leave out but also being aware about what to incorporate to help tell the story. The dialogue is consistently natural and always feels true to the characters and Thorne writes for the younger cast very well. There aren’t any awkward line deliveries that could plague a lesser show. Tom Hooper‘s direction is very strong all-round and he shows off the series’ stellar production values to great effect, but I did find the lack of emphasis on the Daemons to be slightly annoying, given how tied-in to each character’s emotions they are. There are a few close-up shots but I wouldn’t have minded a few more to show the real connection between human and Daemon. The visual effects are mostly strong and even the weaker ones are still impressive (such as the golden monkey). Lorne Balfe‘s score is very cinematic, whilst the title sequence is wonderfully detailed and imaginative. I hope it gets uploaded to YouTube for fans to pick apart every detail (of which I noticed many).

His Dark Materials proves, with its first episode, to be a show to keep an eye on. It maintains the intricate details and complexities of the books but doesn’t lose the fun earnestness of its main protagonist. In an era when TV seems to be trying to simply target an adult audience, it’s fantastic to see a show that can appeal to a much wider family audience. Here’s hoping that Lyra Belacqua and her various adventures will spark the imaginations of a whole generation of children – and adults too. Honestly, this reviewer can’t wait until 3rd November to watch this again!

His Dark Materials starts on Sunday 3rd November on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on Monday 4th November on HBO in the USA.

One thought on “His Dark Materials, episode 1, review: “All the intricacies of the book and impressively ambitious”

  1. Pingback: His Dark Materials 1.1 Review: Lyra’s Jordan | critical popcorn

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