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‘His Dark Materials’ Review: HBO’s Adaptation Is Promising, but Imperfect

The series has plenty of room for improvement, but you'll still end up sad you don't have a daemon of your own.

HBO His Dark Materials Lyra and Pan

Dafne Keen in “His Dark Materials.”

HBO

Creating the perfect adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy might be an impossible task, but HBO’s new fantasy series comes closer to nailing the execution than any attempt to date. And that’s saying something, given the disastrous if well-intentioned 2007 film which grasped the scope, but not the emotion, of the philosophically-inspired series of young adult novels.

Taking place in a world not so unlike our own, “His Dark Materials” centers around preteen orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) who, after being abandoned as a baby at Jordan College in Oxford, now spends her days defying authority and getting into scrapes, like so many irrepressible heroines destined for greater things.

While Lyra’s world is similar to ours, there are key differences, including a mysterious religious body – the Magisterium – serving as the ruling class and the inclusion of individual animal companions, or daemons, which are intimately linked to people and serve as an outward manifestation of a person’s soul, of sorts.

Action begins quickly in the pilot, introducing the audience to Lyra’s world and those who occupy it, both immediately and otherwise. Her wayward uncle Lord Asriel (James MacAvoy) makes an appearance and causes quite a stir at the college and a kidnapping takes place that serves as a catalyst for Lyra to venture beyond the walls of her home to more unfamiliar surroundings. But all hope is not lost because the girl finds a new friend to mentor her in Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a powerful woman equal parts glamorous and mysterious. And then there’s the alethiometer that Lyra is given, with no details beyond the knowledge that the instrument “tells the truth.”

There’s more. There’s so much more. There’s more plot than you can shake a stick at. This is, after all, an adaptation of a series that borrows heavily from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, and needing to establish such a dense and elaborate world requires the first four episodes – half of the first season and all that was made available to critics – to feel like so much table-setting until we get to the good stuff.

HBO His Dark Materials Pan

“His Dark Materials”

HBO

This is the greatest failure of HBO’s latest fantasy series, that it has chosen to adapt something that may honestly be unadaptable. But that doesn’t mean that the show isn’t worth your time.

Amidst all the scenery changes and airships and Lin-Manuel Miranda as a jaunty Texas aeronaut, there are moments of profound emotion, windows into the imperceptible battles that rage inside people at every moment.

In one such moment, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon are speaking to a new friend, an older man named Fadar Coram. See, in the “His Dark Materials” universe, daemons are malleable, they are shapeshifters, taking whatever animal form seems appropriate in the moment. To a point. But around the time a person goes through puberty, their daemon settles on a final form, the one that will endure for the rest of their life. But what happens, Lyra wonders, if you don’t like the form of your daemon?

Some people, the old man explains, yearn for a lion as a daemon, only to end up with a poodle. In his case, his daemon is a big, beautiful cat, and it’s not that he’d change her for anything but, “That is not to say that sometimes I don’t dream her different.”

If you could see your soul, would you like what you see? And would you want to?

The connection between human and daemon is central to the success of the series and for the most part, “His Dark Materials” makes it work. The use of puppets during filming allowed the actors to form real connections with creatures typically inserted after the fact. It’s necessary and it works to great effect.

HBO His Dark Materials Mrs Coulter

Ruth Wilson in “His Dark Materials.”

HBO

Perhaps never so well as with Mrs. Coulter, whose golden monkey daemon is the only animal that doesn’t speak. The relationship between Coulter and her daemon is a complicated choreography that only they know, a give and take that is simultaneously brutal and heartbreaking, made up of blink-or-you’ll-miss-it nuance.

So much of this is a credit to Wilson, who might just be giving one of the best performances on television with her depiction of a woman whose cruelty knows no bounds, but still retains enough humanity to know that she has become a monster. Wilson is at turns bewitching and feral. You cannot look away.

If you read the reviews of “His Dark Materials,” you’ll see critics voicing a lot of the same complaints and lauding the same elements. Shepherded to the screen by showrunner and executive producer Jane Tranter and written by Jack Thorne, the series clearly understands Pullman’s novels and wants to share them with a larger audience, and have thus far done an admirable job.

It’s a series that’s not perfect and it isn’t the adaptation of the books that we deserve, but it’s good, and that’s a start.

Grade: B

“His Dark Materials” premieres Monday, November 4 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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