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Nathan’s review of His Dark Materials

This past year was dominated by new fantasy adaptations on television, lead by the two behemoth- House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power. Every blog, podcast, and social media feed was full of analysis, discussion, and debates over which of these two shows was the “better” show. Which was more faithful to the franchise? Who had the better special effects? Which one had the most culture impact? Which was going to win more awards? Which was the bigger money-maker for its streamer? Which was the better extension of a popular and beloved franchise? Which would open up new possibilities for more spinoffs in Middle Earth and Westeros?

The answer to these questions are difficult (although my money is on House of the Dragon for both quality and cultural impact), but in all of these debates, I find myself finding this year’s best fantasy adaptation being completely ignored. It is not a new show, and in fact the best fantasy series of 2022 aired its third and final season.

The show? His Dark Materials on HBO in the US and the BBC in the UK.

his dark materials show review

I can completely understand how this one flew under the radar. It has been more than 2 years since the second season of the show aired. HBO (in the US at least) burned off the episodes two at a time on Monday nights in the height of the holiday season with little marketing or fanfare. And yet, it was probably the best fantasy TV adaptation of the year (with the only real competition coming from The Sandman on Netflix, which would have taken the cake for me if its back half was as strong as its first half). When the first season dropped in 2019, I really thought this was going to be the next big thing in fantasy television. It had the production support of two major studios/networks, a pretty great cast, and strong season 1 reviews. Alas, the third season came and went – and I want to make sure that perhaps it has just a little bit longer of a life.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, His Dark Materials was a BBC/HBO co-production based on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (the first book is titled The Golden Compass in the U.S.). It tells the story of Lyra, a young girl in an alternative universe Oxford that is “ruled” by the powerful Magisterium (their version of an evil Catholic Church). Lyra’s is a world of magic; each person has a daemon (soul) in the shape of an animal avatar; there are armored talking polar bears; and there is a mysterious substance called “Dust” that all of the great religious and scientific minds are trying to understand. Throughout the trilogy, and the three seasons of the TV adaptation, Lyra confronts airships, a knife that can cut between the different universes, elephant like creatures that ride around on nuts, evil angels, good gay angels, and so much more that is hard to detail in a single blog post.

If you haven’t read the books, you might be familiar with the film The Golden Compass starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. It was critically panned and a commercial failure. The second two books in the trilogy were never adapted as films.

The TV show His Dark Materials, however, does everything right that the The Golden Compass got wrong. The Golden Compass attempted to completely chip away at everything that makes Pullman’s trilogy so wonderful and beloved. Pullman called his trilogy the “anti-Narnia” because of its explicit deconstruction and criticism of organized religion. The movie stripped away most of those themes in order to appeal to a broader and more general audience; the film started to feel like any other generic fantasy on screen. His Dark Materials, while perhaps taking out SOME of Pullman’s critiques, in most ways did not hold back. The Magisterium was present in all its glory, the goal of the characters at one point is still to “kill God”, and there were still major themes of religious dogma, free will, and the challenges of coming of age (culturally and sexually). As much as a tv show could (and still get made!), the show dove headfirst into Pullman’s works.

The show did have to pull back and simplify some of Pullman’s plotting, particularly as it moved toward the series’ endgame in the third and final season. While book-purists can rightfully criticize the show for its changes, I thought that the simplification of the plot benefited the show. Those who have read the books know that Pullman’s plot goes in a lot of crazy directions by the final book (The Amber Spyglass), spanning dozens of major characters across literal universes. I always thought that The Amber Spyglass was the one misfire in the trilogy because it almost became hard to follow as so much is thrown at the reader all at once. By simplifying the plot a bit, the show can focus more on the characters, their interactions, and the larger themes of the series. Things like Pullman’s examination of a religiously “black and white world”, destiny, and the power of love (don’t worry – not in a corny way) are all better presented in the show because it isn’t quite bogged down in the plot. (I also have to imagine that some of those plot changes were necessitated by the budget – again, Pullman goes in some pretty weird magical places!). The bittersweet ending hit me harder in the show because the show had time (pretty much the whole last episode) for the falling, post-climax material because they didn’t have quite as much plot to wrap up as Pullman did. And believe me, the ending is emotional; I’m not that emotional of a person and even I was getting worked up about it. The show never lost focus that what this series is about is questioning authority and that even kids are smart enough to challenge adults.

Even with the writers simplifying the show’s plot, the 8 episodes of the final season (following 8 episodes in Season 1 and 7 episodes in Season 2) still don’t feel like enough. The limited number of episodes throughout the series means that the writers don’t do a lot of handholding. This isn’t what I call a “two screen show” – you can’t be one your phone while watching. Pretty significant plot and thematic developments are thrown at the viewer once and the move on. There is little (or no?) flashbacks to scenes from earlier episodes or seasons to remind you why someone or something is important. It is a rollercoaster, but unlike the pretty disappointing Amber Spyglass it just succeeds in keeping the cart on the rails.

And all of this was tied up in a gorgeous production with amazing actors. There are plenty of actors you may recognize (like Lin Manual Miranda, perhaps slightly miscast, and Thomas McAvoy; fans of Fleabag will also recognize the “Hot Priest”) and also great performances from the younger actors playing Lyra and Will (Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson).

If I had to identify a real standout, it has to be Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, probably the “most improved” character from the novels. What Wilson and the writers did with Coulter was reminiscent of what the Lena Headey and the Game of Thrones writers did with early seasons Cersei Lannister – they took a mysterious and relatively one-note villainess character and gave her so much nuance and depth (not to say Coulter had no depth in the books, but Coulter just really stood out as a nuanced character in the show). Wilson’s performance is so layered that in any one scene you are unsure if Coulter is a hero, villain, or something in between. Wilson imbues Coulter with just enough mystery that as the viewer you get to debate Coulter’s motives and true feelings, including her toxic relationship with Asriel and other complicated family dynamics. And while speaking of Coulter, one of my other favorite changes the TV show made was to Coulter’s daemon. He, despite not speaking, is such a wonderfully layered and complex character in and of himself.

Not to draw the comparison too sharply, but to me His Dark Materials is reminiscent of the early seasons of Game of Thrones (not in content or anything, but just on the nature of being an adaptation from a series of books). Jane Tranter, the head adapter of His Dark Materials, has a lot of respect for the source material (unlike the Netflix adaptation to The Witcher). She succeeds in translating the main themes of the book to the screen, which other adaptations (like Lord of the Rings sometimes failed to do). The team behind His Dark Materials simplified the plot without losing the larger nuance (unlike late Game of Thrones). The show rewards fans of the series while also being a great opening for new fans (something that Rings of Power and The Wheel of Time especially had trouble balancing, with Rings of Power being inaccessible to new viewers, and Wheel of Time only focusing on newbies to the story). As I’ll mention again, this is not a perfect adaptation, but I’m not sure if I could have asked for a better one.

The visual effects were strong for a television show, particularly the animals they had to animate (and yes, one of the biggest problems with the first season is that they couldn’t animate everyone’s daemon, taking away some of the impact of those early plot developments). In a year where every fantasy adaptation feels like “Generic Fantasy World #1” (Rings of Power, House of the Dragon, Shadow & Bone, The Witcher, Wheel of Time, etc.), His Dark Materials gave us magical angels, airships, polar bears, cute daemons, and a specific and lived in world – all on a budget that I can only imagine was much less than those other shows that I listed. If the show is not giving anything else to you, at the very least every single one of Pan’s (Lyra’s daemon) animal forms is indescribably adorable.

This show was not a perfect adaptation by any means, and no adaptation really is (perhaps I need to write up a post where I talk about my thoughts on what makes a “good” adaptation…). Part of this is because tv shows are such expensive productions that come with a lot of financial risk; books are always going to be able to take bigger thematic swings. But His Dark Materials leaned into Pullman’s trilogy as much as they could and produced such a fun and beautiful show. So, if you are going through fantasy withdrawal on your televisions now that House of the Dragon and Rings of Power won’t be back until (likely) 2024, take a deep dive into the 23 episodes of His Dark Materials. I highly recommend it for both fans of the books and people who never picked them up. I don’t think the series was that popular (at least in the US), so I doubt they will ever adapt Pullman’s “sequel trilogy”, but we can definitely hope and dream!

 

Thank you for reading my review of His Dark Materials!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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