His Dark Materials Review: HBO Delivers a Smart, Satisfying Adaptation of a Beloved Story

When it comes to beloved books and stories, adaptations are tricky things. While it is inevitable that there will be some shifts and changes from page to screen, there remains the need to "get the story right" by honoring and maintaining the core of things, the spirit, and the soul that makes the story a beloved source in the first place. When something has previously been adapted, that throws another complication into the mix ⁠— especially if the previous attempt was a disappointment. For HBO's His Dark Materials, that is the challenge the adaptation of the immensely popular fantasy novels by author Philip Pullman faces. Not only are the stories precious to fans, but the 2007 film adaptation, The Golden Compass, left fans dissatisfied, giving fans a hopeful apprehension when it comes to the series. Fortunately, His Dark Materials more than lives up to the challenge, delivering the series is exactly the adaptation fans have been waiting for.

Set in an alternate world where the souls of human beings exist in the form of animals called daemons, the series follows the story of 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (played brilliantly by Logan star Dafne Keen), whose life is forever altered when she's drawn into the mystery of a series of kidnappings after her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) goes missing. The fact that the kidnappings may be at the behest of the Magisterium, the Catholic Church-analog religious body in the series adds a sinister dimension to things, but the tale is far more complex than that. Lyra's world is also turned upside down when she witnesses the Master of Jordan College, where she lives as an orphan, attempt to poison her uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). There's also the matter of Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), the mysterious woman who takes Lyra away, having chosen her as a protege.

If all of that sounds dense, detailed, and complex, that's because it is, but what His Dark Materials manages to pull off is an approachability to the complicated dynamics of power struggles, warring belief systems, and intrigue. Make no mistake, it is the performances that make His Dark Materials work. Wilson's Mrs. Coulter gives the character something the previous adaptation did not ⁠— a savage, fiery edge with rich emotional resonance that goes far beyond the typical ice queen depiction of the villainous woman. It's at turns chilling and scorching and absolutely a thrill to watch. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is always a delight, is absolutely transcendent as aeronaut Lee Scoresby and is perhaps the most charming character in the series. Keen's Lyra is nuanced and layered in a way that gives weight and depth to her young character. The only real miss, if you could call it that, is McAvoy's Lord Asriel. His acting is solid, but he doesn't quite come across with the ruthlessness and ambition the character demands.

The show also shines with its visuals. Building a world as unusual and rich as the slantwise England of His Dark Materials is already a large task, but the CGI animals come off without being too uncanny valley while the various stylistic elements ⁠— from vaguely Steampunk to richly Art Deco ⁠— visually express what is, in a sense, at the heart of the story: this is a world where things don't always line up the way the powers that be want you to believe that they do. It's messy, beautiful, and a little worn on the edges, something that can be a little trying with the slow opening pace of things, but the payoff once the series finds its footing is worth it.

His Dark Materials is a well-crafted, expertly-acted adaptation that will satisfy fans of Pullman's novels while also creating a space for newcomers to Lyra's world. Dark, rich, smart, and filled with intrigue, it's a series with something to offer everyone.


Rating: 4 out of 5

His Dark Materials debuts Monday, November 4th at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

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