His Dark Materials web series Review: Stellar acting saves a largely flat adaptation
The adaptation of the first of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is best when it lets us bask in the visual grandeur and performances of its leads and struggles with its pacing
At the time Golden Compass was released, fantasy adaptations that told stories for children, like Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, were doing stellar business. Daniel Craig (the lead of Golden Compass) was a breakout star after Casino Royale, the long-awaited reboot of James Bond. On the other hand, Ian McKellan (who voiced Lorek Byrnison, the armoured bear) had just finished with The Lord of The Rings. But despite the stellar cast and a great book in Northern Lights, what followed was a critically-panned and commercially-unsuccessful adaptation. It has taken more than a decade for the book to get its due with His Dark Materials, which is significantly longer than the 120-minute Golden Compass.
Cast: Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Lin Manuel Miranda, James Cosmo
Creator: Jack Thorne
However, that does not mean that this 2019 series is the perfect adaptation Pullman's fans wanted. The first four episodes, provided to us via advance screeners, cover half of the first book Northern Lights. In the novel, this time was spent on fleshing out the characters and the world as Lyra Delacqua uncovers them. Since such a singularly focused narrative might not transfer well to television, the adaptation instead uses a 'tell than show' — with expositions being used to convey plot points, character emotions, and world-building. But this doesn't fare any better either. With each episode clocking nearly an hour, the narrative isn't paced well even within a single episode, let alone the larger season. The care taken to write the big set pieces and pay-offs seem more on the lines of the latter seasons of HBO's fantasy series, Game of Thrones, than the carefully constructed earlier seasons of that show. I wonder if this is emblematic of a larger disease of fantasy storytelling; but given that this is the same company that provided us the new Watchmen, I doubt it is a studio call.
What evidently is a studio call is the production value and they have not skimped on that at all. Both art direction and cinematography are on point — be it the beautiful marriage of steampunk London and retro Oxford or the northern town of Trollesund; the Aurora Borealis or the boat-based nomadic Gyptian tribe. But the best part for me was the CGI work that has gone into making the daemons — magical creatures who share a soul connection with their humans. You will particularly love (and hate) a particular daemon monkey.
The casting is yet another place where the series really scores. Right from his opening scenes, James McAvoy seems far better suited to play Lord Asriel than Craig ever was (it made me think of Baahubali's opening with Ramya Krishnan). And Dafne Keen, who matched Hugh Jackman scene for scene in Logan, continues to show why she is one of the best bets in young talent right now. Shouldering the series as the lead, Keen effortlessly sells Lyra Delacqua, the girl who comes-of-age and understands herself and the world around her. But the best of the lot is Ruth Wilson's Mrs Coulter; she takes one of the best-written villains and serves it up deliciously by being both bewitchingly beautiful and beguilingly batty in equal measure. You really cannot take your eyes off the screen when she is present.
Despite being told through a teenage girl's perspective, Pullman's fantasy trilogy is atheist in nature and is also a strong critique of fascism in the name of religion. This core message is relevant right now globally, even more so in our country, and not spending enough time to sketch this out is a chance missed. One can only hope that the remainder of the season pulls away to a high as we await the adaptation of the much-darker second book.