It would be no exaggeration to say that I’ve been counting down the days until the release of the first episode of what will hopefully be HBO’s next great voyage into epic fantasy: His Dark Materials. For all that the final season of Game of Thrones left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, as a whole I’d found myself enchanted by the HBO adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series, and I sincerely hoped that the new series would capture the magic of Pullman’s novels.
I was not disappointed. HBO’s His Dark Materials, having learned a few things from the previous film attempt to adapt the series, gives us a series that is a scathing indictment of dogmatic religion, as well as the mingled whimsy and danger that was always one of the most appealing things about the novels.
The first episode sets out in broad strokes the fantasy world that we’re being invited to inhabit, as well as the stakes of the conflict. Lyra is a young girl inhabiting Jordan College in Oxford, where she is treated kindly by the Scholars. However, the arrival of her uncle Lord Azriel threatens to complicate things, and she soon finds herself drawn into a prophecy of which she knows nothing, while sinister forces gather to try to destroy her.
I daresay that some people can’t help but be reminded of the previous attempt to adapt Pullman’s classic series into a visual form, the ill-fated 2007 film that, despite excellent production values and a truly star-studded cast–including an inspired choice of Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, Daniel Craig as Lord Azriel, Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek, and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby–managed to fail at the box office. While the casting of HBO’s adaptation is truly exemplary, it strikes a series of different notes. James McAvoy’s Azriel is a little more dashing than Craig’s interpretation, and Ruth Wilson’s Marisa Coulter is less of an ice queen than Kidman, though she does have a great deal of sleek menace about her. And Dafne Keen and Lewin Lloyd are truly enchanting as Lyra and her friend Roger.
Unlike the film adaptation, which shied away from the religious aspect of the narrative so thoroughly that you’d be forgiven for missing it altogether, this new version is upfront about the fact that the Magisterium is a dogmatic and almost fascist organization intent on governing its world. Though we only get tantalizing glimpses of it so far in the first episode, these glimpses–which largely take place in a vast space with domineering imagery–as well as the Master of Jordan’s fear of reprisal for heresy, suggests that we’ll be seeing a great deal more of this sprawling organization’s attempts to enforce its will.
One thing that really stuck out to me about this new adaptation was the inclusion of people of colour, including the Master of Jordan, John Faa, and numerous others. This is of a piece with a broader movement within prestige television–particularly that produced in the UK–to include diverse members of their cast. I personally think this is a very good thing indeed, and I sincerely hope that American production companies take note of how these casting choices enrich their narratives.
All in all, I felt that the first episode of this series did a fine job of explaining to the viewer what this world looks like, the characters we should care about (most of them, as it turns out), as well as the stakes of the coming conflict. Given the fact that this is a HBO/BBC production, it is of course gorgeously shot, and I was especially impressed by the way that the series depicts the dæmons (it’s not always easy to make talking animals look serious, but somehow the show pulls it off). Though of course it isn’t necessary to read the books to enjoy the television adaptation, I do think that knowing the books–and the mysteries that they reveal–does add an extra layer of pleasure to the viewing experience. I cannot wait to see what else this series has in store for us. One thing I’m really looking forward to? ARMORED BEARS.