emergency discussion

Is His Dark Materials Finally Getting Good?

Dafne Keen as Lyra in His Dark Materials.
Dafne Keen as Lyra in His Dark Materials. Photo: HBO

Kathryn VanArendonk: Hello, Philip Pullman hive! Now that we’re almost halfway into the first season of HBO’s His Dark Materials, we’re gathered here today to talk about what we think of the adaptation so far. I’ll start: I had pretty mixed feelings about the opening episodes, but by episode four, things have finally started to perk up a little. First of all, do you think that’s a fair assessment? The show had an unpromising beginning, but it’s getting more compelling?

Jackson McHenry: I think that’s pretty fair. As a lifelong Dark Materials fan who already had to live through the perfectly cast but very disappointing movie, I had high hopes for a series that would spend more time among the details of the books’ world. But I got a sinking feeling as soon as the first few episodes started to dump exposition in every scene, often in the dryest way possible. There’s a lot to explain in Pullman’s world, but the trick he pulls off in the books is to just throw you into a strange universe and explain sparingly. (As a kid, I remember only discovering that “anbaric” was Lyra’s world’s version of “electric” when I’d reached the second book.) By the time we get to the north in the fourth episode, however, the show’s gotten more entertaining. Armored bears can’t not be fun! Plus, there’s a sliver of a thread about Mrs. Coulter’s motives in going north that’s a welcome breath of new material. So, I’d say I agree. Am I looking at this all with rose (amber?) tinted glasses, or is there some promise here?

Rachel Handler: I have previously described the His Dark Materials books as “hitting the G-spot of my soul,” so I am not exactly a great control subject. (I didn’t even hate the movie as much as everybody else did.) Like you said, Jackson, Pullman’s greatest magic trick is the way that he doesn’t hand you anything. You have to reach for it. And that sort of storytelling requires a lot of subtlety, time, patience, and trust. So I went into this series unnaturally hopeful — I thought that the added length would mean that the story could finally be told correctly — but I was massively disappointed by the first episodes. I couldn’t believe that by episode two, the existence of multiple worlds was already confirmed. The dramatic tension of the entire first novel is entirely centered around this question! We learned about Lyra’s parentage so quickly, too. The show seemed to do away with all of the shimmery weirdness of the books so that it might make sense for an imaginary audience full of dumb people who also happen to love complex fantasy narratives. The books have an incredible plot, sure, but they’re also really not about plot at all, they’re about the freakin’ threads that hold the universe together!! But I did breathe a small sigh of relief watching the fourth episode. It’s still not bringing me to metaphysical orgasm, but I’m feeling a little bit better about what’s coming up. I don’t want to give up hope yet!

Kathryn: I know what you mean. Ironically, the show’s frantic worry that everyone immediately understand everything has the boomerang effect of making it constantly explain things that you have no way of comprehending. But in the fourth episode, the story gains a bit more momentum. The armored bear sequences are tense and effective. The landscape of the north is lovely without feeling distractingly full of information. (This was another early complaint I had: The design is so, so lovely, but the show refuses to let it stand on its own merit.) I will say that the show’s impulse toward clunky dialogue is still present. There’s at least one bit where Lyra and Farder Coram explain who Serafina Pekkala is, then have another meeting where she’s explained again, and then again before the episode even gives us the full story on her. And there’s a lot of explaining that’s still to come.

Jackson: I’ve had that continuing frustration with Jack Thorne, Dark Materials’ lead writer, who also wrote the script for another similar fantasy-novel adaptation spectacle, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as the hot-air-balloon movie The Aeronauts. He’s got a tendency to land on an exciting concept, team up with collaborators who bring out the epic sense of it with visuals or direction, and then sometimes fumble the details. I was relistening to the audiobooks before the show came out — I highly recommend them if you’re someone who likes to listen to something while you run — and Pullman has such an eye for novelistic details, like the little gestures that kids interpret as charming or sinister, or the very human impulses like hunger and exhaustion that occupy Lyra. (Few people love describing a deep, restful sleep like Philip Pullman does.) I wish the show would embrace and expand upon that impulse. The party scenes in London really frustrated me on that front, because they felt so bare and economical.

But I surprised myself in how much I liked Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of Scoresby. I was worried that he wouldn’t feel weathered and gritty enough to be the crusty Texas old hand I’d had in my head, but Miranda has a wonky chemistry with his daemon (played by Cristela Alonzo, long live Cristela!) that made me want to watch them banter. Aside from Ruth Wilson’s excellent chilly dynamic with her golden monkey, I can’t say I feel that about many other characters.

Rachel: I also loved Lin as Scoresby, and it also surprised me because I do not think of him as a grizzled balloon man. But he brings a nice, bizarre jolt of energy to the show, which it really needs. I’m also really loving Anne-Marie Duff as Ma Costa — I think she and Ruth Wilson are giving the best, most fascinating performances here.

Here’s what’s been bothering me, though: We’re seeing the story from multiple perspectives, and not just Lyra’s, like we do in the books. I don’t like that we know things before she does, or know things she’ll never find out. I feel like I’m betraying her! I suppose I can understand why they made this choice, for visual and narrative variety. But it’s a loss, not just because I want so badly to be inside of Lyra’s mind all of the time, but also because she doesn’t feel like the most interesting character in the story anymore. At this point, I’m much more intrigued by Mrs. Coulter. The relative lack of focus on Lyra has made her feel flatter than I’d like. I miss MY Lyra. But maybe that’s unfair. How do you guys feel about her?

Kathryn: That’s part of why I am concerned about the future of this show. I definitely understand why you’d want to make the world bigger, include scenes from beyond Lyra’s experience, give the audience more. But will that fundamentally change what genre this story is? HBO’s His Dark Materials is trying to be Big, World-Building Fantasy. The trilogy, as Pullman wrote it, uses Big, World-Building Fantasy as a veil for its deeper structure. It’s really meant to be a bildungsroman, the story of Lyra coming to know herself. I think the flatness you’re feeling comes from that. Events on the show feel as though they’re moving Lyra, rather than the other way around.


Jackson: It also feels like a decision they made in anticipation of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, which do depart from Lyra a lot. Those books get all mythic and epic in a way I love — I can’t wait for the show to have to figure out how to depict the Mulefa — but you’re totally right, because those parts of the series don’t land unless you already care about Lyra. The show was so hasty about introducing the concept of multiple realities and the larger mysteries of the Magisterium, it makes me wonder if they thought Lyra’s story couldn’t stand on its own.

Kathryn: How are they going to do the Mulefa? The mind boggles.

Jackson: Tom Hooper brought us Cats and Tom Hooper will also have to figure out pseudo-elephantine trunk language.

Rachel: Let Phoebe Waller-Bridge play Mary Malone and you have my fealty for life. But yeah, I’m concerned that they don’t believe the audience will care enough about a young girl’s coming-of-age story, so instead they’re turning it into, like, Game of Thrones for teens who have grown bored of TikTok. Even the title sequence feels far too Game of Thrones-y for my liking. Do I have to live and eventually die in a world where everything is Game of Thrones? Please help.

Kathryn: The teens will never get so bored of TikTok that they start watching HBO dramas. But yes, I’m pretty sure we’re all strapped into the world Game of Thrones built for at least the next few years. I, for one, welcome our new Poorly Plotted Overlords.

Jackson: If they’re going to lean into Game of Thrones vibes, they could at least embrace Pullman’s vision of the Magisterium as the Catholic Church. Right now, the Magisterium feels like a knockoff version of the Ministry of Magic in late Harry Potter movies. There’s so much to be done about their obsessive oppression and fearfulness of sin-slash-Dust. Remember how terrifying the super-zealot Father Gomez was in the books? Give me that!

Kathryn: In that vein, what are your biggest hopes for the immediate future of His Dark Materials? Here are mine: (1) More Lee Scoresby! It’s working! (2) When they inevitably have to explain what the General Oblation Board is doing, I’d like that explanation to come through Lyra’s horror rather than an adult gleefully telling us how it all works. (3) Pan and Lyra both need more of a sense of humor. (4) Give us at least a few over-the-top scenes as Mrs Coulter loses her grip on reality.

Rachel: I hope the show listens to us and changes its entire narrative structure. Failing that, my only hope, on behalf of my 13-year-old self, is that Will is hot.

Kathryn: Wow, yes. (But also no? I’m a mid-30s mom now and I need to start adjusting my relationship to these novels.)

Rachel: I meant, ummm, adult Will. If and when we meet him. But these books are horny and it’s important that this is reflected on the television.

Jackson: What’s important is that the show’s always-naked, snarky, adult gay angels are as hot as I imagined them when I first read these books. I would also like the show to embrace the book’s depiction of Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel as dangerously horny adults. Finally, I need Ruth Wilson to wear more giant fur hats.

Is His Dark Materials Finally Getting Good?