With a superb cast and a cracking pace, the BBC–HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials proves television is the perfect vehicle for the beloved trilogy. By Peter Craven.

His Dark Materials

Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in the BBC–HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials.
Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in the BBC–HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials.
Credit: HBO

Some time during the first high intoxicated moment of the Harry Potter heyday, a publisher friend said to me, “But if you want a children’s writer who is the equal of Tolkien or C. S. Lewis, have a look at Philip Pullman.” His Dark Materials, Pullman’s trilogy of black and brilliant novels, appeared between 1995 and 2000, depicting a world oppressed by a parody of a church and the very faces of love and parenthood turning into enigmas of malignancy. With its Miltonic title, its endless self-perpetuating Blakean mythology and its pitiless candour of expression, the trilogy is as close a cousin to a great work of art, a great work of something, as any propulsive page-turner could be. They’ll be reading His Dark Materials ages hence as they ponder what the atheism and the alienation of our times meant and how it kept itself going.

Now we have a new TV dramatisation of the trilogy, initially in eight hour-long episodes, with Dafne Keen from Logan as Lyra the young girl heroine, Ruth Wilson – the murderous comrade-in-arms from Luther – as that rampant woman of will Mrs Coulter, and James McAvoy sporting an English accent in place of his usual Scots as Lord Asriel. The first two episodes are directed by Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech fame and the script is by that magician Jack Thorne, who actually improves on J. K. Rowling in the stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

There have been previous adaptations of Pullman, including the sumptuously cast 2007 film The Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, but this BBC–HBO version is a knockout winner. It is fluent and footsure in negotiating all the original’s weirdness and darkness, making it absolutely natural; it is also terrifically paced and subtly detailed in most of its acting, with a riveting sense of the power of Pullman’s story. The series succeeds in the face of the most difficult subject matter in the world, and it has every chance of ensuring that this masterpiece for the millennials reaches the widest possible audience among the generations to come.

Philip Pullman is still a writer at the height of his powers. The second volume of his current sequence, The Book of Dust, was released a bare month ago and shows no diminution in the skill of a writer who is arguably a greater master of narrative momentum than Salman Rushdie or Peter Carey, and every inch as serious in his articulation of his vision as any literary writer alive. In the new book with Lyra, The Secret Commonwealth, set about a decade after the action of His Dark Materials, the epigraph from Blake indicates the kind of challenge being met in the TV version: “Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.”

Pullman is the Bach-loving atheist quoter of Blake, that notoriously confounding concocter of what T. S. Eliot called a homemade world. And it’s not ultimately hard to see why the producers of what became the 2007 Chris Weitz film actually knocked back a script by Tom Stoppard because Stoppard would have been likely to present Pullman in all his uncompromising darkness. Nor why the filmmakers couldn’t get beyond the first volume, The Golden CompassNorthern Lights in Britain and the Commonwealth – despite Kidman and their best intentions. Although the trilogy cries out for dramatisation because of the intensity of its vision and the soaring brilliance of its articulation, His Dark Materials is seriously weird and disturbingly creepy, and its atmosphere is difficult to capture. But this superb adaptation somehow succeeds in penetrating the idiom of an original so strange in its richness and wildness that it poses a challenge comparable to Peter Jackson’s in The Lord of the Rings, which the New Zealand director translated so indelibly into film.

It’s not that His Dark Materials can’t be adapted. Nick Hytner staged it at Britain’s National Theatre in 2003 with Timothy Dalton as Asriel and Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter, just as there’s a BBC Radio version of The Lord of the Rings – with Sir Michael Hordern as Gandalf and Ian Holm as Frodo – which was at least as powerful in the use of its medium as the Jackson films. But His Dark Materials, like Tolkien, requires an absolute mastery of the medium employed. In long-form television – the regnant form of drama these days – Philip Pullman has found his natural dramatic vehicle, thanks to Thorne and Hooper and co. The series should be watched in the longest tolerable stretch: I watched the first four episodes of this faithful adaptation of a familiar novel in one go with a breathless desire to know what happens next and how.

This Dark Materials allows itself a free hand with the articulation of the story, but the upshot is enthralling for all the residual oddity. The first few episodes twist what is essentially the action of the first book and they do it with fabulous attention to what makes it remarkable. Famously, in Pullman’s novelistic universe, everyone comes with a daemon (pronounced “demon”) – a companion creature who symbolises the soul but is, in practice, a separate character. Lyra’s daemon takes various forms but ends up as a pine marten, sometimes white, sometimes brown with a dash of white. Lord Asriel’s is a gorgeous loping snow leopard, while Mrs Coulter has a very nasty-looking golden monkey.

It’s paying the highest kind of compliment to this TV version to say that the daemons, against the odds, work with the same kind of quasi-miraculous credibility as they do in the books. And so does almost everything else about this magical monstrosity of a story. What act of treachery is the apparently good master of an Oxford college visiting on the dashing James McAvoy’s Asriel, who is attached – we’re not sure how – to Dafne Keen’s heroine?

One of the many brilliancies of His Dark Materials is that much of the trilogy’s action is set at Oxford, and the series highlights the Gothic romance of those spires, as well as the gargoyles that go along with that mediaeval vision of grace and truth in stone. And one of the abiding challenges of Pullman’s vision – which made conservative Catholics scream for the original film to be banned and led Nicole Kidman to declare she wouldn’t have done it if it were actually anti-Catholic – is that the Magisterium that runs this fraught and fearful world is forbidding and ferocious indeed.

The one aspect of this adaptation that does not equal the film is the casting of the theocratic villains – it’s a bit hard to go past Christopher Lee and Simon McBurney for the suave black-heartedness of religion as an annihilating madness. In every other respect, though, it is markedly superior and the casting in general is marvellous. Dafne Keen is an utterly credible Lyra – stubborn, watchful, sympathetic, without sentimentality. Anne-Marie Duff is superb as the true-blue “gyptian” Ma Costa and she handles her great revelation like the masterly actress she is. James McAvoy is very glamorous and just a touch ambivalent as Lord Asriel. It’s a grand thing, too, to have Lin-Manuel Miranda – creator and star of Hamilton and fresh from Mary Poppins Returns – full of charm and music as the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby. He has exactly the kind of captivating charisma that makes Pullman such a master storyteller: his stories are so much more than the slap and dash of incident.

And that’s true with bells on – great tolling Judgement Day bells of fury – for the standout performance that is Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter. Wilson played Hedda Gabler for Ivo van Hove like a very contemporary goddess, and her performance as Pullman’s horror-wreaking fiend is a thing of wonder: grand and immense but with a wholly convincing ability to capture the horrifying moment where love and hate fuse and destroy.

This is a dream of a Dark Materials and everyone should watch it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 9, 2019 as "Material force".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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