His Dark Materials: First Impressions
by Tito W. James
His Dark Materials is one of the most highly anticipated fantasy shows of this season. The trilogy of books by Philip Pullman were way ahead of their time and explored themes of sexual repression and religious extremism. The story is essentially an anti-Narnia with characters from a fantasy world trying to travel to our normal world, while being pursued by Christian antagonists. The TV series promises to adhere more closely to the content of the source material than 2007’s Golden Compass, a film version of the first novel. Is this the adaptation fans of the book series have been waiting for or are Pullman’s ideas too far ahead of their time?
His Dark Materials feels more like the BBC’s Doctor Who than HBO’s next tentpole franchise post-Game of Thrones. The visual effects used to render the daemons are passable but they are used sparingly to the point of being distracting. Daemons are supposed to be animal representations of a person’s soul who cannot be separated from their human counterpart. In the books, seeing a person without a daemon would be as shocking as seeing a person without a head. In the TV series, there are numerous scenes of people either without daemons or having their daemons conveniently off camera. It breaks the sense of immersion.
The world of the book is set in a parallel reality that blends retro-futuristic technology with archaic social structure. The world of the show is remarkably unremarkable with little to no difference between our world and the realm of fantasy. This is a shame because the world of His Dark Materials could have looked great utilizing steampunk or art deco aesthetics. The costuming and overall art direction aims for a level of realism that just comes across as bland.
Additionally, for an HBO show there’s a surprising lack of sex or violence. The book never shied away from gore and the daemons are obviously a metaphor for puberty and sexual identity. The sexual subtext and threat of real violence is missing on a network known for being uncensored.
The acting is superb with each star nailing the characters of Lyra (Dafne Keen), Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). The interactions between them are hypnotic and their perverse family/mentor dynamics creates some of the best moments in the show.
Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) is another standout who has merely a bit part in the books, but is more fleshed out here. This character adds another layer of intrigue, cleverly incorporating plot elements from Book 2 into Season 1.
The premise for the world is original, which is hard to come by in the fantasy genre. There isn’t a lot of traditional “magic,” but we have characters with animal familiars, inter-dimensional travel and a mysterious substance called Dust instead.
My opinion is obviously biased seeing as I’ve already read the book series and won’t have the same experience of discovering this world for the first time as a new audience member would. However, part of the pleasure of seeing a story adapted for screen are the spectacular visuals, and in this regard the TV show is sorely lacking. Therefore I hope the show gets enough popularity to warrant a higher budget for the coming seasons.
His Dark Materials airs on Mondays on HBO.