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HBO's 'His Dark Materials' Is the Adaptation Fans Deserve

Unlike 'The Golden Compass' film in 2007, the new series thoroughly explores the world of Philip Pullman's popular trilogy.

by Bettina Makalintal
Nov 4 2019, 12:00pm

Photo courtesy HBO

The Golden Compass, the 2007 movie adaptation of Philip Pullman's successful book of the same name, had a lot going for it. It starred Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and big, computer-generated, armored polar bears. It was a flashy fantasy-adventure epic with highly-praised source material. Calls by Catholic groups to boycott the film for its "atheist agenda" and themes of "killing God" only added to its buzz. And yet, that movie is widely accepted to have been an epic disappointment.

Despite having cost New Line Cinema $180 million dollars to produce, an amount that puts it among the 100 most expensive films of all time, Golden Compass didn't do as well at the box office as expected. Director Chris Weitz eventually called the adaptation his "greatest professional regret," citing that pressure from the studio in response to religious backlash led to the diluted film he ultimately put out. Today, Golden Compass (2007) holds a critic score of only 42 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an audience score of 51 percent.

For everyone who felt let down by the 2007 movie and wanted something deeper and darker, retribution has come at last in the form of the BBC's new His Dark Materials series, which is distributed in the U.S. by HBO. The series is produced by New Line and Bad Wolf and it has been long-awaited; in 2015, Pullman said he was "delighted" by the news that the BBC would be adapting it for TV. The first of the season's eight episodes aired last night on HBO, and it's proven that second chances do matter.

Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is made up of The Golden Compass (known outside the U.S. as Northern Lights), The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife. It follows a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) as she journeys through worlds in a fight between the truth and authority. Ever at her side is the animal spirit Pantalaimon (Kit Conner); in this world, "daemons" like him are the physical representations of an individual's soul. Lyra is joined by her uncle, Lord Asrael (James McAvoy); the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson); and the child abductors, nomads, witches, and armored bears that she meets along the way.

From a few advance episodes of the show, it's clear that His Dark Materials promises enough adventure and intrigue to make it worth tuning in weekly. It's well-acted and well-paced, and its production value thus far is a worthy treatment for a universe built with so much imagination. It feels like there's been more thought about how to make it not just accessible for new viewers, but also more accurate for more involved fans of the series. It's a coveted throne, but His Dark Materials could perhaps even fill part of the fantasy-sized hole left by Game of Thrones.

The trilogy is a lot to take in, and on top of its ambitious plot are the themes and questions that it raises. Based on "Paradise Lost," John Milton's epic poem about Satan and man's fall from grace, but intended for teenagers, Pullman's trilogy isn't light or childish. It's vivid fantasy and dark adventure paired with cerebral commentary on religion and the authorities that enforce it, as Lyra questions consciousness, sin, and dogma. Though the books are intended as young adult fiction, their mature themes make them resonate with older readers too.

Trying to pack all of that into a 113-minute movie, while also bending to pressure from unhappy religious groups and taking on a PG-13 rating in order to widen its appeal, no doubt dumbed down the 2007 adaptation and softened its sharp edges. The muddled exposition to the huge lot of information viewers needed also made it "frantic," unfocused, and ultimately a failure, the Guardian concluded in 2013.

This, of course, is why a TV series is perfect, and why a TV series with backing from BBC and HBO is even better. Now, His Dark Materials has the room it needs to actually define the world Pullman built. With that working in its favor, His Dark Materials, the series, can refresh old fans but also onboard those unfamiliar with the books through the merits of a good adventure. On HBO, the series doesn't feel caught in the awkward space between youth and adult media; it feels appropriately mature. With a better sense of its audience and more time to explore, it appears that His Dark Materials can be done right.

The series is sticking around: the decision to renew the show for a second season was made while the first was still in production. There's plenty of time to read the books and closely compare notes, but even if you don't, His Dark Materials promises an hour a week of thrilling fantasy, complete with fighting polar bears.

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Books
2019 tv shows
his dark materials
the golden compass
philip pullman