BBC’s His Dark Materials: a Heretical Interpretation?
After the well-cast but ultimately disappointing film adaption of The Golden Compass, the BBC has taken a risk by adapting Phillip Pullman’s controversial yet incredibly popular epic fantasy book trilogy, His Dark Materials. Starring Dafne Keen Fernández, Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy, among other well-known actors, the TV adaption roughly coincides with the release of The Book of Dust, Pullman’s second book in a new three-part sequel series.
A Journey Between Worlds
His Dark Materials, both the written trilogy and TV series, follows Lyra Belacqua, a twelve-year-old girl living in alternate-universe Oxford. In Lyra’s world, where witches, magic and talking bears are givens, human souls take on the physical form of an animal, called a daemon. Throughout the books, Lyra unknowingly follows a prophecy and undermines the Magisterium, the leading tyrannical religious regime, eventually hopping between parallel universes while guided by a truth-telling device called the alethiometer.
From that description alone, you can hopefully see what a daunting task the BBC have set themselves.
So far, this new rendition has drawn in a mixture of viewers – from fans of the original novels, who have long been waiting for what many believed would be a promising interpretation, to newcomers only now stepping through the door into Lyra’s Oxford. With this cocktail of differently-engaged viewers has come a cocktail of opinions, some positive and some…not so positive.
It is clear that writer Jack Thorne (known for Glue and his work on Skins, Shameless and the stage adaption of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and the show’s host of directors are struggling to walk the line between appealing to newcomers and appeasing veterans of Pullman’s world. This was evident when, after the first episode aired, many who had not read the novels were left confused about what a daemon was.
This confusion over an integral element of the story has acted as justification for the many big narrative changes intended to make the more bizarre storylines to come more palatable to the new viewer. Long-time fans were not best pleased with these changes, particularly those made to episode two – but we’ll get to that shortly.
Interesting yet Unfaithful Characters
This adaption is fantastically cast. In particular, Ruth Wilson’s rendition of Mrs Coulter carefully captures her contained spite and cruelty while also offering a glimpse into her mental instability that was not fully explored in the books.
Though others regard Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda as Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby to be woefully miscast, I have to admit a fondness for his likeable portrayal and an appreciation for the comic relief he affords in an otherwise heavy plot focused on religious heresy and child kidnappings. No, he’s not really playing the Lee Scoresby readers will remember, but this new humour plays quite well alongside Lyra’s boldness.
So far, I have enjoyed Dafne Keen Fernández as Lyra, balancing her childish naivety and at-times mature intellect, as well as her slowly-developing cunning nature. However, I was disappointed to see less of a focus on one of her most interesting qualities often showcased in the novels: her ability to weave compelling and believable lies. (My rather heretical opinion is that this was better done in The Golden Compass). I feel this is more to do with the script than Keen’s abilities as an actress.
Staying True to the Books
In fact, like many fans of the books, most of my issues relate to the script and structure of the show. There have been some surprising but well-realised changes. Glimpses into the lives of characters other than Lyra were not as readily afforded in the books (at least, initially) but have been interesting to view and have made the plot more multi-dimensional.
However, while I have enjoyed seeing more of the Gyptian culture, I do wonder if it was necessary to show so many scenes of them searching for the missing children. To add to that, I don’t think it was needed to have so many scenes of the Magisterium’s illicit machinations when these ultimately achieved nothing and even undermined Mrs Coulter’s cold and calculating power. At times, what made the books so enjoyable – a focus on Lyra’s character – feels somewhat overlooked and rushed on screen because of the increased attention paid to other subplots.
Furthermore, many massive plot twists, which I shan’t spoil (although I feel the show has already done so), are revealed in the second episode when, in the first book, they did not come into fruition until halfway through – or even until the end. As said before, this was done with the intention of making later, wilder plot twists more digestible. To me, this robs the twists of their power and that of their future implications. Many fans of the books have viewed these changes as severely negative.
While I understand the need to create a timeline, it seems as though the writers are trying to fit all three books into one series with the barrage of twists and turns in the first three episodes. This does not appear to be the case, though, as the first season will be only eight episodes long and titles of the upcoming episodes indicate it will cover just the first novel, The Northern Lights. As well as that, a second season has already been confirmed.
Saying all that, I must admit the fourth episode was by far the best yet, although I was sad to see that Serafina Pekkala’s daemon, Kaisa, was no longer a goose but a gyrfalcon.
Now that the series is beginning to slow its pace, allowing sufficient focus on each new development, I have slightly higher hopes for what is to come.
While I would still recommend the series, I would warn long-term fans not to be too taken aback when the plot does not follow the books truthfully. Perhaps, this is because the writers do not have an alethiometer to consult.
His Dark Materials can be watched on BBC 1 every Sunday at 8 pm and will be released on iPlayer the same time.