HBO's 'His Dark Materials' does Philip Pullman justice. But the timing is unfortunate.

This adaptation will have to fight for viewer attention. It’s certainly good enough to earn accolades, but only if it can break through the static.
From center, Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson star in HBO's "His Dark Materials."
From center, Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson star in HBO's "His Dark Materials."Courtesy of HBO
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By Ani Bundel

In the post-“Game of Thrones” rush to establish the next big fantasy hit, HBO has introduced two new fantasy series in a row. The first, “Watchmen,” has been a ratings success for the premium cable channel, pulling in numbers not seen since “Westworld’s” debut in 2016. Two weeks later, “His Dark Materials” has now arrived, airing during HBO’s newly established Monday evening power line-up. Based on the Philip Pullman trilogy of the same name and co-produced with the BBC, “His Dark Materials,” is another entry into prestige TV’s rarefied big-budget fantasy world. Unfortunately, despite a fantastic cast, story and strong CGI effects, "His Dark Materials" is unlikely to stand out in the current landscape.

Unfortunately, despite a fantastic cast, story and strong CGI effects, "His Dark Materials" is unlikely to stand out in the current landscape.

From 1995-2000, there were three major literary arrivals that shook up the world of science fiction and fantasy. J.K. Rowling began publishing “Harry Potter” in 1997 and had published the first three novels by 2000. A year earlier, George R.R. Martin published “A Game of Thrones” — and had published the central trilogy of that series by 2000 as well. Pullman was the third author. “The Northern Lights” (rechristened “The Golden Compass” for American publication) arrived in 1995, followed by “The Subtle Knife” in 1997 and “The Amber Spyglass” in 2000. It was a formidable trio.

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But unlike Rowling and Martin, Pullman hasn’t been so lucky when it comes to adaptations. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” arrived in theaters in 2001 to instant success; there was little like it on big screen or small at the time. When “Game of Thrones” arrived in 2011, no one was doing this kind of fantasy for TV.

But Pullman’s adaptations have always felt a step behind. The movie version of “The Golden Compass,” starring Nicole Kidman, was neutered of all its dark leanings and anti-religious messaging. Arriving in 2007 amid a wave of “Harry Potter” knockoffs, it was a critical and box office disappointment.

Now the television show arrives in the wake of “Game of Thrones.” Set on an alternate version of Earth, (a different strand of the multiverse, if you will), 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), lives in an Oxford much like the one that exists today in England. There’s just one significant difference: On this Earth, people’s souls live outside of their bodies. Called dæmons, the soul takes the form of an animal representative, shifting shapes up until their human counterpart reaches maturity.

The good news is that in the hands of writer Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”), “His Dark Materials” does not eschew the darkness of this original premise.

In the “The Golden Compass” movie, the dæmons were treated like adorable talking animal friends. But the books are not so cute, instead exploring the influence of religion in a world where there is tangible evidence of the human soul, and therefore proof of God. The Catholic Church’s infallibility reigns supreme and unquestioned. In the Year of our Lord 2019, the Magisterium, as they are known, keep a death grip on power. The space race? Never happened. Technology? Completely different. Science? Well, Oxford does have “scholastic sanctuary,” but, you know, only within reason.

The good news is that in the hands of writer Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”), “His Dark Materials” does not eschew the darkness of this original premise. The book's anti-religious overtones also remain largely intact, though the Magisterium is no longer a direct Catholic Church analogy. The series makes sure to mix in anti-government sentiment and some pointed anti-one percent critiques as well.

But the early episodes, directed by Tom Hooper, are oddly bland and vaguely claustrophobic. Some of this is necessary. After all, Lyra, our main protagonist, does not yet think very critically about the way this oppressive version of the world works, the way many of us don’t think twice about our own systems and governments. But as a result, the show is slow to start plundering the wonders of Pullman’s creation, content to let the remarkable puppet and CGI work of the dæmon characters be incredible enough.

The show’s real secret weapon is the cast, with Ruth Wilson (“Luther,” “Mrs. Wilson”) as its ace in the hole. She plays Mrs. Marisa Coulter, one of the most terrifying women ever invented in young adult and children’s fantasy. Wilson’s Coulter is full of fire, all raging emotions under a calm and placid surface, like a swan frantically peddling as it glides across the water. On the one hand, her performance does give away one of the series’ major twists quite early, but she makes up for this oversight with her ruthless energy. That the young actress Keen mostly keeps up with Wilson is proof of how good an actress the kid is.

But James McAvoy plays against type as the powerful Lord Asriel in a way that may or may not be effective. And the rest of the cast is made up of a laundry list of BBC players, with only Lin-Manuel Miranda staying true to audience expectations. His character, Lee Scoresby, is the very British Pullman’s idea of an American stereotype, so Miranda’s over-the-top charm works. And the comic relief he provides is welcome as the story veers into the genuinely disturbing.

It took four years for the BBC to get “His Dark Materials” off the ground. (BBC One originally announced they had secured the right to the story in November of 2015.) Without these delays, HBO might have been able to premiere the series ahead of the rush, perhaps filling the void between the final “Thrones” seasons. Unfortunately, this adaptation will now have to fight for viewer attention. It’s certainly good enough to earn accolades. It’s just a question if it can break through the static.