As the BBC’s new take on His Dark Materials looms, nervous fans have had good reason to be wary of any adaptations based on Philip Pullman’s epic fantasy trilogy.
After all, the famously knotty novels were made into an unpopular film once before – 2007’s The Golden Compass – which sanded off the story’s religious commentary and rejigged the plot to the rancour of fans, and generally speaking Pullman’s complex, multifaceted and somewhat adult storytelling has been considered a difficult fit for on-screen retellings.
And yet all these years later, based on the first episode National Treasure screenwriter (and screenwriting national treasure) Jack Thorne has pulled off the improbable if not quite the impossible, delivering an engaging and sumptuous take on Pullman’s world that cleaves impressively close to the books while still making a few tweaks for the visual medium.
As in Pullman’s original 1995 work Northern Lights we begin the story (give or take a Book of Dust flashback) in a different world to our own, following the slightly feral Lyra – an apparently orphaned girl living in Jordan College, Oxford with her dæmon Pan (in Pullman’s world everyone has an animal personification of their soul called a dæmon, which can shape-shift during younger years but settles into a singular form when they reach maturity).
The fearless, stubborn Lyra created by Dafne Keen (Logan) might not have the golden curls described in the books but she definitely brings the literary heroine’s spirit to life as she tumbles over the rooftops of Oxford, argues with her uncle Lord Asriel (an imperious James McAvoy) and largely ignores the sporadic schooling imposed on her by the elderly scholars of Jordan.
But her happy idyll changes forever when Asriel invites the malevolent attention of powerful religious zealots The Magisterium, and the glamorous Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) arrives to take Lyra to safety. Meanwhile, across Brytain (this world’s equivalent to Britain) children are going missing, and the boatfaring gyptians make plans to seek out the culprits.
It’s a fair amount to establish in an opening episode (and more’s to come – the armoured talking polar bears and the cowboy with a hot air balloon don’t turn up until episode four), and while there is a slight element of table-setting in the series’ first hour the appeal of the actors and setting are beguiling enough to pull you through all the exposition and explanation.
Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter with her dæmon
Wilson in particular nearly walks away with the whole series as Mrs Coulter, a woman with a sinister golden monkey dæmon and a mysterious connection to Lyra who exudes a subtle animal malevolence beneath the surface of her Hedy Lamarr-esque glamour.
But perhaps the biggest star of the whole series is not one actor, but the world itself. Filmed on location in Oxford, Sharpness port and in enormous studio-built sets in Bad Wolf studios in Cardiff, His Dark Materials’s first episode does an impressive job of creating the “other” England Lyra lives in, which falls somewhere between early 20th century and contemporary society but with slightly stylish, Art Deco twists.
And of course, the appearance of certain crucial cast members must be credited to the production design team as well, namely the all-important dæmons who represent the major technical and storytelling challenge facing any adaptation of His Dark Materials.
Happily, in this retelling the dæmons are photo-realistic, expressive and fairly seamlessly integrated into the story, with puppets used on set to help the actors interact with them before VFX artists recreated the dæmons as computer-generated animals.
James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel with his dæmon Stelmaria (Helen McCrory) (BBC)
And while they’re not quite as prominent as they are in the books – when large crowds appear you may find yourself wondering why there are so few dæmons, and they’re sometimes left off-camera in other dialogue scenes – it’s probably about as close to the books’ depiction of them as you could get without it being actively distracting, and it’s an undeniable technical and storytelling achievement that the series includes them as well as it does.
Of course, the BBC’s His Dark Materials is not a flawless piece of work. The plight of the gyptians, expanded from their appearances in the book is well-told, but slightly less compelling than Lyra’s storyline, while a long written introduction explaining the rules of the world is a slightly awkward info-dump. And it’s a little unclear how well the lore of dæmons will have been revealed to non-book readers anyway, with one neophyte I spoke to still a little confused about their function after watching the opening hour.
But overall, after a very long gestation period this is a triumph for Jack Thorne, executive producer Jane Tranter and the BBC, and the evident wealth of care, thought and effort that has gone into every aspect of production.
And when it comes to making Philip Pullman work onscreen, well, the dæmon’s in the detail.
His Dark Materials begins on Sunday 3rd November on BBC1