Describing the plot of His Dark Materials is no small feat. Philip Pullman’s seminal trilogy, upon which this lavish BBC-HBO co-production is based, was defined by its ambition. Spanning worlds and bursting with theological discussion, the books see daemons and witches stand side by side with armoured bears, spectres and angels.
Thankfully, perhaps, the series opens in a much more restrained manner, with the opening two episodes focusing on the strange disappearance of children in London and Oxford at the hands of the ‘Gobblers.’ Meanwhile, the pioneering Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) is voyaging north in search of other worlds and to discover more about Dust, a secretive substance which The Magisterium is willing to obscure by any means necessary.
Amidst this intrigue is Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), an orphan raised in Oxford whose life to now was focused entirely on playing atop the roofs of Jordan College with her best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd). Yet Lyra’s fate is concerned with more distant adventures, with her journey taking her to London, the far north and ultimately into entirely new worlds altogether.
Though Lyra’s world may look similar, it is not the world as we know it. Visually, director Tom Hooper et al have vividly brought to life the steampunk victoriana described by Pullman. The differences don’t stop there. In this world, every person has a daemon (pronounced ‘Demon’, not ‘Matt Damon’), a manifestation of their soul which takes the form of an animal. While children’s daemons are free to change shape and size, there comes a point when dameons settle and adopt a singular form for the rest of their days. If there’s one relationship which defines the series, it’s this. The link between person and daemon is elemental, so it’s no surprise that viewers are already being urged to invest in the relationship of Lyra and hers, Pantalaimon.
Writer Jack Thorne, the man behind Harry Potter: The Cursed Child, among many other things, does a wily job of packaging His Dark Materials’ themes into an accessible, Sunday night format. He gives The Magisterium some recognisable faces, while the use of Lord Boreal already ties this first series into the second book, The Subtle Knife. Similarly to the books, it is refreshing that the opening two episodes have not been hamstrung by excessive exposition. Instead, it boldy allows the viewer to piece together Lyra’s world as it unfolds.
While Keen intelligently plays the plucky, curious Lyra, the pick of the acting bunch is undoubtedly Ruth Wilson as the Mrs Coulter. In a role which requires layer upon layer of affectation and duplicity, Wilson fully embodies the beguiling and entrancing character created by Pullman. Indeed, Wilson leaves the viewer exactly where they should be; knowing you can’t trust her, but desperate to follow her all the same. Meanwhile, the star-power of James McAvoy actually gives Lord Asriel the gravitas he needs, though you wonder whether the show will smooth off his sharper edges in the coming weeks.
It’s this spectre of the coming weeks which is the only reason to question this luscious adaptation. There is no doubt that the show has opened superbly, pulling together a vivid recreation of Lyra’s world without skimping on the heavier themes. However, the test will be whether this can continue. His Dark Materials truly do run dark as the books progress, while there are some elements which instantly raise their hands as being ‘unfilmable’ (Mulefa, anyone?). While Pullman’s art was in building his worlds through intricate detail and subtly weaving threads throughout them all, the constraints of television can be less forgiving. More so, the ontological remit of the books is hard to express through dialogue alone. As a result, you begin to think that the success of the show will be contingent on its bravery.
Be that as it may, it’s a soaring, stellar start. One which, in the coming episodes, will introduce witches, armoured bears, and, perhaps most excitingly of all, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Season 1 of His Dark Materials is on BBC1 every Sunday. Those in the UK can also catch Episode 1 and 2 on BBC iPlayer.