HBO is set to tackle a fantasy adaptation, once again, with the highly anticipated HIS DARK MATERIALS. The story begins with an orphan named Lyra who is being raised by scholars in Oxford. Her uncle and guardian come to the institution with crucial information that threatens the power of the reigning Magisterium, a supreme authoritarian entity.
With the help of her daemon companion and a magical truth-telling device, Lyra seeks to save her uncle and uncover the truth. All the while, she must stay one step ahead of the sinister Magisterium. It’s a story that is well-known to lovers of the fantasy genre and promises all the excitement one could ask for in a new television obsession.
To speak on HIS DARK MATERIALS, as a show, is to speak on the full context of this property. Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy is among the most famous in the fantasy genre. The epic series has been beloved since its very inception in 1995 and has spawned several ambitious adaptations, from the stage to radio and, naturally, to film.
In 2007, Hollywood took a crack at the series with the ambitiously crafted The Golden Compass. Despite fantastical visuals and a finely assembled cast the film was a failure. The existence of this film, in faded but just recent enough memory, presents the greatest challenge to HIS DARK MATERIALS.
With 8 episodes currently being dedicated to fully fleshing out the events of the first novel, HIS DARK MATERIALS should easily be able to overcome the primary downfall of the 2007 film: time and scope. On the darker side of that reality is the notion that right now the average viewer may still harbor the bitter taste of disappointment, having been let down by the first large scale attempt.
The promise and anticipation are almost as daunting as taking on the genre titan, to begin with. So, how did HIS DARK MATERIALS do?
Fortunately, the show starts on the solid foundation of having scores of fabulous creatives involved. HIS DARK MATERIALS boasts an impressive cast including Ruth Wilson, Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Clarke Peters, and more! Tom Hooper (Cats, The Danish Girl) is at the helm as director and is armed with an adaptation by writer Jack Thorne.
From the very first episode, you get a real sense of the vastness of this world. Behind every individual is a larger institution, a cause greater than themselves, and infinite possibility. The lore of HIS DARK MATERIALS seems to stretch into eternity, as do the secrets and stakes that are in play. The viewer is instantly swallowed by the size of it and it feels cinematically large, even for the small screen. HBO has done it again.
With its multi-episode ability to reveal the smallest details, the show naturally feels weighty as it seems that even the smallest elements hold great significance. It’s very easy to buy into.
Alongside the intricacies of the story, HIS DARK MATERIALS manages to tastefully weave in a timely discussion that enhances the themes of the show. We’re talking class warfare. We’re talking challenges to extreme power. Some allegory is more obvious than others, but the show is a perfect vessel for some of today’s most high stakes topics and it takes full advantage.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to liken the show to an intricately woven textile, rich threads combined to create a fantastic design, because the show is just as beautiful to look at. All those details of the plot are reflected in the sets, the costumes, and the execution of the daemons. It looks every bit the fantasy that it is.
Of course, a pretty face and prettier words would just be dead in the air if not for the performances that carry them. And HIS DARK MATERIALS is brimming with great performances. James McAvoy is ruggedly handsome and mysteriously heroic as Lord Asriel. Lin-Manuel Miranda is roguishly charming, if not a bit out of place, as the “space cowboy” Lee Scoresby. Ruth Wilson, however, rules them all in her role as the evil Mrs. Coulter. She captures every scene that she’s in and holds it in a (perfectly manicured) vice grip. She’s pretty, but she’s poison, and I’m living for it.
While it is a good thing that so many of the power players in HIS DARK MATERIALS are so forcefully brought to life, there is an unfortunate consequence. Secondary characters, get swallowed up by the larger personalities and those scenes end up feeling deflated. Even Dafne Keen, in the leading role of Lyra and coming off of a stellar performance in Logan, is lost in the shuffle. Resting the mantle of such an iconic role on the shoulders of any young actor is a challenge and it sometimes feels that Keen is struggling under the weight of it.
Truthfully, that is the fatal flaw of HIS DARK MATERIALS. On its face, it is a fun adventure that is exciting to watch and easy to fall in love with. But one can’t help but feel that at times the show is struggling under the heft of its source material. There’s the burden of being cherished and of reclaiming a reputation. It’s the weight of a universe so large that it took thousands of pages to convey.
HIS DARK MATERIALS is a valiant effort that scrappily rises to the challenge, but only time will tell if it has the strength to go the distance and carry itself over the finish line. At this point, the parts are wonderful but the sum of them feels a bit hollow. Nevertheless, anyone should happily go along for the ride.
HIS DARK MATERIALS premieres on HBO, Monday, November 4 at 10 pm.