Anticipation is everything in storytelling. Just ask John Carpenter or Don DeLillo, undisputed masters of creeping dread that they are, or even anyone that’s ever watched Friends and knew that Ross and Rachel would end up together in the end. Even if you know what’s coming, it’s the build-up that makes the pay-off worth waiting for – no matter how inevitable.
With that in mind, HBO and the BBC’s new adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials feels as though it has already made a major misstep in unravelling the complex narrative of the author’s trilogy, director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Jack Thorne unable to keep the storytelling powder dry past the second episode.
Still, it’s only fair to say that the series has got a lot of things right. Visually, it has managed to balance out some of the more steampunk-like tendencies of Pullman’s world-building that were a little too present in the (fairly) much-maligned 2007 film adaptation. In terms of casting, too, Ruth Wilson – bringing an unsettling depth and complexity to the role – certainly makes for a more convincing Mrs. Coulter than Nicole Kidman’s ice queen did (Wilson’s golden monkey daemon is more disquieting, too).
But the BBC Studios production hasn’t got everything right, of course: James McAvoy makes for a persuasive, more energetic Lord Asriel, but he simply does not have any of Daniel Craig’s innate sense of dark charisma or stoic profundity.
The biggest change, however – and the one that will no doubt come in for the most criticism – comes courtesy of Ariyon Bakare’s fiercely intimidating turn as Lord Boreal: in a huge diversion from the novels, episode two sees Boreal not only appear much earlier than he does in The Northern Lights – clearly being set up here as a powerful antagonist in the HDM universe, not entirely a bad thing considering Bakare’s incredible on-screen presence – but appearing in such a way that calls into question the entire arc and purpose of the season.
Coming through a door between worlds, slinking into Lyra’s Oxford, Boreal effectively knocks the wind out of Asriel’s sails, rendering both his scholarly mission to study the convergence of dimensions and his personal drive to create a bridge between those dimensions something of a damp squib.
As a novel, The Northern Lights derives so much of its suspense from working up to Asriel’s creation of the bridge and crossing between worlds – so much of the action is geared toward that one explosive moment that the act of reading becomes something almost like an act of sheer willpower: you find yourself reading not only to discover whether Asriel is successful, but because he must be; you read so that it will happen, because it must happen – because everything thereafter hinges on that single moment in time.
The book’s title, too, takes its name from the moment that Asriel’s bridge is created – a convergence of science, nature, philosophy, darkness, light and beauty that underpins all of the themes of the novel and connects the dots for all that’s yet to come.
But not only does Boreal’s nonchalance about transitioning between worlds – his swinging by Jordan College to make idle (or not so idle, as it may turn out) threats to the Master – take the wind out of Asriel’s sails in terms of the importance of his discovery and his journey on a personal level, without it the narrative engine stalls. The natural endpoint, if unchanged, has lost any and all of its power.
To give the studio the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they have taken lessons from the failures of latter-day Game Of Thrones, opting for character-focused drama over event-driven narrative devices. By the end of GoT, after all, it seemed that there was little left for viewers to wait for other than bloated battle scenes and high-profile deaths. It would certainly be smart to avoid falling into that trap as early as possible.
But, as a fan of the books – and one who has been burned before by adaptations – it’s hard to understand how this will play out and it’s harder to care: what exactly is it that I’m waiting for?