His Dark Materials, BBC One/ iPlayer – based on the novels by Philip Pullman
CAUTION: spoilers for both the TV series and books ahead.
Ooh, a TV review to wrap up 2019! Don’t worry, this isn’t a bold new direction; I’m hopeless at keeping up with new shows. But I’ve made an exception for this. I need to talk about this series because simply be existing, it’s become a chapter in one of the most significant works of art in my life.
I remember getting my copy of Northern Lights. I was 11 and just left primary school, on a family once-in-lifetime kind of trip to Florida. I remember the evenings spent reading that book in bed as clearly as any other activity we did. I was so excited when we returned and I discovered The Subtle Knife was already out. My signed copy of The Amber Spyglass is an object I’d run back into a burning building to save. Even this year, the latest book was published on the same day I was off on holiday and my number one airport priority – even above a beer – was getting my hands on a copy.
I remember the film coming out. It wasn’t so long after Lord Of The Rings had done exceptional justice to another beloved series (although in the fullness of time it’s clear His Dark Materials has kept its place at the top of my list, meaning more to me than LOTR ever will). I have never been so angry leaving a cinema as I was leaving that screening. It was a miserable failure that lacked anything of the which makes HDM so special. And don’t even get me started on the ending…
So you see, the news of the BBC making His Dark Materials into a series mattered to me a lot. Consequently, I won’t pretend to be objective – but my definition of “doing justice” to the story doesn’t mean copying the book word-for-word. I’ve enjoyed how the TV series has actually in some ways enriched the narrative by veering into the action which we infer must be happening off the page, but which we don’t see. It’s given a strong sense of exactly what it is Lyra et al are up against in sinister authoritarianism of The Magisterium. Not to mention how bringing in the introduction of The Subtle Knife now is going to save a lot of confusion at the start of series 2. Nor, I hope, does it mean being exactly as I imagined things. One thing this series has in common with the film is a wish to conjure a kind of steampunk epic-ness which has never been how I’ve read the books. Perhaps partly because the world is built from Lyra’s perspective and partly because I was about Lyra’s age when I first read them, but the world has always seemed much more intimate to me. But I know that’s a personal view – and unlike in the film, even the most fantastic of elements feel properly grounded and embedded, rather than as window dressing to indicate fantasy.
Doing justice to the book does, though, rest on the characters, and the casting is so often so so right. I loved Anne Marie Duff as Ma Costa, who had exactly the right balance of toughness and protectiveness. My goodness, her final scene with Billy was brutal. Elsewhere I’ll give Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby a special mention: I was nervous he was going to descend into “light relief”, but he ended up with far more sincerity. And then there was Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter. She’s a complex character, Marisa. Her actions are unjustifiably reprehensible, her motivations an inscrutable mix of fanaticism and personal ambition – and that’s before we even touch on her feelings towards Lyra.
Wilson’s acting being so good means that’s it was almost possible – almost – to allow the fact that her characterisation exposes the single biggest flaw in the adaptation. One which I’m sure must have been noticed by even those who hadn’t read the books. One which is so absolutely fundamental to the world I’m really surprised at how they covered it. And that’s the place of daemons.
In the books, you see, the actions of the golden monkey give away the darker aspects of Mrs Coulter’s character beyond her charm. To choose not to show this – in fact to have the monkey as an almost moralising presence -completely changes the relationship between human and daemon. The monkey isn’t so much a part of Mrs Coulter’s very soul as a servant forced to do her bidding and called upon only when required.
This attitude towards daemons is in the show constantly – they’re mostly invisible. But in the books they’re constantly in characters arms, or being stroked, or whispering in their humans ears. And the problem with deciding to pass over this physical presence is that the relationship human-daemon relationship is LITERALLY THE PLOT. Like, the MOST important thing in the series. Destroying this sacred bond is the very evil that The Magisterium and Mrs Coulter are conspiring to achieve! I’m thinking of poor Bridget McGinn, whose squirrel daemon clutches her as she’s summoned out to her fate. It’s such a small detail, but so significant – why have they chosen to ignore it?
To continuously treat the presence of daemons as an inconvenience which can be backed out of is unforgivably lazy. In fact it’s just one of several moments where the show suffered from such laziness – and I’m only thinking of moments which affect the show, rather than come across from the book. The only time my anger was really riled up was the ending of episode 6’s battle at Bolvangar. For Serafina to descend out of the sky like that and just win it on her own is like the eagles coming to Mount Doom, a reductive plot device which if true could have saved everyone a whole lot of bother. Never mind that it misses a major point about this being everybody’s war – a point which is said by various characters on multiple occasions. Episode 7’s plot with the Svalbard bears, meanwhile, verged on the edge of being a mess: the extent of Iofur Raknison’s desperation to be human, and thus his ability to be tricked, is so poorly set up so as to make it invisibe.
But the biggest disservice done by this laziness is to Lyra. I didn’t mind Dafne Keen’s acting, but the script wreaks damage on one of the most important aspects of her character. Lyra, you see, is a liar. It comes to pass in the story that on several occasions, she has to tell lies to save her life. It’s this streak of dishonesty in her nature that makes her relationship with the alethiometer which grounds her in certainty so particularly significant. And yet, can you tell? Early on the biggest lie she tells is to her teacher about wanting to read a particular book – i.e. something unspectacular which we’ve probably all done at some point. They then give her a pivotal scene about how she actually hates lies and is sick of feeling as though everyone’s being dishonest with her. Why should we then accept that a girl who has such a passion for honesty and trust can be so convincingly dishonest? It’s another case where I’m not even upset that the producers didn’t want to spend hours establishing Lyra’s Oxford beginnings, which could be a series in itself. But give us the details which mean the story makes sense.
For all of these flaws, the final episode provided redemption and resaaurance. This was always going to be the moment where we discovered whether this adaptation had the strength of its convictions. All of my fears about the project as a whole rested on what they did to one key character and so I’m strangely glad how they did that justice. We also FINALLY got to see daemons as expressive actors. It was an episode which left me reassured that we’re in the hands of a team who, despite some translation missteps, do know the books as well as we do.
Leaving me feeling anything other than furious was going to be a win for this series. Satisfied overall, is how I’ve come out the other side feeling. I’ll take that: bring on Season Two.
All images taken from the official Instagram @hisdarkmaterialsofficial