It’s been more than decade since The Golden Compass flopped at the box office to unsatisfactory reviews, and two decades since the publication of Northern Lights, the opener to a series that would cover three books, five years, and multiple parallel universes. Considering how much time has passed, is a reboot of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” going to register with the old and new fan base, or will it just be a substitute for pining Game of Thrones fans looking for something to watch on HBO.
Well, from what I’ve seen already, I’d say stick the landing! After such a let down with the 2007 movie, (which glossed over multiple elements of the book and shaved off the iconic ending in lieu of a failed sequel), and then, after such a high note with the 2017 prequel La Belle Sauvage, the fan response to the new series has been uproarious. I’ve found multiple fan accounts dedicated to fan art, cosplays, behind the scenes, interviews and theories, and I think I’ll even download the template that’s been circulating for His Dark Materials Bingo. All we need now is a drinking game, a recipe for mulefa mojito’s and we’re set! With such little time until the first episode, (Sunday, November 3rd aired on BBC at 8pm), fans are already getting their hopes up to be amazed or disappointed. Well, I think I can prepare a few of you by saying, “Hold onto your hats, guys! You should be excited!”
After a few hiccups and near misses, I was lucky enough to snag the last ticket to an early screening of the first episode at the BFI IMAX. The evening came complete with a Q&A with stars Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson, producer Jane Tranter, and the man behind the magic, Phillip Pullman. The audience were awestruck by the massive movie poster projected onto the BFI’s gargantuan screen, and star struck when the actors playing the characters we know and love walked out onstage. Questions ranged from Ruth Wilson’s enjoyment in playing the devious Mrs. Coulter, who she describes as “a cesspit of moral filth”, to Dafne’s interest in the incredible effects used to portray each character’s daemon. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as Phillip Pullman declared this series works much better as a TV show, as time was the biggest constraint when adapting the story for the 2007 movie. Dafne cheekily acknowledged that she hadn’t read the books before being cast, and Ruth enthusiastically compared her role as Marisa Coulter to Hedda Gahbler, stating you never quite know what’s bubbling under her calm, powerful surface. The section concluded with thunderous applause and we sat down to watch the first episode.
I’m keeping away from spoilers like the plague, as I want everyone to go into this experience knowing next to nothing. But what I can tell you is that this TV show is definitely worth the hype. The opening alone surpassed my already extensive expectations, and took me on the journey I have been dying to see from the first moment I opened Northern Lights.
This series is a blessing, probably one of the best-crafted shows I’ve ever watched, and this is just from the first episode. The pacing is quick and dynamic, effortlessly shifting tone from light-hearted to threatening to melancholy to mysterious. A cast of A-List actors are giving their all to their performances, with James McAvoy’s passionate and domineering portrayal of the intimidating Lord Asriel, and Ruth Wilson’s obvious ease at playing the villainously manipulative Marisa Coulter. Dafne Keen plays the lead Lyra Belaqua, and instantly endears the audience to her mischievous but innocent character. After her near-mute portrayal of Laura in 2017’s Logan, it’s nice for her to stretch her acting chops and have some serious dialogue, (and her English accent is adorable).
Of course, the roles are not just limited to humans, and the show will feature the voices of Kit Connor, David Suchet and Helen McCrory as daemons and Joe Tandberg as the incredible Iorek Byrnisson. Daemons are a fascinating concept by Phillip Pullman, an external manifestation of a person’s consciousness in the form of an animal, forever connected to their human. The show’s budget was probably stretched from the start, having to create polar ice bear, giant balloons and mysterious elementary particles, but the CGI for the daemons is incredible. Puppetry was used to help the actors rehearse the scene with their daemon and then digital effects were used to create each animal. The designs for these daemons are not fully animalistic, but very far removed from anthropomorphised, bringing a slight touch of the uncanny valley. Of course, this works amazingly in setting the tone of an alternate universe.
As I’ve already stated, time is not an issue for this series. Devoted fans will be thrilled at the level of book accuracy included in the plot, with whole paragraphs of dialogue being transplanted into key scenes. Even better, what the series creators chose to add fits completely accurately with the tone of the story. This is the sort of world building I like to see, where the writers obviously understand and respect the source material. Interesting new additions include character building between Lyra and Lord Asriel, a scene that explores the mythology of the Gyptian people, and a chilling sequence set in the Magisterium, which gives the audience an indication of the complete and utter dominance of this theocracy.
The 2007 movie’s aesthetic was interesting, but this show is panoply of gorgeous imagery and design. The setting of alternate Jordon College is an anachronistic hodge-podge, with ancient cathedrals standing side by side with zeppelins modelled after 1950’s double decker busses. The cinematography is engaging and creative, but the opening credits were one of the many highlights of the evening. The clockwork medieval creations of Game of Thrones can move over, they’ve got to contend with an succession of abstract images that all tie in to the major themes of the story. Eagled eyed viewers will catch tiny Easter eggs and hints to book mythology, all while an incredible undulating soundtrack filled me with wonder and anticipation.
I may be biased, (this is my favourite book series of all time), but I can offer no legitimate criticism of this show yet. My only complaints are microscopic, the odd half-hearted delivery here, a slightly clunky line of dialogue there. Everything from the acting, to the music, effects, character arcs and dialogue was intensely satisfying for such a fan. More than that, it’s so refreshing to see an adaptation treated with such love and loyalty from everyone involved, (and filming for Season 2 is already well under way!) I urge everyone who reads this article, whether you’ve read the books or not, go and watch this show. You will not be disappointed. And for you devoted fans that have waited years and years to explore Lyra’s Oxford, let’s build our own Republic of Heaven around this incredible new series! I can’t wait for you all to see it!