His Dark Materials shines by sticking to its source

HBO and BBC faithfully bring Pullman’s The Golden Compass to life

Image by: Amelia Rankine
Unlike the 2007 movie adaptation

This fall, Philip Pullman’s award-winning book trilogy made its way onto the small screen with its airships, polar bears, and a corrupt version of the Catholic Church in all their glory.

On Nov. 7, the HBO and BBC production of His Dark Materials premiered, bringing audiences around the world a new vision of Pullman’s story, following the less-than-popular 2007 movie adaptation.

The show, like the book series, follows Lyra Belacqua, a pre-teen orphan living in a version of our world where souls are personified in the form of various animal companions called dæmons. She struggles under the oppressive Magisterium, a thinly-veiled metaphor for the Catholic Church, which regularly severs the link between children and their souls to rid society of Original Sin. 

Lyra grows up in Jordan College, Oxford, where she and her dæmon Pantalaimon spend their days playing with a young boy called Roger, who works at the college as a servant. 

Before Lyra sets off to rescue Roger, who’s later kidnapped, Oxford administrators entrust her with a truth-telling mechanical device, called an alethiometer, which is the first book’s titular golden compass.

Since the trilogy wasn’t originally written for a young audience, despite the age of the protagonists, the HBO series appropriately matures the content by elevating the adult characters to supporting roles, rather than background characters

The books are an adapted retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and critically explore sin, God, and the nature of the universe through a fantasy universe parallel to our own. As such, the controversial series is known for being regularly banned by schools, parents, and churches,

This is the second attempt to bring Phillip Pullman’s trilogy alive. In 2007, a feature film titled The Golden Compass premiered in theatres. It was different from the first novel in the series, upon which it was based, and beyond not staying true to the ending of the first book, it censored the anti-religious elements to appeal to a wider audience. 

This series, avoiding the sins of its predecessor, stays doggedly true to the original novel. Each scene almost perfectly matches the exact progression of Pullman’s The Golden Compass. From Lyra skipping rooftop to rooftop in Oxford College to the moment a journalist with a butterfly dæmon interrogates Lyra about Mrs. Coulter, the book is brought to life through every scene.

The pacing and detail of many contemporary series, especially those produced by HBO, is perfectly matched by the rich content of this trilogy.

The visual effects are stunning, which is essential when considering the content of this series. This is key when presenting the audience with a series that requires a significant suspension of disbelie­­f­. Nobody is going to buy that, in this universe, the soul takes the form of an animal if the CGI isn’t convincing.

As someone who’s read the books dozens of times­—my copy of The Amber Spyglass had to be taped back together at one point—the show’s depth and dedication to accuracy is immensely satisfying.

So far, between portraying Mrs. Coulter’s abuse of Lyra and the scenes exhibiting corrupt religious figures discussing the abduction of children, this series has not shied away from the more controversial elements of Phillip Pullman’s books.

The violence and morbid discussions are especially horrific when surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the set design: rooms filled with marble, satin, and vaguely steampunk imagery.

His Dark Materials hasn’t just brought the text to life—it’s elevated it into the aesthetics and narrative quality of modern television. HBO and the BBC are true to their reputations for setting the standard for an engaging and interesting new series.

With three books worth of intricate storytelling in front of them, the writers have their work cut out for them. As long as they don’t shy away from the more challenging topics, His Dark Materials will continue to be a poignant and fantastic new television series.

While only two episodes have aired, I’m already confident that this series will continue to be everything I’d hoped the movie would be.




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