Tag Archives: the golden compass

Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – Season 1

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.

-Nate Hill

The Golden Compass: A Review by Nate Hill 

There’s a reason they never adapted another novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series past the initial stab at The Golden Compass, and it’s the same infuriating reason why many adaptations of children’s and young adult novels fail: lack of appropriate atmosphere and true menace found in the source material. Everytime Hollywood comes along and decides to try their luck at a beloved series for youngsters or young adults, they feel this feverish need to shine it up with a candy colored, over lit vibe that leaves much of the darker elements by the wayside and as a result their final product feels neutered and bereft of any weight, stakes or attention to detail. Spiderwick. Skellig. Eragon. Hell, even Narnia only made it by the skin of its teeth, blasting out of the gate with a flawless entry, only to peter off into sequels afflicted by the very symptoms I outlined above, and not even make it to the end of the saga at that. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen to every series they try to adapt, but to enough of them that it’s a problem, especially when a darkly creative, eerie and unique tale like this gets turned into a glossy, pandering misfire. It’s sad because some of the elements of a good film are in place, starting with casting. Dakota Blue Richards is on-the-nose perfect as Lyra, the adventurous heroine who gets swept away on a menacing voyage to arctic lands and beyond. She lives in a curious parallel universe where every human is forever accompanied by a ‘Daemon’, essentially a piece of their soul that takes animal form, and never the two shall separate. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is an explorer who has returned from the north lands with tales of a mysterious phenomenon called ‘dust’, a powerful substance purported to be able to unlock other worlds and dimensions. Lyra is curious at first and then nervous when she meets icy Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) a prim socialite with a devious agenda involving children that have gone missing in the city. She has a facility on the tundra where scary research and very bad experiments are conducted. Now in the books the descriptions and eventual confrontation with this would make your hair turn white. Pullman imparts it with weight and true blood freezing horror. The filmmakers *deliberatly* tone it down and castrate it, leaving anyone who was a fan of the series in total disgust. It just doesn’t have the same dark, otherworldly atmosphere it did on the pages, it feels too bright, chipper and lacking any real wonder. It does have some wicked visuals going for it in places, such as the two rival talking bears, voiced with baritone boom by Ian McKellen and Ian McShane, the landscape of the north as seen from the hot air balloon of grizzled sky-cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and others. Eva Green also scores well as elemental witch Serafina Pekkala, but then she’s incapable of giving a bad performance anyhow. Scattered supporting cast includes Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Courtney, Simon Mcburney, Derek Jacobi, as well, an impressive lineup all in all, but one that deserves a far better film for their talent. It’s just misguided and tone deaf. It may have been a series for adolescents, but the themes, implications and scenarios found in those books are harrowing, complex, very mature and not to be taken lightly, let alone given the full on Harry Potter theme park treatment. Shame, really, and a giant missed opportunity. Perhaps someday soon a network will get the rights and turn this tale into a film or tv show worthy of His Dark Materials.