Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first episode of HBO and the BBC’s His Dark Materials.
Not reader of Philip Pullman’s trilogy will love the premiere of HBO and the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials. Such is the nature of bringing a beloved book—and Pullman’s are more than beloved; they are almost sacred—to the screen. Inevitably some moments and characters will not reach the screen. Or the filmmakers will abbreviate or change them too much for fans who consider those elements absolutely integral. And the show’s first episode certainly did plenty of that, in a fast-paced introduction that covered a lot of The Golden Compass in only 50 minutes. Ultimately though, all adaptations have to make cuts and alterations. What matters is including the most important plot points and characters that keep the heart of the story the same. And the first episode did that, in a satisfying and emotional premiere.
Unfortunately it did make one very big mistake by telling us something we should have learned for ourselves.
The creators plan to finish the story in two seasons; it makes sense if you have read the books and know where it is going. (Sorry everyone else; to explain why would be a major spoiler that would ruin the journey). To tell all three novels in such a compressed time always required big sections would have to be shortened or cut, and that certainly happened in the premiere.
We met Lyra and explored Jordan College; got to know the Gyptians and see the Gobblers stealing children; and we learned about the coming showdown between the Magistreium and Lord Asriel. Showing his exploration of Dust took more time at the beginning of the show than in the book, but it was an important change. It helped establish the otherworldly and magical nature of the story in what was otherwise just exposition, characterization, and plot development. But none of that would have mattered if the episode didn’t also successfully establish the emotional weight of the story. Both for Lyra and the Gyptians.
Lyra isn’t just the main character; she is the heart of His Dark Materials. Without Philip Pullman’s beautiful prose and insights into her and those around her, it was important to show who she is and the effect she has on people. As Roger screamed, “she’s special,” and that much was abundantly clear throughout the episode. The way her teacher and Jordan’s headmaster discussed her fate, with so many looks of love and worry, spoke volumes about what they think of this orphaned girl who has grown up with almost no family at an all-male college. Dafne Keen was truly a perfect choice to play her. She captured Lyra’s sense of adventure and warmth. But Lyra’s presence was also on display in the way everyone treated her.
Well, everyone except for the force of nature that is her uncle, Lord Asriel. All of his power and fierceness were fully on display thanks to James McAvoy’s compelling performance. He was more than matched by Ruth Wilson’s mysterious and charming Mrs. Coulter, who alongside Keen should help guarantee the series will get a major portion of this adaptation right.
Even beyond Lyra, the show adeptly handled just how terrible the Gobblers really are. Billy Costa’s mother grieved for her son as the entire Gyptian community rallied to search for him. It was powerful and heartbreaking. Just like it was seeing Lyra desperately search for Roger before we saw him screaming in the back of that van. Those moments helped establish just how high the stakes are on a personal level for the people involved. His Dark Materials might be a fantasy story, but like all the best ones it combines epic storytelling with personal elements. We got to see a city from another world in the clouds and wonder what it could be. Further, we empathized with a lonely child who wants to find her only friend, and a mother looking for her lost son.
We might not yet know what Asriel is doing, what Dust is, who the Gobblers are, or even what Mrs. Coulter wants with Lyra, and these mysteries make for an intriguing story. But the premiere gave us just enough of both its biggest, mystical elements and its personal stories to make sure we care enough about both.
The show’s biggest mistake, though, was also giving us too much. It told us daemons are the physical manifestations of human souls in Lyra’s world. Maybe that would have seemed obvious anyway, but why give something so meaningful and important away? It took away one of the most magical aspects of this fantasy world before we even got to explore it. And by doing so, it showed a lack of trust in the audience. If the show progresses the way we hope it will will, learning the importance of the relationship between people and daemons would have been fulfilling. That would have added to viewers emotional investment, all while adding to the magical qualities that are such an integral part of His Dark Materials.
Not every person will love even the best adaptations of their novels. But the biggest problem in His Dark Materials‘ otherwise successful first episode was adding in something we should never have been told.
Featured Image: HBO/BBC