How the BBC is nailing (and failing) His Dark Materials

For the past month or so, my Sunday evenings have revolved around watching the new TV adaptation of His Dark Materials on the BBC. This has meant that I’ve discovered previously unknown levels of cosiness – sofa, blanket, cup of tea, and a pre-teen girl riding a polar bear across a snowy wasteland – and it has also inspired lots of thoughts about how well the BBC is pulling this off.

It’s no secret that His Dark Materials is my favourite set of books. I love it, I mean really love it. When asked about it, I have been known to press my hands to my chest, gaze into the middle distance and say things like, “When I read it in my teens, it fundamentally changed me as a person.” (I know, I know, my bookish pretentiousness can sometimes be unbearable even for me.) So it was with some trepidation that I started watching this adaptation, because as with any beloved story, I didn’t want to see it ruined in the move to the screen. (Indeed, this has already happened: the film version, The Golden Compass, was… not great.)

But a few things gave me confidence about this version. First, a TV series is longer than a film, so there’s more time to do the thing justice. Second, it’s made by the BBC, who we can generally trust to produce some pretty excellent stuff. And third, Philip Pullman himself was on board as an executive producer. So I curled up, turned it on – and found myself, for the most part, delighted. I say ‘for the most part’, because although there are some things I love about it, there are others that I think the BBC isn’t handling so well. Let’s get into it, shall we?

[Warning, TV show spoilers ahead!]

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Onward, Iorek. There’s opinions in them thar hills!

The good

There is plenty to love about this series of His Dark Materials. First up, the casting. I think every actor (bar one, see below) fits beautifully into their role, and quite often they look like the person I had in my head when I was reading the book. They’re not all spot on – Anne-Marie Duff as Ma Costa is a younger than I imagined, as is James Cosmo as Farder Coram, and I never pictured Will’s father as sexy until Andrew Scott came along – but even when they don’t exactly fit my mental picture, they embody their character so well it doesn’t matter. James McAvoy is fantastic as Lord Asriel (and who knew he could rock a woolly jumper?), and Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter is simply inspired – quite often she steals the show with her dead eyes and her enviable wardrobe.

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Mrs Coulter sure is evil, but damn, that coat.

And then, of course, there are the big two: Lyra and Will. The first time Will came on screen, I nearly cried, partly because I wasn’t expecting to see him yet (he doesn’t appear until the second book, The Subtle Knife), and partly because Amir Wilson just is Will. He has captured the sadness and the rage and the fear perfectly. As for Dafne Keen – her Lyra is less scruffy than mine, and a little less spiky in her personality, but she’s still a great fit, a brilliant actress, and she’s taking on this difficult character expertly. I was most worried about whether I’d love Lyra in this series, because she has to carry the story, and I can happily say that I do.

The special effects are fantastic – landscapes and characters are brought to life, the daemons are gorgeously realistic and even forcing human speech out of animal mouths doesn’t look too laboured. The alethiometer looks great; I wasn’t sure about it being square at first, but it has grown on me. And, of course, the crowning achievement has to be Iorek, the armoured bear: he is imposing and battle-scarred, yet you still want to nestle into his fur and fall asleep.

One big change that the series is making is bringing together the two separate worlds: Lyra’s and Will’s. This first series follows the story in book one of the trilogy, Northern Lights, and as I said above, Will and his mother aren’t introduced until book two. But in the TV show we’re seeing Will’s story run alongside Lyra’s – and I am a big fan of this change. First, it makes practical sense: the next two books are bigger and more complex than Northern Lights, so it makes sense to start laying the groundwork now, while there’s time. Second, these story lines actually do run parallel in time, we just don’t learn about Will’s until the second book, so the chronology is still right for the story. But the real beauty of this decision is that it adds an extra layer of poignancy to the TV series for existing HDM fans. Those who’ve read the books will understand the significance of Lyra and Will, and seeing them live their lives separately is truly bittersweet. This decision is cleverly making book readers think ahead to the end of the story; it’s stirring emotions in us now that Pullman evoked on paper decades ago, long before we’ve even seen them played out on screen. I think it’s a genius move.

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How I feel when I realise the BBC’s dastardly plan to break my heart all over again.

The less good

It isn’t all good, however, and as a diehard HDM fan, I do have a few gripes with the show. First, the casting of Lee Scoresby. Look, Lin Manuel Miranda is a brilliant actor and an all-round lovely human being, but I’m just not convinced by his Lee. He’s too chipper, too young, too fresh – in my head, Lee is older, subtler and a bit more worn down by, or at least resigned to, life. In fact, this is the one thing I think The Golden Compass did better than the TV show: Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby is it.

Second, there’s Serafina Pekkala’s daemon, Kaisa. In the book, he is a snow goose; in the TV show, some kind of falcon? I just cannot get my head around why they would change this. A daemon’s form is important, it is the embodiment of a person’s being, so to change Kaisa from a large, soft, temperamental bird to a quick, sharp, predatory one isn’t just a stylistic choice, it’s saying something about Serafina too. For this reason, I’m finding it harder to connect with her – the TV show has literally given her a different soul than she has in the books, and as a viewer that’s distanced me from her.

Third, Will’s enormous house. They explain in the TV show that Will’s missing father has been sending him and his mother a small amount of money every month since he went missing, so they aren’t loaded in terms of cash money. But they do live in a stunning luxury home filled with bespoke wooden furniture, acres of floor-to-ceiling windows and (crucially for the story later on) apparently no staircase. Contrast this with the description in the book: “The close where Will and his mother lived was a loop of road in a modern estate, with a dozen identical houses of which theirs was by far the shabbiest.” Again, I just don’t know why they needed to change this. Will is a child carer, he and his mother have struggled alone for years – them living in a big house in the TV show doesn’t negate this struggle, but it is a deliberate departure from the book and I can’t think of a good reason for it except that a fancy house looks nicer on screen.

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Skeletons in the closet, but make it fashion.

One scene that caused a lot of Twitter controversy after it aired was Lyra finding Billy Costa in the shed, daemonless. In the book, it isn’t Billy she finds but another boy, Tony Makarios. I can see why they changed this for the show – it gives us an emotional payoff for the Billy Costa subplot, albeit a sad one. But what the TV show misses out in this scene is extremely important – a fish. Here’s the scene from the book:

The little boy was huddled against the wood drying-rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon, with both hands, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.

The image of a child clutching a dried fish as a poor substitute for his own cut-away soul is heartbreaking – and they don’t show it in the TV show. There is the long build-up of Lyra’s fear, her horrified reaction to what she sees, and her and Pan talking in hushed tones about how Billy has no daemon, but crucially the viewer doesn’t feel this horror because the missing daemon is just that: an absence. The power comes from seeing Billy/Tony trying to fill this hole with something woefully inadequate; without the fish, there’s nothing for us to fix our horror onto. Instead we get a new scene – Billy, dying, attended by his mother and brother – and while this is emotional in itself, it skips over probably the most important element of the HDM books: the relationship between humans and daemons. A parent losing a child, a boy losing his brother – these are tragic stories, but they are familiar, and I think the TV show has taken an emotional shortcut by showing something familiarly sad, rather than something chilling and new. In fact, this leads me neatly into my final issue with the TV show:

There aren’t enough daemons.

If you look back at the fish-daemon quote above, you’ll notice that Lyra clutches Pantalaimon to her, ‘against her heart’, when they discover Tony. Again, this isn’t shown in that scene the TV show, or indeed hardly anywhere in the show at all. The biggest miss of this adaptation is that it is not showing the relationship between human and daemon enough. Lyra and Pan barely touch each other; in many scenes, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that daemons exist at all. Usually they aren’t on screen, or if they are they’re walking some distance behind their people, or flying over their heads as birds. Pan is often silent or not visible – presumably he’s tucked up inside Lyra’s clothes, which is a cosy, intimate idea, but virtually useless if we don’t see it. In the books, Pan sleeps on Lyra’s pillow, winds himself around her neck and cuddles up in her arms. In the TV show, the most memorable human-daemon moment is Mrs Coulter hitting the golden monkey.

I think this lack of daemons is a huge problem for the show because it is the human–daemon relationship that is the emotional heart of the story – daemons are linked to Dust, maturity, a person’s sense of self, and they are being forgotten about. Pullman created something unique and complex with daemons, but in this adaptation they’re treated more like talking pets. And this isn’t just a missed opportunity to explore an interesting idea: daemons are fundamental to the story and the ideas it is exploring, and I worry about how later books (and certain scenes) will be handled if daemons continue to be treated in this off-hand way.

This is where you belong, Pan, even if the CGI budget couldn’t stretch to put you there.

Would I recommend it?

So, those are my (many and complex) feelings about the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials. I have some problems with the show, but overall I do recommend it. The books, of course, are better, but this is in many ways a faithful, well-acted, often breathtaking interpretation of a story that brilliantly combines philosophy, theology and humanism with magic and child-like wonder. The BBC is doing a good job with my favourite book, and it’s making my Sunday evenings immeasurably more cosy.

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