It was always going to happen. Not even His Dark Materials could escape an HBO adaptation without getting its story changed. Known for taking iconic tales and giving them a fresh spin (see Watchmen), the US production house has teamed up with the BBC for their latest Christmastime family drama. But three doorstop-thick books and several dozen scripts later and this telly version of Philip Pullman’s fantasy opus still wasn’t quite right. It was clearly just too dense not to tinker with. Luckily, a few changes haven’t made much of a difference and this is still a magnificent retelling of a British classic.
If you remember, episode one finished with Lyra (Dafne Keen) on board an airship bound for London with Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Putting her suspicions aside, the inquisitive youngster was optimistic about finding best pal Roger in the Big Smoke. Little did she know that the kitchen boy had been snatched by The Gobblers, led by none other than – you guessed it – Mrs Coulter.
Episode two picks up exactly where the first instalment left off. Plucked from the sooty rooftops of Oxford, Lyra visits the Royal Arctic Institute with her new guardian and makes polite conversation with academics and high society types. Almost at once, Mrs Coulter has her studying maps and learning complex equations, all in the name of preparing for their big expedition north. However, it doesn’t take long for the truth to come out and Mrs Coulter’s mask to slip. In a tense scene, her daemon – a physical manifestation of one’s soul, in this case a golden monkey – wrestles Pantalaimon (Lyra’s daemon) to the floor and pins him there. Later, daemon and girl sneak into a locked office and learn a horrible secret about the work her custodian is doing. They resolve to flee the situation and a cocktail party provides the perfect cover.
Elsewhere, sinister Church official Lord Boreal disappears mysteriously, but not before an ego-fuelled confrontation with the Master of Jordan College, played by The Wire‘s Clarke Peters. One of the main themes of Pullman’s work is spirituality versus knowledge, and their edgy standoff is a good example of this. Similarly, when a journalist comes snooping around Mrs Coulter’s flat, the ruthless manner in which she is dispatched evokes images of the Soviet Union and the brutal way dissenters were dealt with then. Essentially an extended argument against organised religion, His Dark Materials has clearly retained one of its key messages post-adaptation.
Look beyond the broad similarities though, and you’ll start to notice some crucial differences between the written work and the TV series. Firstly, a key revelation occurs far earlier than in Pullman’s novel – and several events that happen off-screen in the books are seen here in all their glory. We won’t spoil those now, but avid readers can expect to learn something new for the first time this series.
Purists may be irked by HBO’s departure from the source material, but to be honest, it’s hardly noticeable. If anything, the alterations only serve to make the narrative more interesting, with several characters given heftier storylines. In Northern Lights, Pullman’s first part of the trilogy, everything is seen through Lyra’s eyes – those of a child. But in His Dark Materials, we get to see the world’s devious adults plot and conspire against each other, which makes the narrative that much more complex and gripping. Plenty of money has been plowed into this project, and its producers felt justified in taking liberties with its story. But this isn’t a children’s book anymore – and those changes make perfect sense for TV. Tinker away, HBO.
‘His Dark Materials’ airs on BBC One every Sunday at 8pm