It’s been 25 years since The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the U.K.) was first published and became a children’s lit hit. A coming-of-age story nestled in a riveting otherworldly adventure filled with witches, talking polar bears, and animal companions, Pullman would use that children’s fantasy smokescreen to slowly introduce an unexpected subversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost. When the heroine Lyra fails to save her friend at the end of The Golden Compass, the shock that that this was not going to be your average children’s fantasy adventure was eye-opening. It was just the beginning of Pullman’s extraordinary twists — soon his lighthearted fantasy adventure turned into an epic of God-killing proportions. By the time The Amber Spyglass hit bookshelves in 2000, readers of Pullman’s newly dubbed His Dark Materials trilogy were changed — coming of age through the series much like the beloved characters.
But 25 years later, His Dark Materials is ready for adulthood. The author made a highly anticipated return to the world of His Dark Materials (after a brief sojourn in 2003 with the short story Lyra’s Oxford) with 2017’s La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in a new spin-off trilogy The Book of Dust. It was a solid new novel that recaptured the wondrous quality of the original books while adding a fairy tale-like spin. But its narrative, which followed two new characters who embark on a journey to protect Lyra as a baby during a flood that nearly wipes out Oxford, was rather slim. The second book in The Book of Dust, the recently released The Secret Commonwealth, swings in the complete opposite direction, with a more mature tone and a complex plot involving religious conspiratorial schemes and roses that stretches out over a monstrous 600 pages.
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Well, this is it folks. We have come to the end of the first season of His Dark Materials. It’s been a journey full of ups and downs as the HBO fantasy series attempted to forge its own identity and grapple with reading ahead. And while it’s uncertain whether His Dark Materials was able to set itself apart from the rest of the prestige fantasy series pack, it was at least interesting and — at-times — outright weird. But the final episode of season 1, “Betrayal,” is the turning point for the series, as it heads into yet-unadapted territory in its second season (which is currently filming, for those worried that this little-watched show wouldn’t get renewed).
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With “The Fight to the Death,” His Dark Materials for the first time goes into the unknown — and I’m not making that Frozen-related pun because Lyra and co. find themselves deep in the arctic tundra. This is mostly unknown territory for His Dark Materials adaptation-wise; 2007’s The Golden Compass never got this far in its adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel, opting to end on a triumphant note with Lyra’s victory in Bolvanger. But this is, as people say, where shit goes down.
But His Dark Materials is striking out into new territory in more than just source material. Finally, His Dark Materials feels like it has come into its own and stopped trying to be a pale Game of Thrones imitation. “The Fight to the Death” feels uniquely grand and mythic, and it features a bunch of talking, murderous bears, which is never a bad thing.
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His Dark Materials gives us our most action-packed episode yet, but one that may not be totally emotionally satisfying to longtime book readers. After ramping up the stakes in last week’s episode, where we saw the horrifying consequences of a child being cut from his daemon, the season-long conflict wraps up a little too neatly in “The Daemon-Cages.”
This is the climax, supposedly, of all the child-kidnapping plots, all the intrigue, all the somber exposition about how daemons are the irreplaceable souls of humans beings. And while the majority of the episode’s plot is the stuff of thrilling prison breaks — whispered schemes, snowballing distractions, and lots of crawling through vents — “The Daemon-Cages” is lacking the soul that made the stakes so high on the page. I’m referring to, of course, the noticeable lack of the titular daemons in this episode. The absence of daemons onscreen isn’t a problem with only this episode — the animal-soul companions of the human characters have shown up sporadically throughout the series, usually to flit through the sky or jump on a box before disappearing again — likely as a result of TV budget constraints. But in an episode that hinges on the viewer noticing daemons and knowing of their importance, the absence of onscreen daemons is more deeply felt than ever. Read More »
After last week’s buoyant episode teased the prospect of His Dark Materials, well, lightening up, the HBO fantasy series returns to the shadows with “The Lost Boy.” There are really two “lost boys” in this episode, one of which is a character that does not appear until the second book, The Subtle Knife. It’s clear now more than ever that the series is eager to get to the endgame of Philip Pullman’s ambitious story, even if it means sacrificing some of the fun that Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Lee Scoresby so briefly brought last week (don’t worry, we still get a little hit of that rascally banter with him and Dafne Keen’s Lyra).
But as His Dark Materials season 1 rushes headlong into adapting the final act of The Golden Compass, its jarringly dark tone finally begins to align with the story. When The Golden Compass was first published as Northern Lights in 1995, Pullman pulled the rug under his readers who had, until the final chapters, were happily following an escapist children’s adventure story. That adventure gave way to tragedy as Pullman pulled the veil from his readers’ eyes and revealed his ambitious tale of alternate worlds and corrupt deities. With His Dark Materials doubling down on the weighty tone of Pullman’s later books, that heel-turn probably won’t be quite as effective, but at least the change won’t be quite so drastic.
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Hey, did you know His Dark Materials was based off a children’s book series? You wouldn’t guess based on the somber tone of the HBO series, which has become so self-serious that it almost fails to find the fun in talking animals and armor-wearing polar bears. But in the fourth episode, “Armour,” in swoops Lin-Manuel Miranda to the rescue in a hot air balloon, singing a duet with his rabbit daemon and injecting some much-needed levity just as the story is about to take a turn for the dark.
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It took long enough, but it finally feels like we’ve gotten to the plot of His Dark Materials. It was partly on the fault of the series, for taking the Game of Thrones approach that unwisely split up our disparate storylines to give the impression of an epic, sprawling saga.
But for the first time, His Dark Materials feels focused toward an end goal that unites our two biggest groups of characters: Lyra and the Gyptians. It was a major misstep to separate these two storylines in the first place – the familiarity with which Lyra greets the Gyptians in the third episode of His Dark Materials, “The Spies,” feels out of step with the cushy isolation that she existed in before. But now that Lyra and the Gyptians’ storylines are united, His Dark Materials finally feels like it’s settling into itself.
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I’m not usually one to encourage people to stick around with a show because “it gets good later!” But if newcomers to His Dark Materials were uncertain about this series after the intriguing but confusing first episode, then the second episode may be the one to hook them. Not that “The Idea of the North” is any less mystifying or provides any more answers to the many mysteries that it’s juggling. But with its mid-episode reveal — which comes as a surprise even to longtime book fans — it dramatically opens up the world(s) of the HBO fantasy series.
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His Dark Materials got off to a strong, albeit imperfect, start last night, dropping viewers right into the alternate world where human souls take on the form of animals and James McAvoy is a bad uncle. While the first episode was comprised of a lot of Dafne Keen‘s bull-headed protagonist Lyra Belacqua running on rooftops and foreshadowing things to come, the rest of the first season of His Dark Materials looks to be packed with plot and action.
HBO has released a new His Dark Materials trailer teasing the weeks ahead of the first season, which adapts the first book in Philip Pullman’s beloved fantasy trilogy. But as we see in the intriguing new His Dark Materials season trailer, there are plenty of hints to events even further down the line.
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His Dark Materials wants you to take it seriously now. And with the first episode of HBO and BBC’s TV series adaptation of Philip Pullman‘s beloved fantasy adventure novels, it achieves just that — albeit to both positive and negative effects.
Long tucked away in the children’s sections of libraries and bookstores, the His Dark Materials novels have legions of fans who have desperately wished for Pullman’s twist on Milton’s Paradise Lost to be taken seriously as a smart, even times philosophical, fantasy adventure story. In its first episode, “Lyra’s Jordan,” it’s clear that His Dark Materials TV series is most definitely “made for adults.” Prestige director Tom Hooper bestows upon the series a muted color palette and lots of shadowy corners for the whispered schemes to take place, while Jack Thorne‘s script crafts a vast web of intersecting storylines that are much more complicated than that of the book’s original adventure story revolving around the bull-headed orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) on a quest to rescue her friend. But by shifting the focus away from Keen’s fiery little heroine, we never get to really know “Lyra’s Jordan” or the rich, vibrant world that Pullman created — the first episode is a little too heavy on table-setting and a little too fixated on those shadowy corners.
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