Is His Dark Materials truly unadaptable?
No review of HBO's His Dark Materials, based on Philip Pullman's trilogy of the same name, is complete without taking a shot at the doomed efforts of the 2007 theatrical version, The Golden Compass. "[The] film adaptation ... was as burdened and immobilized by its special effects as a Spanish infanta in her brocade, farthingale, and jewels," wrote Slate. "Duff," is how The Telegraph succinctly dismissed it. Observed The New York Times with a hint of relief, "HBO has become a place where ... movies go to get a do-over." Mashable delicately contributed that, "the film was not well loved." And while the new take on His Dark Materials might not be "the series fans hoped for," it's at least "better than the movie," USA Today offered.
Despite Pullman's cinematic writing, which offhand seems like it should be a slam-dunk for small and big screen adaptations, His Dark Materials has remained frustratingly unsatisfactory when transferred beyond the pages of the books. HBO's attempt, co-produced with the BBC, premiered Monday night to mixed-positive reviews from critics, although clearing the bar set in 2007 isn't exactly a feat. But now the dreaded word "unadaptable" has begun to burble back into the conversation all these years later. Even considering the advances in CGI in the interim, and the defiant charm Dafne Keen brings to the show's young protagonist, Lyra, His Dark Materials doesn't have the sparkle of Pullman's beloved trilogy. And if HBO has failed under these conditions, then perhaps no adaptation of Pullman's series will ever succeed.
His Dark Materials covers events familiar to readers of the first book of Pullman's series, The Golden Compass. In this world, as is explained by a clunky intertitle at the start of the show, people's souls exist outside their bodies in animal form. These "daemons," as they are known, can change shape when people are young, but take a single form that reflects their human companion's personality when that person reaches adulthood (for example, all servants' daemons settle as dogs). Lyra, a presumed orphan, is raised by scholars at Jordan College in Oxford; it is here that she overhears her Uncle Asriel (James McAvoy) speak of discovering alternate universes, although such an assertion challenges the authority of the world's Catholic Church stand-in, the Magisterium. Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimonis, are subsequently sucked into a conspiracy involving kidnapped children, soul-severing, armored bears, witch clans, and a mysterious particle tied to Original Sin, called "Dust." (Over the years, many Christian groups, including The Catholic League, have criticized what they perceive as atheist underpinnings in the series).
What HBO's His Dark Materials has going for it, above all else, is time. At under two hours, 2007's Golden Compass had to scramble to stuff the entirety of Pullman's 400-plus page fantasy novel into its overburdened script, leaving the expected yawning chasms of clarity and character development. His Dark Materials, on the other hand, is an eight-hour endeavor with a second season already on the way. The creators clearly feel no time crunch; the show's initial episodes practically plod, even when they are meant to be tense. Part of that is owed to overcorrection, whittling away long minutes with dull exposition that is more economically delivered in the film version.
In truth, many of His Dark Materials' pitfalls come to light when compared side-by-side with The Golden Compass (it is here I reluctantly admit I am not among the legions who despise the movie; it's fine!). While Compass was mocked for its goofy-looking CGI animals, chief among them the bear Iorek Byrnison, it seems wrong to fault the movie for the technology available to its creators at the time (for context: a contemporaneous review in The Telegraph called the bear "incredible"). Nevertheless, it would be wrong to call His Dark Materials a significant visual improvement; while more "realistic," it hasn't shaken the video-game-cut-scene appearance of the daemons, which are unnaturally blocky and rigid. The effect is worsened by the fact that none of the humans seem to have any chemistry with their daemons either; the creatures are often out-of-shot as to not be bothered with, and mainly exist in the script as soundboards for explaining character motivations aloud. The Golden Compass film, for all its faults, did right by positioning daemons as the heart of the story; in the 2007 adaptation, Pan playfully flicks through forms alongside Lyra, making him seem as real and sentient as she.
Pacing and chemistry, though, can be corrected (critics, it should be noted, were only given the first half of the HBO series for review). But for all the visual richness of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, what gives the novels their power is their interiority. The deep understanding between Lyra and Pan, for example, will always better be captured in words than in an actor engaging with a prop that will be CGI-ed to life in post. Likewise, the complex spiritual and philosophical themes of the novels, which use a Paradise Lost narrative arc and have enough literary references to warrant entire companion guides, have to be awkwardly explained visually or through forced conversation, montage, and voice-over, rather than organically realized, as they were by readers.
Never say never, though. HBO has already found success this fall in adapting the supposedly unadaptable, with its magnificent Watchmen series. In that case, though, the show deviates greatly from its source material; it is a sequel, with its own themes and interests. His Dark Materials would have done well to follow a similar strategy — for all the openings Pullman's universe presents, the series' biggest fault is remaining safely on its surface. In 2007, The Golden Compass was skewered for biting off more than it could chew. One only wishes His Dark Materials had been as ambitious.
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