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Television Review: His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials: Series 1 (BBC/HBO; 2019 – Present)

For those not familiar with the best-selling fantasy novel trilogy by Philip Pullman upon which BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials series is based, consider the following (mildly spoiler-y) summation. Imagine C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s fantasy books, but they’re only nominally written for children (or even young adults, necessarily). Instead of a mysterious and a little whimsical portal inside a wardrobe leading to a single medieval-ish fantasy world, imagine numerous portals leading to a literally infinite number of alternate universes conceived on the basis of multiverse theory, each one either slightly different or wildly divergent from the next. Instead of a clutch of virtuous English children meeting an umimpeachably heroic talking lion, imagine a resourceful and special young girl befriending a full-sized talking polar bear wearing metal armour. And instead of a barely-veiled Christian allegory, imagine a rich scientific/cosmological metaphor for a totalizing atheistic belief system. His Dark Materials is a reasonably involving narrative full of complex world-building, science-fiction touches, and resonant themes about morality, liberty, and theocratic oppression.

If that sounds to you like it’s pretty awesome, I’m here to tell you that… yeah, it’s all right. I read the book series something like a decade ago (it was published about a decade before that, from 1995 to 2000) and enjoyed it well enough at the time, but retained its forceful non-deistic anti-creation mythos much more than any of its character’s arcs and emotional journeys, let alone Pullman’s febrile but unremarkable prose. Pullman is a graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, among whose most august alumni is the legendary author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Pullman very clearly conceives of himself and his literary output, His Dark Materials in particular, as being a comprehensive agnostic rebuttal to the seminal and beloved mid-century fantasy works of fellow Oxford dons Tolkien and Lewis, their involving stories based in mythology with themes ultimately reinforcing their authors’ Christian worldviews.

Pullman has flat-out said in public that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”, and was labelled “the most dangerous author in Britain” by conservative writer Peter Hitchens. His Dark Materials (its title is taken from Book 2 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in that context the phrase has clear creationist implications) is utterly and completely not subtle about this primary goal, sometimes to its larger storytelling detriment. The primary antagonistic power-structure aligned against Pullman’s protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry in the trilogy is the Magisterium, a nearly all-powerful theocratic world government with its own globally-reaching armed police force that imposes total orthodox of belief and practice. It’s essentially as if the medieval Catholic Church was never splintered by the Protestant Reformation (or even the Great Schism with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, for that matter) and retained complete moral and spiritual authority over the Christian faith while extending that authority over all secular institutions and the entirety of world society as well.

If turning the Catholic Church into the evil Empire from Star Wars wasn’t enough, the plot of the first book of Pullman’s trilogy, initially published as Northern Lights in the UK but released as The Golden Compass in America, revolves around the Magisterium secretly abducting children in order to literally take away their souls (manifested in Lyra’s world as constant animal-spirit companions called daemons) in a deluded attempt to squash out the imagined source of sin. Pullman’s metaphor for his perception of organized Christian religion’s quashing of individual freedom of expression and of scientific inquiry is crystal-clear, and this plot strand and its thematic underpinnings perhaps unintentionally evoke the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal while it’s at it. Hell, by the third book, Pullman is literally unmasking “God” as a con artist and killing him off in diminished ignonimy. He’s not hiding what this stuff is about in any way, inside the text or out of it.

To put it mildly, His Dark Materials has proven a tiny bit controversial with religious conservatives. The Catholic Herald‘s Leonie Caldecott called it “a Luciferian enterprise”, a work of art “far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry (Potter)“, its far more popular modern fantasy contemporary that has attracted laughably old-fashioned religious objections for promoting witchcraft, as if we’re living in the 1660s (although we’ve got the plague for it, after all). Caldecott was perhaps inadvertently making Pullman’s point for him (he asked his publishers to include her quotes in his next book), but she recognized the core feature of His Dark Materials: it’s extremely potent propaganda against religion aimed squarely at impressionable young readers. No doubt she’s worried that her side is falling irrevocably behind in the war of ideas, if it hasn’t already done so. Catholicism, once the (often literal) gold standard in self-justifying artistic propaganda, can’t boast any works of equivalently effective polemic in the half-century since cantakerous old C.S. Lewis gave up the ghost. A generalized smothering disdain for contemporary culture as well as a dogmatic adherence to outdated modes of thought and expression will tend to have that effect, one might find.

At any rate, nervousness about the intellectual property’s anti-religious intent was one of the contributing factors to the failure of the only previous attempt to adapt His Dark Materials to a visual medium. New Line Cinema, swelling with profits and prestige and confidence following the world-beating success of The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy, swooped down on the film rights to Pullman’s books and poured $180 million into The Golden Compass, the first of what it hoped would be a trilogy of films that might approximate that great prior genre success. Unfortunately, approximating Rings was too thoroughly the mantra for The Golden Compass for it to ever work on its own terms. New Line hired a director of decent, middling-cost movies who was unproven with a budget and thus a cinematic canvas of such magnitude, but unlike with Peter Jackson, the bet did not pay off so spectacularly well this time: Chris Weitz’s biggest prior success was American Pie (co-directed with his brother Paul), and in The Golden Compass he cannot make the epically-scoped visual storytelling (sweeping landscape shots galore!) feel anything but inert and lifeless (his next film was a Twilight sequel, so those qualities were right at home with that material). Weitz himself even agreed with this assessment before the fact, actually resigning as director during pre-production, citing the enormous technical challenges that he didn’t feel up to (he did come back on board to finish the film, of course; I wonder if he regretted it).

Also, New Line insisted on casting recognizable Rings wizard actors, against Weitz’s wishes: Ian McKellen voiced Lyra’s armored bear buddy Iorek Byrnison in post-production, and Christopher Lee was shoehorned into a cameo as a menacing Magisterium big-wig. To top it off and come back to the initial point, New Line was also in nervous sweats over the material’s core of atheism hamstringing its vital Stateside grossing potential in the face of anticipated well-organized and well-funded conservative Christian protests in God’s Country. Therefore, in The Golden Compass, the Magisterium is clearly an all-encompassing villainous institutional force dedicated to intellectual dogmatism and authoritarian abuse of power, but just isn’t very specifically church-y. This dilution troubled Pullman and annoyed fans of the book (it’s hard to fathom how the content of the later books would have been handled with such an approach), and did not placate right-wing church groups like the Catholic League, which boycotted the film anyway. Other similar changes watering down elements of the novel and making them more palatable to mass audiences added to the problems, and although the film earned $372 million worldwide in box office receipts, it was considered a disapointment and its two planned sequels were not made. Disney’s contemporaneous Rings-piggybacking Chronicles of Narnia film was also pretty flat, but at least it made boatloads (or evangelical church-funded busloads, anyway) of money at the box office. New Line Cinema, barely a decade after changing Hollywood with The Lord of the Rings movies, was done in by The Golden Compass and was folded into corporate overlord Warner Bros. Pictures.

Belatedly, this brings us to the television adaption of His Dark Materials, a co-production of BBC and HBO which aired its eight-episode first season over the last weeks of 2019. Like the failed film trilogy attempt that preceded it, His Dark Materials comes to screens bearing the baggage of the genre and medium success of an influential precursor, namely HBO’s dark-fantasy (“hot fantasy… that fucks”) cultural juggernaut Game of Thrones, which ended its massively popular eight-season run by smearing lukewarm feces all over its own legacy a few months before His Dark Materials debuted on the same network (as well as on the Beeb). Unlike The Golden Compass movie, however, His Dark Materials is accorded the running time, the storytelling space, and the general creative freedom to produce a relatively faithful and more importantly relatively good adaptation of the novels that it’s based on, while at the same time being allowed to be fundamentally itself without shoehorning in dragons or bare breasts or Kit Harrington’s slack lips just because the studio suits wanted themselves another We$tero$. If anything, the series’ arrival in what might prove to be the COVID-19-enforced tail end of the Peak TV Era works to its advantage in a way that New Line’s all-eggs-in-the-basket approach to investment worked to the movie’s detriment. There’s less pressure on His Dark Materials as one ambitious, handsomely-budgeted long-form television narrative among very many to be anything greater than it is.

His Dark Materials manages to be what it is but not really all that much more. It’s miles better than The Golden Compass movie, but still somewhat basic, finally. Written by UK television veteran Jack Thorne with episodes directed by the likes of Otto Bathurst (Criminal Justice, Peaky Blinders) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, the already-infamous Cats), the first season of the series adapts the entirety of the plot of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass encompassing the adventures through England and the polar regions of the North of its pre-teen heroine Lyra, played capably by Logan standout Daphne Keen. An apparent orphan raised at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College in a steampunk-ish world different than ours in many ways (airships are used for transport rather than airplanes, for example, the Hindenburg disaster never having happened, most likely), Lyra yearns to join her adventuring “uncle” Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), a polar explorer and scientific researcher with a heretical interest in a mysterious, elemental substance called Dust with connections to daemons, trans-dimensional portals, and, the Magisterium believes, to sin. Also interested in Dust and its significance from a rather different angle is Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a beautiful and elegant woman working for the Magisterium who whisks Lyra away from Oxford to be her “assistant” in her London penthouse.

At the same time, Lyra is deeply concerned about a rash of child disappearances linked to a shadowy cadre known only as the Gobblers. Many children of the Gyptians, a riverboat-bound culture of nomadic Roma-like travellers, have vanished, and Lyra’s fellow college orphan and best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) is snatched up as well, which Coulter does not seem nearly so concerned about as Lyra thinks she should be. Eventually, Lyra will accompany the Gyptians in the frozen North in search of their missing children and Roger, armed with a truth-telling alethiometer (the titular golden compass) that only she can preternaturally read, where she will encounter Iorek (Joe Tandberg) and his fellow panserbjørne, a rogueish balloon-piloting aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (an oddly-cast Lin-Manuel Miranda), and discover what Coulter and Asriel are up to near the top of the world.

The first book in the series is more episodic than the others (like a lot of child-aimed fantasy books, including Tolkien’s The Hobbit and initial Rings novel The Fellowship of the Ring), but that works better in a television series than a film, given the medium’s structural division into episodes. His Dark Materials also plans for the future of its own storytelling more effectively; while Lyra’s co-protagonist Will Parry (Amir Wilson) is not introduced until the trilogy’s second book The Subtle Knife, he begins appearing halfway through the show’s first season, pursued by the surveillance of trans-world-crossing Magisterium agent Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). Speaking of the Magisterium, they are much more clearly a monolithic Christian-esque religious institution here than in the compromised movie, and Pullman’s core themes about faith and science, belief and doubt, control and freedom, and innocence and experience (Pullman was profoundly inspired by the illustrations of William Blake, proving that he hardly seeks to discount all faith-inspired artistic influence) receive clear and solid treatment by Thorne’s scripts. The battles, namely Iorek’s bear-to-bear tilt with usurping king Iofur (Peter Serafinowicz) and the Gyptians’ assault on the remote facility where the missing children are held and experimented on, scale down their magnitude when compared with the more epic but more lifeless installments in the movie; mostly they are seen from Lyra’s child-level perspective, thus focusing on their narrative significance rather than on their spectacle.

As strong as Keen is as Lyra, Ruth Wilson’s more-than-a-little skewed performance as Coulter is the centerpiece of the show. Wilson, with her unique, richly-curved, leering and cruel mouth, first gained notice in the Idris Elba-headlined BBC detective series Luther as a twisted trickster-figure sociopathic murderer, and she brings that disturbed energy to Coulter. Anne-Marie Duff also stands out in a deeply-felt turn as Lyra’s Gyptian surrogate mother figure Ma Costa, and of course reliable players like an all-business McAvoy and HBO vet Clarke Peters as Master of Jordan College do solid work. Miranda as Scoresby is a choice, for sure, and one of the season’s lag points is the episode in a northern town featuring his largely pointless tavern fight and Iorek resolving the problem of his stolen armour a bit too perfunctorily. The series also spends the requisite amount of time depicting the relationship and connection between people and their animal daemons because it’s vital to the plot’s climax, but also uses Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) as a frequent expository substitute for an internal monologue, thus depriving him (and all the daemons, really) of a personality. Daemons are also almost always absent in crowd scenes, a likely compromise to the CG effects budget that nonetheless detracts from the established internal reality of the world.

There’s a general perfunctory character to the drama in His Dark Materials the television series that should be noted, but I’m not entirely sure that character isn’t one shared by the literary source material. As discussed, Pullman has a very specific set of ideas and goals that he means to share and accomplish with these works, and although the drama and the characters are not exactly secondary to those ideas and goals, they are very intentionally and obviously conduits for his themes and message, to the frequent detriment of their emotional impact. His Dark Materials is a good but not yet great television series, and even if the pieces are nicely in place for adaptations of the two subsequent books in Pullman’s trilogy, there isn’t a whole to suggest that the adaptation will go to any special places in the journey to come.

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