Review: His Dark Materials

My favourite book series in the world, now turned into a BBC series! Read on if you want to know whether it was any good. (Spoiler: it was!)

This is not a review. I am not the right person to give my opinion about the new tv adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling series His Dark Materials. Having been in love with the books from the moment I first held them in my hands, it will come as no surprise that I had been eagerly awaiting this first episode of the series from the moment it was first announced, four years ago. Within two seconds I was sitting at the edge of my seat, completely oblivious to the rest of the world, and wholly absorbed by what was happening on the screen. For with its massive budget, made possible through the collaboration of the BBC and HBO, it all looked magnificent, and based on the first episode, this adaptation is promising to be very faithful to the books indeed.

The series follow the adventures of Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a very special girl who doesn’t quite know that she is special, and her dæmon Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor). She lives in Oxford, in a world very much like our own, but not quite; the most important difference being these dæmons, physical manifestations of people’s souls. When they’re children, these dæmons can change their appearance, but as soon as they grow up, they will settle in one specific form. The idea of growing up is very important in Pullman’s novels, which will become clear later on in the series too.

            There are two very distinct worlds within this alternate world, too: Lyra’s, and the adults’. Lyra seems to be quite happy despite being an orphan, she lives a sheltered and carefree life in Oxford’s Jordan College, where her uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) has begged the Master for Lyra to be placed under scholastic sanctuary. For Lyra is in grave danger, although she is not aware of it yet. According to a prophecy by the witches in the North, Lyra will determine the fate of all the worlds, and it is because of this that the adults either want to prevent this from happening, or ensure it. It is only when Lyra finds out that someone wants to poison Lord Asriel, and when the news reaches Oxford that children are being kidnapped, including Lyra’s best friend Roger, that things are fully set into motion. She is taken away too, by a mysterious and alluring woman called Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who promises to take her to the North, to her uncle Asriel, and to all sorts of amazing things like the aurora and armoured bears.

Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon

            There are many children’s and young adults’ books dealing with the idea of a special child who can change the world (Harry Potter, anyone?), so His Dark Materials will have to come up with something really special in order to stand out from all the others. Pullman, unlike other authors, deals with so much more complex issues than other authors have; roughly based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, it touches on the idea of religion, original sin, philosophy, and, as I mentioned before, the notion of growing up. I have read the books several times now, and with every reading yet another layer comes to the surface (much like the workings of the alethiometer, which will play a major role later on in the series), which displays the enormous complexity of Pullman’s works.

            Since it is such a multifaceted work, the question arises whether the series will be able to convey all those ideas to the audience. Judging from the first episode, which is filled with a star-studded cast, feels very faithful to the original books with some dialogue taken ad verbum from the first chapters of the book series’ first instalment, Northern Lights, nothing should stand in the way of this series becoming the next major fantasy show.

Then again, as I said earlier, this isn’t really a review, but rather a fan’s reaction to the new series. Just make sure you watch it – and please share your opinion in the comments!

His Dark Materials premiered on the BBC on the third of November 2019, with the American broadcast following on the day after.

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