His Dark Materials review: Everything about HBO's adaptation of Philip Pullman's trilogy feels epic

Rohini Nair

Nov 12, 2019 10:11:04 IST

The following post contains some spoilers for season 1, episode 1 of His Dark Materials.


From Moses to Krishna, Superman to Harry Potter, the trope of the baby given away at birth for safekeeping is one that runs through many of our stories and myths. And because of that familiar trope, you know that little Lyra Belacqua is destined for great things the minute she — an infant in her swaddling cloth — is given away by her uncle to the Master of Oxford's Jordan College.

Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel, is an adventurer who spends much of his time in the frozen wilderness of the North; it is obviously no place for a child. More importantly, the world outside is dangerous for Lyra, who is prophesied to possess a special ability that might make her an adversary of the Magisterium — the all-powerful religious body that rules the land. Within Jordan College (where a privilege known as 'scholastic sanctuary' prevails), and under the Master's protection, Lyra will be safe.

But Lyra has a penchant for getting into scraps. As she grows up, the roofs of Jordan College become her favoured mode of transport, and she's always running about its archaic corridors, often with her friend — a kitchen boy called Roger.

 His Dark Materials review: Everything about HBOs adaptation of Philip Pullmans trilogy feels epic

Poster for His Dark Materials

On one of Asriel's annual visits to the college, Lyra overhears of the project that's occupying his time in the North: of a substance called Dust (whose mention the Magisterium expressly forbids) that abides to adults but not children; of a hidden city; of a former expedition that went awry. She begs Asriel to take her with him when he returns North, but he refuses, leaving her heartbroken.

Enter Mrs Coulter: an elegant, enigmatic scholar who takes Lyra under her wing and offers her a chance to live with her in London, as also assist in her own Northern mission. Lyra agrees on the condition that Roger can go with her to London too.

Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing just outside Jordan College. Someone has been kidnapping children of the Gyptian community (a free people that mostly live on barges). A friend of Lyra and Roger's — Billy Costa — is the latest victim. And then Roger himself disappears. When Mrs Coulter says she'll help Lyra locate Roger (and Billy), Lyra leaves Jordan College for London.

With Lyra is Pantalaimon or Pan, her daemon — a sort of spirit animal that manifests as a physical presence by every individual's side in this world. Secretly, she's also carrying a golden compass-like implement given to her by the Master of Jordan College — an alethiometer — a device that can show you the truth, provided you know how to read it.

And so begins a journey that will take Lyra to London on the trail of Roger, then North, when she uncovers a vast and sinister plot.

This is the narrative that begins His Dark Materials — the new BBC and HBO presentation that brings Philip Pullman's esteemed trilogy to the screen. Book 1 (Northern Lights) of Pullman's trilogy was adapted for the screen earlier — 2007's The Golden Compass, with Nicole Kidman. But underwhelming domestic box office collections meant that the planned sequels to the film (based on Books 2 and 3, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass respectively) were never made by the studio, New Line Cinema. Perhaps it's for the best, because just four episodes into its first season, this BBC-HBO show seems like a truer adaptation of Pullman's story.

Pan and Lyra (Dafne Keen) examine the alethiometer. Still from His Dark Materials. BBC/HBO

Pan and Lyra (Dafne Keen) examine the alethiometer. Still from His Dark Materials. BBC/HBO

From the very first scenes, when Asriel (a particularly dashing James McAvoy) thrusts the baby into the care of the Master, to moments when we see 12-year-old Lyra (Dafne Keen) racing through Jordan College's corridors, from the beguiling charm of Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) to the brooding menace of the Magisterium's officials, you're hooked into the story. This is fantasy the way it should be done: sumptuous, inspiring both wonder and a sense of adventure, beautifully scored (by Lorne Balfe), with world building that is as impeccable as it is effortless.

The series gets better the further you go along each episode, as the various layers of the plot reveal themselves, and several characters are added to the story. Whether you're a fan of the books or discovering the story for the first time, there's plenty to keep you occupied as you take in the world Lyra and the others inhabit. Seeing this world (mostly) through Lyra's eyes, some details aren't given too much exposition, but others — for instance, witches and armoured bears and the workings of the alethiometer — we learn about as Lyra encounters them for the first time too. Strap in for a ride!

After Game of Thrones has ended, there has been a tendency to ponder over which pop culture juggernaut could possibly take its place. The high fantasy offerings of The Witcher and the in-the-works Amazon Prime production of Lord of the Rings have been named as possible successors to the Iron Throne of global viewership numbers. Then there's House of the Dragon, the proposed Game of Thrones prequel that's being developed at HBO. As a fantasy epic, it would be tempting to cast His Dark Materials in the mould of "GoT successor" too, but that would be a mistake. Not because the show isn't good enough, but because it is a very different beast to Game of Thrones (although Arya Stark would think of Lyra Belacqua as a kindred spirit), or even Lord of the Rings (Philip Pullman has expressed his reservations about Tolkien's work) and The Witcher.

Everything about His Dark Materials says "epic" and "prestige TV" but those aren't the reasons to watch it. Even discounting the trappings of being a "must watch show", this adaptation is a riveting, gorgeously mounted, well-acted tale, with a scrappy heroine you'll be only too willing to accompany on her perilous quest.

His Dark Materials is currently streaming on Hotstar Premium. It will premiere on Indian television on 24 November at 9 pm, only on Star World. Watch the trailer here:

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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2019 13:38:59 IST