His Dark Materials is of magical Dust, parallel universes, colossal armored polar bears, witches, and daemons – manifestations of the soul in animal form.
It’s with vivid clarity that I remember spending countless hours tucked away pouring over each of the novels in Philip Pullman’s heavily philosophical His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) as a child. The novels, with their striking imagery and dark emotional intensity, explore the potential of a world that is saved by original sin. It explores morality, the attachments of souls to bodies, and the everlasting question of good and evil. A trilogy drenched in Paradise Lost references (the series’ title comes from a line in John Milton’s poem), the dense world-building and virulent criticism of theocracy and religion makes Pullman’s series seem almost unadaptable. (Just think of that fateful 2007 film adaptation, of which Nicole Kidman was the only salvageable part.) This latest version, however – a co-production between HBO and BBC One – has managed to recreate this universe in stunning veracity.
In a familiar-yet-vastly-different universe ruled by the Magisterium, an authoritarian theocracy, the orphaned Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) has been raised by scholars from within the walls of the Jordan College in Oxford. Clad in well-worn combat boots, she spends her days sneaking around the halls, scraping her knees climbing rooftops, and jumping into laundry bins with her daemon Pantalaimon, and Roger (Lewin Lloyd), her most dear friend. Lyra is only twelve, but her courage and intellect far surpass her young age. Her childhood is innocent for a few blissful moments, but the arrival of her father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) at the college marks the beginning of an exhausting conflict that drags everyone far North.
Any fears I originally had over this adaptation – namely the ability to intricately world-build whilst also maintaining the complex emotional and philosophical themes of the novels – were quickly overturned. Lyra’s world is built so similarly to how I had first imagined it when reading the novels: energetic, steampunk, contrasted, full. The camera is rich and pliable, bringing out the deepest and most vibrant tones. It often hovers close to characters’ faces, capturing their every small reaction, every emotion, and every hidden vulnerability. Enriched by its lavish, swelling, thrumming score (Lorne Balfe), the cinematography is some of HBO’s best.
The fascinating Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is as callous as she is inimitably beautiful, a woman of questionable motives and complex morality. She is an incredibly intelligent, powerful woman who acutely understands how to use her image and sexuality to her advantage. It is easy to categorize Marisa as a villain, but her emotional depth splinters and intensifies far below her superficial presentation; think of her reaction to Lyra propelling herself into her arms. The contorted affection that flashes across her face indicates, suddenly, just how deprived she has kept herself of human contact.
As manifestations of the soul, daemons cannot be separated from their humans without harmful and often deadly consequences, and yet Marisa is inexplicably immune to these separations. This – in addition to her daemon’s inability to speak and their violent physical confrontations — reflects a massive degree of self-loathing and detachment from her own soul. It’s less that Marisa is soulless than it is she is self-destructive, her repressive tendencies casting her aside. She has collected a layer of moral filth, but she is still very much human.
Marisa would like to be completely cold, but her warmth for Lyra flickers inside her, eating away at that darkness. Anger is the emotion she is most comfortable with, and she internalizes or represses all others — except in the instance of Lyra. Though she has become consumed by her desperation for power and control, she cannot escape the affection she feels for her daughter. Asriel practically begs her to leave their world to wage his war, and in the very moment she is offered immense power all she can express is: “I want [Lyra] with everything I have.”
Dafne Keen was a brilliant choice for Lyra Belacqua. Known for her astounding, heartbreaking performance as Laura Kinney/X-23 in James Mangold’s Logan, the fourteen-year-old actress has already established quite a reputation for herself. She encapsulates Lyra’s spirit and tenacity with ease, possessing an acute understanding of her character that is apparent from the first episode. Her potential is thrilling, and watching her grow through this series (a second season has already begun filming) will be exceptional.
The genius of His Dark Materials is how it deals with incredibly adult conflicts, emotions, and politics from both the perspectives of those adults embroiled in it and Lyra herself. Lyra has become wholly entangled in an adult war; she is a pawn, a weapon, a resource. Most importantly, of course, she is her own person. Lyra watches this adult conflict unravel around her, and she becomes aware of how she is treated as something small, to be protected, objectified.
Though it covers a lot of ground (an intense 400-page novel), season one of His Dark Materials never once feels rushed or messy. Each moment is crafted with such deliberation that it is difficult to find any scene that feels unimportant. This first season is a well-played-out lesson in intimacy, contorted affection, haphazard but genuine constructions of family, and the harsh idiosyncrasies of adult conflict.
Season One of His Dark Materials is now streaming on HBO and BBC iPlayer.