‘His Dark Materials’ debuts with a lackluster premiere

Tuesday, November 12, 2019 - 5:24pm

NOSELL

HBO

Pulling off fantasy in movies is hard enough. Adapting an entire trilogy to TV is harder. When the 2007 film “The Golden Compass” received harsh reviews, it seemed that may have been the end of attempting to adapt Phillip Pullman’s wildly popular fantasy series. “His Dark Materials” however, seeks to revisit the series and explore the world it creates.

Based off the popular trilogy of the same name, “His Dark Materials” follows a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen, “Logan”) as she investigates the many secrets within her society, run by the oppressive Magisterium. Inspired by her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy, “It Chapter Two”), and his work in the northern territories, Lyra learns of a mysterious “Dust” that the Magisterium is hiding from the public and Asriel’s fellow scholars. 

In the midst of her life at Jordan College in Oxford, England, Lyra discovers that her childhood friend, Roger, and a boy from a neighboring community have been kidnapped, presumably by a group called “The Gobblers.” With the help of her animal familiar Pantalaimon (Kit Connor, “Rocketman”) and the gift of a golden compass, Lyra and a fellow explorer Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson, “Luther”) sets out to uncover the truth being concealed from the people.

While the visuals and world built in “His Dark Materials” are undoubtedly beautiful, nothing about the show so far sticks out as particularly incredible. In the backdrop of a magical, Lyra’s world is more akin to “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” than a fresh take on the fantasy genre. The show’s relationship with its source material seems to be its greatest weakness: Every piece of dialogue and exposition feels inaccessible to viewers not familiar with the book series, yet “His Dark Materials” feels far too generic to be unique.

Within the series premiere, very little about the main characters or their world is explained, which may be fine for a better-known series, but Pullman’s fantasy trilogy seems too niche to be understood by a wide audience automatically. “His Dark Materials” doesn’t seem interested in answering questions and would rather revel in its magical imagery and government conspiracy subplot than make its storyline clear. 

“His Dark Materials” has a lot of wonderful elements, but seems to struggle with how best to put them together for an undefined target audience. Not quite a kids’ show and definitely not “adult” by any HBO standards, the series doesn’t seem to know what its purpose is. The only thing propelling the story forward so far is a vague prophecy purposefully kept from the audience for suspense. In concealing the plot like this, “His Dark Materials” has lowered its own stakes in an attempt to raise them. With a significant reliance on these types of fantasy tropes, the show fails to bring a unique or nuanced take on its own genre. 

After an underwhelming first episode, “His Dark Materials” could redeem itself with a more self-aware first season that acknowledges the well-worn territory of fantasy while leaning into what separates Pullman’s original trilogy from the pack. Instead of simply mentioning “Dust” or the “Magisterium” or “Gobblers,” “His Dark Materials” could embrace its own mythology directly and focus on its most compelling details without overusing broader themes. With some modifications, this adaptation could work. Without revision, the show may fade into the same obscurity its film equivalent “The Golden Compass” did.