A few months back I found the time to sit down and watch through the entire first series of the BBC’s newest adaption of His Dark Materials, based on the well known fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman. I read these books years ago and was eager to see how the BBC would bring this word to life, especially after the film adaption – The Golden Compass – wasn’t received quite so favourably back in 2007.
So how does the TV series compare to the books, and is it worth watching?
I’ll go on record and say that I didn’t actually mind The Golden Compass. The film was mostly faithful to the first book, it had a star-studded cast with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, and the special effects were kinda neat. I was sad that it didn’t do well enough to generate a sequel, as I wanted to see the multiverse and the character of Will Parry from The Subtle Knife.
Well that’s one thing the new TV series gets right!
Bringing a book alive on screen is always a challenge as not all scenes adapt well visually. The first series of His Dark Materials didn’t just take the first book and stretch it out, but also interwove it with the beginning of the second book. I squealed when we finally got to meet Will Parry on the screen! Each episode ran a parallel narrative with focused on main character Lyra, but also cut in scenes of Will’s journey in the alternative Oxford. This was a pleasant surprise for someone so desperate to see this world move beyond The Golden Compass.
There were many stylistic changes from the book to the TV screen. Some characters got merged together and there were a few other subtle changes which probably wouldn’t mean anything if you haven’t read the books. The Gyptians story was expanded on as they introduced cultural ceremonies on daemon settling that weren’t in the book as far as I recall, and the Magisterium came across as scarier and creepier than the book. The main story right until that fateful ending remains true to the books.
For new viewers who haven’t read the book, the concept behind the daemons and their significance isn’t explained well straight away and could be a little confusing. His Dark Materials is a subtle fantasy tale in many ways. It’s not as brutal or explosive compared to other fantasy book adaptations, such as Game of Thrones or The Witcher, but instead explores more philosophical questions such as free will, determination, and the innocence of youth. Don’t get me wrong, there is action; we’ve got chases, witches, and armoured bear fights, but if you’re looking for Game of Thrones-style battle scenes you won’t find them here.
If slower paced and thoughtful fantasy is your thing, then you’ll feel at home with His Dark Materials. The location set pieces and special effects are all spot on and there’s a fantastic cast of British actors. James McAvoy as Lord Asriel is the crowd-pulling name, but Ruth Wilson absolutely kills it with her performance of doting and possessive mother Mrs Coulter. Dafne Keen plays a different Lyra from Dakota Blue Richards’ in the film. A less bratty Lyra, and one who comes across more innocent and more emotional. I can’t wait for this Lyra to meet Will in the next series!
Also damn, that opening title sequence gives me shivers every time I see it.
In all, I’m pleased with the direction this adaptation is taking. My only real complaint is that it’s a bit too slow paced at times between episodes, and some of the emotional scenes of the book didn’t quite land on the screen. But I am hopeful that the BBC will take this series through to the end of The Amber Spyglass! There are scenes in the next two books I am eager to see brought to life.
If you enjoyed the TV show and need more from this world, make sure you pick up the books! Author Philip Pullman has recently begun a whole new trilogy set in Lyra’s wold called the Book of Dust, starting with prequel La Belle Sauvage, and continuing with Lyra as an adult in The Secret Commonwealth. Find them and more on Goodreads.
Have you watched His Dark Materials? What did you think? Are there other fantasy books you’d love to see on the big screen? Drop me a comment!