As I sat contemplating the beauty and disappointment of the first four episodes of HBO’s new His Dark Materials series, I arrived at the kind of bong-rip question that fuels many a junior-level English seminar: What is adaptation for? It is for money, of course, and ostensibly for the love of a story that a creator wants to inhabit so fully that the only thing they can do is tell it again themselves. Adaptations can be for ownership — there are adaptations that claim or reclaim characters and narratives. Adaptations can also be for improvement; the recent Looking for Alaska miniseries is a great example of how adapting a work can make it even more of what it should’ve been from the jump.
Whether an adaptation goes in with a sense of its own purpose is one of those things you can feel as a viewer. You can feel it even if you’re not sure what the purpose is, or if the purpose is nothing more than “I truly love this story and I want to tell it again.” You can also tell when an adaptation’s reason for being has been so sanded down and defanged and jumbled and depressurized that it now feels a little empty. This, sadly, is what’s happened to His Dark Materials.
It’s not a bad show, and it’s important to note that many of its flaws are things that the series could still overcome in later episodes. It’s also worth noting that in spite of the series’s missteps so far, I am still absolutely planning to watch the rest of the season, and undoubtedly the whole second season that’s already begun filming. I can’t help it; it was destined from the moment I missed an entrance in my summer drama camp performance of Carousel because I was reading The Golden Compass backstage. But His Dark Materials’ first episodes are a mixture of unabashedly gorgeous visuals, several strong performances, and writing that demonstrates time and again that it has no confidence in either of those things.
The world Philip Pullman built for the original His Dark Materials book trilogy is full of complicated metaphysical and institutional structures. There’s a high-level mythology that seeps down into the fiction and informs every detail of the world where his preteen orphan protagonist Lyra Belacqua lives. At the beginning of the story, Lyra, played in the series by Dafne Keen, is a ward at Jordan College, a fictional college at Oxford in a world that looks a lot like ours but very distinctly is not. Chief among the differences: All humans are accompanied by their daemons, something like animal embodiments of their souls. The government is controlled by a shadowy religious institution called the Magisterium. Lyra’s Uncle Asriel (played by James McAvoy) is deeply focused on something she doesn’t understand and many adults seem to fear, something called Dust.
All of that’s also the case for HBO’s series. But at the start of The Golden Compass, Pullman’s first book in the trilogy, even those few bits of world-building aren’t made all that clear. It is a trilogy about Lyra’s coming-of-age, about what kind of person she’s going to be, and about how to define goodness. In the process, a lot about her world slowly comes into focus — the Magisterium, the daemons, big ideas about good and evil and the nature of reality. But none of it shows up until it has meaning for Lyra, which means none of it shows up until it’s already part of the narrative stakes. Everything stays a mystery until there’s a reason to care about knowing it.
HBO’s series seems to be operating from a place where all things need to be explained instantly, long before the viewer has any reason to understand why they’re worth knowing. The daemon CGI is incredibly impressive, but the point of having daemons at all, at least in the opening, seems to mostly be that they’re a useful way to get characters to say exposition out loud. Everything alluded to by the setting or the mood of a scene is quickly explained in the simplest possible language. The pace feels both lickety-split fast and strangely plodding, because the first four episodes cover swooping changes in Lyra’s life where people yell story at one another and then leave before anyone has a chance to feel the emotional impact of whatever was just revealed.
It’s frustrating not just because the writing often feels so clunky, but also because the series’s visual design is so persuasively lovely. I kept wishing characters would just stop talking so that the images could be allowed to carry the mood without getting undercut by topic-line-style dialogue about what’s happening. The constant explaining also makes Lyra feel reactive rather than driven, as though she’s being swept along with events rather than pushing them forward herself. The over-exposition has the counterintuitive impact of somehow making things even more confusing. There’s so much information, so many bits and bobs of background information that arrive unmoored to any particular motive, that it’s easy to lose track of the central thread.
That said, Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter is exactly what that character should be: painfully beautiful and dangerous and churning with intensity. The world itself is stunning, especially the Gyptians’ boats, the northern town of Trollesund, and Mrs. Coulter’s gorgeous prison of an apartment. I’ll admit to having been a little worried about Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby (it’s hard to see LMM as anything other than himself!), but he’s both magnetic and completely persuasive as the intrepid balloon-flying mercenary cowboy.
No matter how much the story gets overexplained, though, its foundation is so compelling that bits of it will likely grab viewers anyhow, if only for the opportunity to watch this world unfurl. But as an adaptation, His Dark Materials has yet to convince me that it knows what it’s for, other than the challenge of making everyone’s daemons seem plausible. It does not feel confident in its own endeavor, and it doesn’t seem particularly interested in the deeper questions of identity and existential uncertainty. What it’s definitely for, if nothing else, is the sheer spectacle of Philip Pullman’s universe. That, at least, is wildly successful.