The first time Hollywood tried to adapt Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — the notorious Narnia for atheists, the beloved Paradise Lost for kids — it failed pretty spectacularly. 2007’s The Golden Compass film meticulously followed the events of the first book (called Northern Lights in the U.K.), but the filmmakers clearly struggled with serious fantasy-franchise envy: The production design is deeply Harry Potter–esque; its A-list cast includes Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen; and the story’s token witch, named Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), even intones an ominous prologue that wishes it was Cate Blanchett’s Fellowship of the Ring overture. Reviews were tepid at best; while it made back its $180 million budget internationally, the domestic box office didn’t even pull in half of that.
How did such an aesthetically and narratively exacting adaptation still manage to miss the spirit of the book entirely? Each character certainly looked and acted their parts; Nicole Kidman made a perfect Mrs. Coulter, as did Daniel Craig Lord Asriel. Yet it ultimately suffered from the original sin (get it?) of translation: that in order to fully transform a story from one language or medium to another, it must engage with and interpret the spirit of the story, rather than mechanically transfer each beat verbatim (and then throw a bunch of money at it to make it pretty).
With its premiere, the second try already appears to have learned from its predecessor’s mistakes. Of course, as an eight-episode season, HBO’s His Dark Materials series will end up having four times as much space to work with. It also benefits from 12 additional years of audiences growing comfortable with a wider range of fantasy formats (and, dare I say, anti-establishment ideologies). In any case, “Lyra’s Jordan” demonstrates that while this new series is going to take certain liberties remixing and expanding the source material, it’ll do so with a literacy around Pullman’s philosophies and that will ensure they feel just as authentic onscreen as they do on the page.
It begins with a tasteful text preface in place of Galadriel’s monologue, explaining the quirks of heroine Lyra Belacqua’s universe: Here, souls exist outside the human body in the form of daemon companions, the Magisterium (a very pointed analog for the Catholic Church) is the world’s oppressive governing body, and there’s a prophecy among the witches of the North that a child will soon upset that centuries-old reign in a big way.
Cut to that child being delivered as an infant during the Great Flood — a disaster first detailed decades after the original trilogy, in two prequels published in 2017 and earlier this year — by James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel to Jordan College at Oxford, where “scholastic sanctuary” ostensibly protects its scholars and other inhabitants from the Magisterium’s grasp. Our plucky tween Eve, Lyra, and her daemon Pantalaimon spend the first 12 years of their lives running wild at the college, squirming through lessons with Charles the kindly librarian and racing her best friend Roger Parslow, an orphan who works in the kitchens, through the college’s stone hallways and tiled rooftops. One such race ends in the college crypt, where the pair have an illuminating conversation among scholars’ bones about how children’s daemons can shape-shift up through puberty, at which point they settle into their “true” animal form.
Meanwhile, Lyra’s Uncle Asriel has been taking photos of the aurora in the Arctic with special film, which he returns to Oxford to present to his colleagues in a campaign for more funding. Escaping from one of her lessons, Lyra sneaks into the retiring room, where she stumbles upon the Master of Jordan poisoning a bottle of wine decanted specifically for her uncle. When he arrives, she lunges to slap the glass out of his hand; Asriel — now a far cry from the emotional man who left her at the college — threatens to break her arm until she comes clean. Purposely shattering the poisoned decanter, he makes her hide in a cupboard to spy on the Master during his presentation. That presentation reveals two discoveries that send everyone, Lyra included, into a massive kerfuffle: his Arctic photograms prove (a) that a special particle called Dust is attracted to adults and not children, and (b) that other worlds exist, and one is visible in the aurora. (Oh, also involved is a frozen head, which Asriel claims belongs to fellow explorer-scholar Stanislaus Grumman, who seems to have died pursuing these discoveries, but that won’t be relevant until later on.)
Despite the Master’s vocal anxiety about “academic freedom,” which paradoxically hinges on whether the Magisterium leaves the college alone, and thus is threatened by these academically sound yet deeply heretical breakthroughs, Asriel’s funding is renewed nevertheless, and he takes off in an airship (basically a fancy zeppelin) back to the North. Lyra wants nothing more than to explore the North with her uncle, but he makes her stay put, insisting, “I don’t have time for you right now,” and “The North is no place for a child.” When, heartbroken, she runs away, Roger yells at the departing Asriel that “[Lyra] is special,” Asriel screams dramatically, “Everyone’s special!” and takes off.
Cut to a bunch of people who actually believe that: the Gyptians. Their onscreen revamp — one that seemed a bit whitewash-y when first revealed in promos — actually feels smart in context. Lyra’s universe is filled with synonyms: gas lamps aren’t gas but “naphtha”; electric light bulbs are “anbaric”; computers are “ordinators.” Foreign (often nonwhite) ethnicities, meanwhile, are given fanciful, one-dimensional names like “Tartars” (some mix of Mongolian, Inuit, Samoyed, and other northern indigenous peoples), “Muscovites” (Russians and other Slavic people), and, of course, “Gyptians.” While Gyptian life reads like a mix of Romani and indigenous cultures in the text, it’s also quite clear that many of these markers could have translated poorly to screen. (Example: At one point in The Golden Compass, Ma Costa has to admonish Lyra when she starts mimicking the Gyptian patois.)
In their new form, the Gyptians are a nomadic, found-family community of refugees, outcasts, and itinerants; they’re a multiracial, multi-bodied melting pot that makes it hard to peg them as a stand-in for any one real-world group. While the choice does feel a bit in service to the bafflingly apolitical credo reiterated by the producers, it also gives the story an interesting new dimension, where Gyptian culture is an eclectic mix of rituals and beliefs rather than one ancient set, including bar mitzvah–esque ceremonies for their children when their daemons settle. Today’s ritual is for Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson), son of Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) and older brother of Billy Costa (Tyler Howitt), the most adorable child to ever walk the earth and one of the first to be kidnapped — or “gobbled,” as people refer to this mysterious string of kidnappings by some shadowy boogeymen being called “the Gobblers.” (The Gyptian revamp also provides a much wider canvas for the expanded role they appear to be taking on as they spearhead the search for the growing list of gobbled children.)
And the final piece of our first installment: Mrs. Coulter and the dreaded Magisterium. This new version of the Catholic Church, the monotheistic totalitarian European organization that definitely is not the Catholic Church, feels like what might result if Elon Musk and a Hillsong architect teamed up to turn the Vatican into a coliseum. The lines are too New Age clean, the edges all hard and menacing, and it all comes exclusively in space-gray. The sinister Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) reports Asriel’s movements to a priest, the priest threatens Boreal not to tell their “mutual friends” about it, especially “her” — who is, of course, our most terrifying villain, Mrs. Marisa Coulter.
Ruth Wilson doesn’t look like the sparkling blonde viper of a woman described in the books (nor does Dafne Keen look like Lyra, for that matter). Nevertheless, words can’t quite express how utterly flawless she is, in execution. Maybe it’s because I saw her turn on Luther, but Wilson pulls off this subcutaneous serial-killer vibe that is magnetic and terrifying and possibly unwell in equal measure. It makes sense that Lyra, an unkempt, rooftop-prowling vagabond, would be entranced by this warmer, more approachable version of Coulter, who has done all the North-y things she’s always dreamed of, from fighting Tartars to negotiating with armored bears. When Coulter proposes hiring her on as an assistant to come live with her, and then promises that Roger can come as well, Lyra has no reason to mistrust her. Of course, the fact that her friend conveniently gets gobbled immediately after their conversation doesn’t strike her as odd, only worrisome, and she easily believes Coulter when she promises that her people will search for him.
Before the scholars let her go, however, they give her possibly the greatest, most consequential gift anyone has ever received: the last alethiometer. A gold device shaped like a large compass, it’s ringed with symbols that can be pointed at by three manual arms and one free-floating one. The Master tells Lyra that it tells the truth, but because of this, the devices are outlawed by the Magisterium; this is the last one they haven’t confiscated, so she must keep it secret, especially from Mrs. Coulter.
What he doesn’t tell her is what he discussed with the librarian the night before: that the alethiometer had warned that Asriel’s research would bring about catastrophe, which drove him to poison the younger man. Now that Asriel has continued pursuing his heretical discoveries, and the Magisterium knows about it, Lyra’s fate is set in motion. The college is no longer a safe haven for her, and she must embark upon a journey that will fulfill that destiny hinted at in the prologue: She’ll soon come to change the world, even as she unwittingly betrays someone close to her to do it.
• Love that Lyra escapes lessons by tricking the poor librarian into turning his back to retrieve a book about the serpent’s motives in the garden of Eden. Ironic in and of itself, but even more so considering that His Dark Materials is a retelling of Paradise Lost.
• Kind of odd that Lyra initially rejects the alethiometer when the Master tells her she has to keep it secret. One of her defining characteristics is her knack for deceit! She loves secrets!
• Threats of physical violence aside, McAvoy is playing Asriel (as Wilson is with Coulter) with far more nuance than Daniel Craig or even the book afforded the character. It’s obvious he’s a selfish prick — probably would be a huge fan of Ayn Rand if we’re being honest — but it makes sense that he’d still have flashes of sentiment when it comes to Lyra.
• A random side note: Both the 2007 film and this new series have opted to combine two book characters, Billy Costa and Tony Makarios. The latter (one too many Tonys, perhaps?) is another Gyptian child, not very bright; his mother is an alcoholic who initially doesn’t notice his absence when he’s kidnapped. He’s symbolic more than anything, a tragic effigy of the Gobblers’ wider impact, but he also ended up being an emotional buffer between our beloved heroes and the villains’ heinous atrocities, one that would certainly fail to translate. As with the overall Gyptian reinterpretation, it’s a smart choice.