Is this the BBC’s new Narnia?
Book adaptations for the screen are a funny thing. Without the right budget or respect for the source material, on screen versions of our favourite books can often feel a little lacklustre or downright cheap. The BBC‘s adaptation of His Dark Materials is neither. This is the second attempt to bring Pullman’s beloved books to the screen, the first being 2007’s The Golden Compass. That adaptation failed to spark a new Harry Potter-esque franchise, despite the love for the source material. Then again, the beloved The Chronicles of Narnia books ultimately failed in their attempts to be adapted for the big screen, suggesting perhaps that the source material might be best suited for TV.
Talking of Narnia, I immediately had that feeling of watching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child. The weekly trips to Narnia on the BBC were a highlight of my childhood and I immediately felt the wonder of a rich world coming to life as I watched the opening episode of His Dark Materials with my own family. It is clear from the start that this series has been treated with great care for the source material, embracing the fantastical elements as real as any of the very human characters. The animal daemons that accompany the characters look wonderful and are backed by a wonderful voice cast; talking animals are always a risk, but the series absolutely pulls it off here. The rich culture of Oxford is made even grander with animal statues adorning the university spires and airships mixing fantasy with the familiar.
His Dark Materials is is a beautiful looking series – even with the brief glimpse of this alternate world we’ve seen so far. Oxford looks beautiful, particularly in that flooded opening. The journey into the frozen North, complete with the glimpse of the city captured within the Northern Lights, is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying.
None of it would work without a solid cast to back it up, and what a lovely cast it is. Dafne Keen is an absolute delight as central character Lyra, full of determination and wearing her heart on her sleeve; it is a performance that already carries the series, even against a strong adult cast. Lewin Lloyd brings wide-eyed wonder as her best friend Roger and you really feel for him come the episode’s closing moments.
The adult cast are stellar too, particularly Ruth Wilson as the mysterious Marisa Coulter. While fans of the books will know where her path will take her, she plays the line between kindly ally to Lyra and someone likely to be a very dangerous enemy. The fact that she never shares a scene with James McAvoy’s daring Lord Asriel speaks to a darker past that Lyra is yet to discover. I liked McAvoy’s performance, not quite heroic but filled with a sense of purpose that puts him at odds in his return to Oxford. Lyra might be angry at her abandonment, but you suspect that where he is going is far more dangerous.
There is a lot going on here. The dark corruption hinted at the heart of the Magisterium, the secret of the dust, the abduction of the Gyptian children by the mythical gobblers and Coulter’s own plans for Lyra. The golden compass, AKA the alethiometer, acts as an interesting macguffin, not to mention Lyra’s own legacy, including what happened to her parents. While this is a family show, His Dark Materials doesn’t treat it’s audience like simpletons, spelling out every plot thread and mystery. There’s plenty for kids and adults alike to get their teeth into. I suspect the 8pm scheduling also speaks to the darker undertones at play. What horrors lay beneath all that wonder?
Judging it purely on its opening episode, His Dark Materials is a successfully adaptation of Philip Pullman’s work. The upcoming trailer, obviously designed to appeal to fans of the books, offers plenty of hints at what is to come. Epic isn’t the word I would describe the series yet, but it lays a very solid foundation for this world, that is likely to capture the hearts of families everywhere over the next eight weeks. And with season two already commissioned – a real sign of faith by the BBC and HBO in their joint venture – there’s plenty more to come from this fascinating new world.
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