“His Dark Materials” is a fantasy drama TV show based on the book trilogy of the same name by Phillip Pullman. The first season’s main plot follows the story of Lyra, an orphan from an alternate world where every human has a dæmon, an animal companion that is part of their soul. The season also follows the character Will, who is a protagonist in the second book.
The award-winning books have already been adapted once, with the first book, “The Golden Compass,” turned into a film of the same name. However, the movie flopped when it released in 2007, with critics labeling it a failure. The main criticism involved the movie’s more delicate treatment of religion. In the books, Pullman was relentless when it came to the corruption of the Magisterium, which, having many similarities to the Catholic church, led to the books ranking No. 8 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for 2000-2009. The movie glossed over this fury to escape the same backlash the books received. This, along with the lacking atmosphere and inadequate sense of scale, meant that there were no sequels to the film.
Pullman’s trilogy is a dark fantasy masterpiece. Adapting something of such skill and depth would be a challenge even if the studio wasn’t afraid of backlash, but the newest adaption seems to be doing exceptionally well so far. Before Season 1 had even premiered, HBO renewed it for a second season. The faith that the producers had in this show was not misplaced.
The series remains reasonably loyal to the books, the main difference being that in the first season we see the inclusion of the character Will, who in the novels we don’t meet until the second book (“The Subtle Knife”). Meeting him in Season 1 was confusing, but for those who have not read the books, this offers the chance for more character development, so it is not as much of a shock when he becomes the focus of the second season. “His Dark Materials” is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, but also on Prime Video and HBO in the U.S.
Overview of Season 1 of “His Dark Materials”
Season 1’s finale aired in December 2019, but the events are still fresh in my mind. “The Golden Compass” was the first fantasy book I read and the first book I truly loved as a child; the 2007 film adaptation was a considerable disappointment after reading the vivid adventures of Lyra, Will and Mary Malone. But when the trailer for Season 1 of “His Dark Materials” came out, I was engrossed. The trailer was impressive; however, I still had my doubts as such a complex book series would be difficult to adapt successfully. It does not always go well, but such adaptations are possible, as seen in “The Game of Thrones.” The fact that it would be a TV series and not a movie gave me faith; there was no way a film could adequately encompass all the storylines and the atmosphere of the books.
Season 1 went above and beyond my expectations: James McAvoy perfectly suited my conception of Lord Asriel, and Ruth Wilson expertly captured the terrifying essence of Mrs Coulter. The casting of Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby was a shock, and I wasn’t sure how well that would play out, but it works — Lee Scoresby came to life and stole every viewer’s heart.
Episode 1 of the new season of “His Dark Materials,” “The City of Magpies,” was released mid-November and the second episode, “The Cave,” released a week later. This season’s main storyline doesn’t take place in Lyra’s world but neither does it move away from it altogether. Lee Scoresby, the witches and, not to mention, Mrs Coulter and the Magisterium, are still present, and a war is brewing. Lyra and Will meet in another world, different from both of theirs. There is an ominous tower there, of which readers of “The Subtle Knife” will know the importance. However, in the most recent episode, Lyra seeks out a “scholar” in Will’s world to find out about Dust (aka Dark Matter), guided by the alethiometer. Readers of the books will recognize Mary Malone from the “Amber Spyglass,” the third book in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Lyra shocks the scholar, by generating readings of Dark Matter like nothing seen before.
Will meets his grandparents, whom he never knew he had, but doesn’t go to his mother in fear of the men chasing him. His grandparents are far from the loving type, seen when they turn him in to the authorities. He runs away, reuniting with Lyra, who reveals the alethiometer to him, telling him that his father is alive.
Meanwhile, Mrs Coulter breaks free from the Magisterium. Having helped McPhail to a position of power, she reveals that she did so to have a leader she could manipulate. She is now free to pursue her daughter, who she learned, followed Lord Asriel into the new world.
Season 2 so far is every bit as action-packed and engaging as Season 1. It is strange to meet the characters in a different way than in the books, but it was the right decision as not to alienate people new to the world of “His Dark Materials.” The story is loyal to the books but differs slightly enough that I am still engrossed, sitting on the edge of my seat despite knowing roughly what is going to happen.