The BBC / HBO television series of His Dark Materials just wrapped to a satisfying conclusion, so I thought I’d take a look back at my own experience with these stories, the adaptations, and the world that Philip Pullman created.
Wait, this was a YA thing?
I was first introduced to the books that comprise the His Dark Materials trilogy when I was searching for books to read for a Science Fiction class. We were able to choose a lot of the material we read in class. This was the first time I ever read any Octavia Butler, too, starting with Parable of the Talents. I wish I could remember exactly how I chose to read The Golden Compass (aka The Northern Lights to most of the world). I either found it on my own, or maybe it was from a recommended list by the course instructor. Which, shout out to Rebecca Glass, wherever you are. You were awesome and great instructor. I remember hopping on the bus and finding the books in paperback at Borders. The editions I encountered (pictured above) were marketed toward adults and featured metallic treatments. I devoured The Golden Compass, which starts out in a steampunk world and slowly reveals the natures of the daemons that live side by side with their humans. The way the story is told is intriguing and rewarding, and it’s something both the movie and the TV series pretty much throw out from the start. I can understand explaining the daemons right away, but I really did love the slower reveal in the books.
In any case, I was hooked, and read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass in quick succession outside of any requirements for class. Imagine my surprise when I eventually found out that the books were also marketed toward children/young adults in Harry Potter-esque hardcovers! I had no idea the books had been written for children in mind, at a time when the robust market we have now of YA novels either didn’t exist or were just out of my sight and therefore out of my mind. I was really kind of taken aback that these were children’s books. Not because they were good (there are many fantastic books for children and young adults, of course, more so every day) but that they so freely dealt with such adult themes and big ideas. This seems almost silly in retrospect, as I wouldn’t bat an eye at pretty much anything showing up in a YA novel. But at the time it made the books feel unique and special and I admired them greatly.
Not that it was all wine and roses. The Amber Spyglass lost me, a little. I didn’t care for the intrusion of all the real-world war machines. It’s like if G.I. Joe had marched into Middle Earth and taken over the story. We got very far away from the steampunk trappings of Lyra’s Oxford, and I missed it. However, as a newly emerging atheist (I’ve settled somewhere else, but that’s where I was at the time) I also deeply admired the general anti-organized-religion mindset of the whole thing and I did find the ending compelling. So overall the book was a success, just the least of the trilogy.
90% of a Good Movie
When it was announced that New Line was going to make a movie based on The Golden Compass just a few years after I’d read the books, I was over the moon. Hungry for a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings-size hit, a lot of money was clearly pumped into the movie. $180m plus marketing, in fact. And it’s all up on the screen. The design work is gorgeous, and was really what I had in my mind when reading the book as far as tone. I still have quite a lot of the merchandise released around this time, including the beautiful Alethiometer replica (the titular “golden compass” although it’s not a compass at all) that the Noble Collection put out. I don’t remember how much it was at the time other than “way more than I could afford” but now fetches around $1,000 or more on the secondary market so I’m glad I splurged. Made of actual metal with beautiful details, a pop-open top, and a real working spinner that is cleverly activated and wound, it’s a real work of art I treasure to this day, and a great example of the beautiful design work in the film.
Also, the cast is spectacular. Nicole Kidman as Ms. Coulter? Daniel Craig (before he was the start he is today) as Lord Asriel. Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala. These are all supremely great choices. I also enjoyed Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra and Sam Elliot as Scoresby. Despite all of this, it made $70m in the US against the $180m budget and led to New Line restructuring. Even though it made around $372m worldwide, New Line had sold those rights to raise the money to make the film so didn’t see a dime from that. So why did the movie flop so hard? There’s probably a complex, complete answer to this question involving several factors, but I think the changes to the story hurt it’s reception and performance the most.
When an End is Not an End
Facing pushback from various religious establishments, including the Catholic church, New Line blunted the story at nearly every turn. It’s no surprise the Catholic church would be up in arms. The story is very anti-organized religion and what the church does to kids and their daemons is very clearly a nod to the scandals the church has faced with rampant child molestation. I think it’s about a lot of things all at once, but that’s clearly one of them. Still, the movie pulls back so far on this theme that it makes the movie, by itself, slightly hard to comprehend. But the worst sin of all is the ending. For those who haven’t enjoyed the story in one form or another, I won’t say what happens at the end of the book, but it’s a momentous, shocking thing that sets in motion the rest of the trilogy and provides the big climax/cliffhanger that makes you want to know more immediately.
The movie skipped it. Yep, it just skips it entirely. I remember walking out of the theater just gobsmacked that they didn’t keep that terrific, terrifying, surprising, and intriguing ending. Instead opting for a limp “well off we go to do the thing” ending. What had mostly been an exciting experience ended in disappointment. But, I held out hope it could be rectified with the sequel. Which, of course, never came. Apparently they had filmed the book ending but test audiences found it “too confusing.” I’m not sure the solution here was any better.
Howl of the Bad Wolf
Imagine my delight and surprise when it was announced that Bad Wolf Productions would be producing a TV series for BBC One and HBO with the plan to tackle the entire book series! In the age of streaming, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that such a beloved book series would get a second chance. And it was almost twelve years later when the TV show launched. Bad Wolf is the production company stated by Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter, two names who are probably very familiar to Doctor Who fans from the relaunch era as they were key figures in it’s 2005 resurrection, along with Russell T. Davies. Speaking of Doctor Who, it’s fans might want to check the show out if they want to see a preview of what Bad Wolf can do with a good budget, since they’re taking over production of Doctor Who next year. The improved visuals are apparent already in the 60th Anniversary Teaser Trailer they’ve recently released. So, I was hopeful we were in good hands.
Dafne Keen (from Logan) and Jame McAvoy were exciting casting announcements. The rest were largely unknown to me, except Lin-Manuel Miranda. By and large, though, I’d say the casting was fantastic. With one exception I’ll get to in a moment. As a fan of the books, the TV show has been a bit of a mixed bag, if I’m honest. Like the movie, the nature of the daemons isn’t really allowed time to be revealed in an interesting way, which I found frustrating because there was time for it. Moving the introduction of Will to season 1 makes sense, but I can’t say I found his bits of storyline all that compelling and the storytelling in the first two seasons could be fractured and confusing at times. I’m looking forward to rewatching the series as a whole and see if it plays better in a binge. Hopefully a nice complete blu ray set will come out eventually, until then there’s always HBO Max. The great news here is, although there are a few edged blunted here and there, the depiction of the Magisterium is much more satisfyingly in-line with the book here. In fact, their role is expanded upon. The biggest clunker is, sadly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby. He’s all wrong in this role. He just doesn’t convincingly play the Texan rambler. He’s much too soft and feels nothing like the character, and suffers the most in comparison to the movie version.
That being said, the effects are fantastic and the design work is impressively detailed if a little sparse. The storytelling got better in season 2, and I appreciated the expansion of Ms. Coulter’s role with some new scenes not in the books between her and Scoresby and Mary Malone. They add a lot of nice depth to the character and give more room for Ruth Wilson’s wonderful work. She really is a magnetic presence and really grew on me more and more as the series progressed. Her role with the spectres in Cittàgazze was an interesting addition, as in the books it’s described more as a negotiation. This was much more visual.
The End of the TV Series
Happily, His Dark Materials goes out with a bang. Although I had my fair share of criticisms of season 1 and 2, season 3 seems to have improved in almost all respects. The storytelling is fantastic, for one thing, and a lot of the great choices that came before bear fruit. Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy in particular get a chance to shine and bring their character’s arcs to a close in an emotionally satisfying way. The changes here from the source material are almost all for the better, in my eyes. Changing the land of the dead from a suburb to wastelands and waiting rooms works well, I think, as the suburbia-as-liminal-wasteland feels a little tired in 2022. Adding the moment between Lyra and her mother’s daemon near the end of the season was a great idea. I enjoyed the emotional closure provided to Lyra, here. She doesn’t really know what happened to her parents, still, but at least she knows their fate on some level here.
I think I enjoyed the third season of the television series more than the book, and a lot of that is down to the visualization of the armed forces and the development of General (King in the books) Ogunwe. I found him and the army much more interesting and different than I was expecting. I also enjoyed the spotlight given to Mary Malone and her time with the mulefa. I’m glad this was given some time to breathe. The final big battle is also really well depicted and choreographed and, happily, the focus on the characters was not lost. In fact, the battle is done in the penultimate episode and the final episode is reserved really for dealing with the fallout between Will and Lyra, and their destinies. I’m not 100% sure I needed the text that closed the show out. That always feels a little cheesy to me unless you’re watching a drama based on real life events. I’d rather be shown this stuff in some fashion or not have it at all. Still, that’s a small critique.
From Dust to Dust
Lyra’s adventures continue in The Book of Dust trilogy. I purchased the hardcover of the first book, La Belle Sauvage, when it was released, but haven’t read it or picked up the follow-up The Secret Commonwealth. I also have two of the companion books, Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon A Time in the North that have gone unread. I still plan to read them at some point, but there is a sense that I don’t want to mess with my experience with the first trilogy. So, while I’m intrigued to spend more time in the universe Pullman created, I also am held back from it. However, as it’s been nearly fifteen years since I read the books, and with the TV series over, I think it might be time to dip my toes back in.