An adaptation done right: His Dark Materials review


As a self-confessed His Dark Materials fan, I joined the wave of excitement that anticipated the BBC series adaptation of the Philip Pullman trilogy, released at the end of last year. Having devoured the books as a child, I was disappointed with the 2007 film. It omitted the ending of the first book, destroying any chance of a sequel. Outraging the fan base, many accused the director of painting over the original ending to make it more ‘Hollywood-friendly’. Although it was thought that the creators would put the tragic death of Roger at the beginning of the next film, it was then, of course, cancelled. The ending does appear in The Golden Compass video game but is as poor a visualisation of the book as the film was. 

This TV adaption has, in my opinion, made up for all the mistakes that the film made. Dafne Keen is an exceptionally fierce Lyra, with all the gutsiness of the character in the book. While there is room for improvement in her acting skills, I enjoyed recognising the rule-breaking, tom-boyish character traits that so attracted me to Lyra as a young girl. James McAvoy turns Daniel Craig’s wooden Asriel into a visionary madman that, despite being on the side of good, is not entirely likeable. Ruth Wilson, however, shines above them all. She expertly realises the beautiful yet terrifying Mrs. Coulter, creating a character we both fear and admire. I was intrigued by the visualisation of her seductiveness, as she used it to wield power over the very patriarchy that shames humanity for the sin of sex. The casting was superb, and watchers have also delighted in the performances of Anne Marie-Duff as headstrong Ma Costa, and Lin Manuel-Miranda as the loveable Lee Scoresby.

This TV adaption has, in my opinion, made up for all the mistakes that the film made

The issues I had with the first series were minor. The children’s dæmons did not change form enough: Pantalaimon is too often seen as a white ermine. The books describe many more form changes, but I do not blame the creators for this. The BBC’s stingy budgeting on CGI also meant that some of the shots of Lyra’s Oxford, including the airships, belonged in a video game.

Perhaps what I was most impressed by in the series was the early introduction of Will Parry. While the film failed to set itself up for a sequel, the series nicely segues in the plot for The Subtle Knife. The move allows viewers who have not read the books to understand and become interested in his character and story, avoiding the confusion that would arise if he was dropped in at the beginning of the next season. Will’s side of the plot is also much slower than Lyra’s and provides a breather from the fast pace of Lyra’s world. While the near-death experiences and battles pretty much immediately won in Lyra’s world become tiresome and relentless, viewers are allowed a break from the chaos with something just as tense but less transparently dramatic and more intriguing. 

The 2007 film overloads us with information, trying to get across the message about Dust to the point where the plot is all but buried. By stretching out Lyra’s story into eight hours of dark and exciting drama, while also gradually dripping in Will’s plot line, the writers have delivered all the complicated information about Dust, God, and a gripping tale of two children, in a well-thought out way. Although some parts do feel slightly rushed, the TV series is a much clearer and more exciting adaptation of a series which demands attention to every detail.

Image: Aaron Burden via Unsplash

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