*SPOILERS FOR ‘HIS DARK MATERIALS’ EPISODE ONE BELOW*
His Dark Materials is the mother of all fantasy epics. Longer than Lord Of The Rings, thicker than Paradise Lost and more complex than Harry Potter, Philip Pullman’s three-book series tackles tricky themes like humanity, authoritarianism and original sin. They’re young adult novels for grown-ups. So how on earth do you go about adapting them for a mainstream audience? When we heard the BBC and HBO had teamed up to make a multi-series adaptation for telly, we were a bit worried. New Line Cinema had tried it back in 2007 with The Golden Compass – an overly-americanised film version of the first book, Northern Lights – but that flopped, badly. Maybe the story is just too dense and the world too rich to do justice to on camera? Reader, we needn’t have worried.
Last night, at a special screening in London, NME was given the chance to watch the first episode early. 60 minutes long and stuffed with all of your favourite bits from the book, it’s clear that big bucks were spent. And spent well. Set largely in a steampunk-influenced, pseudo-modern Oxford – early 20th Century airships are sometimes switched with helicopters – this version of Northern Lights is done properly. The script – which took 46 drafts to get right – follows Pullman’s novel mostly to the letter. We open on a flooded Jordan College, its ancient courtyard totally underwater. Lord Asriel – played by James McAvoy with a rogueish charm – is unperturbed as he wades across, baby Lyra tucked under his arm. After the mysterious explorer hands his niece over to the university’s Master (The Wire’s Clarke Peters), the rest of the episode plays out in the current timeline. Lyra (Dafne Keen) dodges the establishment’s educators, roams over rooftops with her soot-smeared pal Roger and dreams of snowy adventures with Uncle Asriel. Later, the Master bequeaths to her a curious, solid-gold compass called an alethiometer. It tells the truth, he explains, but Lyra must keep it safe, and secret – even from Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), the child’s glamorous new guardian who will accompany her to London and a new life.
You knew all that anyway though, didn’t you? From child-stealing gobblers to creepy religious zealots from the Magisterium, episode one of His Dark Materials won’t show a fan anything new. But it’s spot on, as far as the books are concerned, and everything else is pretty much perfect too. James McAvoy is on form as Asriel, while Clarke Peters plays the Master like a dignified grandfather, full of love and wisdom. Once Ruth Wilson is introduced at the midway point, Mrs Coulter takes centre stage. Well-manicured and sharp of wit, the cool-minded sophisticate is a joy to watch and Wilson brings across the sinister elements to the character well. Meanwhile, Dafne Keen (Logan) takes yet another role in her stride as Lyra. Cut-glass accent and some clunky delivery aside, the rising star gets it right. There’s even one desperately moving scene involving her little mate Roger, who is snatched by the Gobblers towards the end of the episode.
Elsewhere, the God-loving Magisterium get a modern update, becoming Star Wars-esque Imperial Officers complete with shiny insignia. The Gyptians remain a water-based people, but are allowed to venture onto the mainland a bit more. They’re also a bit less regional in dialect and more diverse ethnically. It is 2019, after all.
For the most part, His Dark Materials has a very regal vibe. The cinematography is beautiful and the cameras frequently cut to wide, sweeping shots of the countryside – accompanied by a majestic score that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Bond movie. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are touchstones here – and the tone is very much like a big, Christmas-time family blockbuster. The difference, crucially, is that nothing feels hammy or cheesy. Writer Jack Thorne and producer Jane Tranter have been careful not to rush the finer details – and there’s a quality to the production that’s rare on TV. It’s like Tranter said during a post-screening Q&A last night, “You don’t work for HBO and the BBC and do a vanilla adaptation that cuts through the middle.” His Dark Materials will please a lot of people, sure, but it’s more interested in doing justice to its fabulous source material. An approach that’s served it well, so far.
‘His Dark Materials’ begins on BBC One on Sunday November 3