His Dark Materials episode 2 review – Is a change as good as the rest?

The new BBC adaptation diverges further from Philip Pullman’s text as Lyra gets to know Mrs Coulter a little better **CONTAINS SPOILERS**

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3.5 out of 5 star rating

**Warning – this article contains spoilers for His Dark Materials episode 2**

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After mostly good reviews and record-breaking ratings, the second episode of His Dark Materials has everything to play for – and in a mostly riveting hour that serves primarily as a showcase for Ruth Wilson’s arresting performance, it’s fair to say it doesn’t drop the ball.

What it does do, however, is make a few changes to Philip Pullman’s beloved source material – always a risk. Though when adapting His Dark Materials to screen, executive producer Jane Tranter has previously said they were less concerned with changing Philip Pullman’s books than expanding them, choosing to weave in new elements or re-explore old characters as a way to re-form the series for TV.

“I think it’s less about making new stuff up and more about pulling the threads that Philip puts in, that are just kind of to the left or the right of the main action,” Tranter told me in October 2018. “Certainly in book one, Lyra is the sharp end of the spear.”

And in this second episode, we’re really starting to see that ethos unfold. While the meat of the story is something of a two-hander between Wilson’s Mrs Coulter and Dafne Keen’s Lyra (well, a four-hander if you count their dæmons), we’re also beginning to feel the greater sprawl of screenwriter Jack Thorne’s world.

While the book-depicted scenes of Lyra and Pan discovering the true villainy of Mrs Coulter are all present and correct (though expanded, as we’ll see later), we also get to check out what other more peripheral characters were doing at the time. The Gyptians, unsurprisingly, were hunting for their missing children. The top levels of the Magisterium? Worrying about their evil deeds being exposed.

And as for Ariyon Bakare’s Lord Boreal, well, he’s been promoted from a one-scene appearance in Northern Lights to appear in the episode’s most shocking change – the introduction of “our world” into the story, which he travels to using an interdimensional “window” that doesn’t appear until the second book in Pullman’s original trilogy.

How you react to these changes will depend a lot on your attitude to literary adaptation in general. For anyone who dislikes any alterations, the arrival of universe-hopping so soon may feel like a sacrilege. Personally, I think bringing in this element may help viewers bed in with the wilder concepts introduced in the second and third books of Pullman’s trilogy (which casually introduce various parallel worlds after the first book took place entirely within one alone), and the more we see of Bakare’s ice-cold Boreal the better.

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As for other changes, though, I’m not so sure. Did we really need to see the Gyptians rushing around, hunting for their children when we know that’s what they were doing offstage in the book anyway? Or meet the Cardinal boss of Father McPhail (Will Keen), rather than just keep the scene where he comes to Mrs Coulter and warns off her Gobbler pals?

In some ways, His Dark Materials’ tendency to overexplain what’s happening onscreen may be a bit of an anxiety related to the genre – a lot of viewers did seem to be struggling to understand what dæmons were last week – and it doesn’t look like it’ll stop here.

Later in the episode, as Lyra discovers the plans of the evil Gobblers, Thorne is clearly seeding a plot point revealed much later (and more horrifyingly) in the novel, and it’ll remain to be seen how remixing this changes the turn of the narrative. The same goes for the revelation that Lyra’s father is none other than her “uncle” Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), a fact delivered to Lyra later and from a different character in the book.

Still, this review shouldn’t all be about book/TV comparisons – we have a whole article for that – and as straight drama, this week’s episode definitely delivers. Sure, it’s possibly even more languid than the first episode (so people who found that slow may struggle), but Keen and Wilson deliver such sterling character work over the course of the hour that it’s hard to begrudge them taking their time over it.

Ruth Wilson and Dafnee Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Ruth Wilson and Dafnee Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)

The great advantage of this screen version of His Dark Materials is that we can see the side of Mrs Coulter that Lyra doesn’t – still the malevolent, dark figure Pullman created, but oddly conflicted and self-hating over her weakness when dealing with Lyra. Up against her, Keen manages to hold her own and definitely gives out more, well, Lyra-ness this week, really embodying the stubborn, tall tale-spinning girl that generations of readers have fallen in love with.

In other words, for now it seems like the soul of Pullman’s work is holding on no matter how many changes are made to the source material. But with six more episodes to go, we can only hope the beauty of the book isn’t lost in adaptation.

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His Dark Materials continues on Sundays at 8pm on BBC1