If you’re a fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book series you’ll know what a complex, unique, mystical and demanding story it is, deserving of an adaptation that takes themes, character and pacing seriously. If you’ve seen the 2007 Golden Compass film you will know just how monumentally, how embarrassingly they failed at bringing this very special piece of storytelling to life and doing the source material justice. Second times the charm though, I’m happy to report that HBO’s long form crack at it is a gorgeously dense, adequately mature and living, breathing, convincingly built model of Pullman’s literary work.
Logan’s Dafne Keen is Lyra Belacqua, a mysterious child adopted by a collective scholarship in an alternate dimension where every human being has a ‘daemon,’ literal pieces of their soul manifested as animals in the physical realm, lifelong companions tethered by an intangible yet essential bond. Lyra is periodically watched over by her shrewdly ambitious uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy understands this guy far better than Daniel Craig did), but his interests ultimately lie north in the arctic where he researches elusive metaphysical phenomena deemed ‘heresy’ by the Majesterium, a fascist, omnipresent religious sect that makes the churches of our world seem like kindergarten playtime in comparison. Anyways, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon are swept up in an epic quest northbound to discover where the missing children of the roaming Gyptian clans have gone, find answers to the secret of her own identity and even possibly unlock portals to other worlds, including our own.
In a way the film never stood a chance next to this simply by default; one book is just going to breathe better in eight hour length episodes rather than one two hour movie no matter how you spin it. However, where this truly eclipses the past effort is its attention to detail and proper care in bringing several complicated and difficult relationships to life, as well as an ever present and necessary tone of darkness. Lyra and the power mad Marissa Coulter (Ruth Wilson is terrifyingly conflicted) are such an important, vital dynamic to this story and both actresses soar in their scenes together. McAvoy finds the callous, tunnel vision mentality to Asriel nicely, this guy is no hero or proper father figure, just a desperate explorer hellbent on that horizon no matter the personal cost. James Cosmo gives a heartbreaking, Emmy worthy turn as Farder Coram, the Gyptian elder who once shared a great love with Northern Witch Serefina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas). The only somewhat weak link is Lin Manuel Miranda as gunslinging aeronaut Lee Scoresby, who is a bit less grizzled than the character demands (Sam Elliott played him far better in the film) and could use a brush up in the acting department, but he still makes an impression. There are armoured bears, battles on the ice, northern lights, trips into our world through secured doorways, voyages far into the arctic circle and more, but what makes this so successful is the human element, and the willingness to tackle themes that some young adult adaptations just don’t seem to want to address. Lyra struggles with trust, understanding the world and dealing with the adults in her life, two of which cause her great pain and suffering when they should be the two most supportive and loving ones. It’s a difficult, often harrowing and tragic journey for a child to make, but one worth taking for how seriously the show runners wish to take it. Bring on season 2.