If you were an 11-year-old that loved a reading challenge, a good metaphor or a trip into a fantasy world, then you probably read Philip Pullman’s trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’. You may even have been disappointed with the 2007 “Golden Compass” film adaptation, so when you heard that there was a re-make of the first novel in the trilogy, you were probably a little hesitant. But perhaps you were excited when you read that James McAvoy would star in it. And when the first episode aired on the BBC on November 3rd, you no doubt watched, hoping to be transported back to when you read the novels for the first time.
Adapting Pullman’s bestselling books was a major risk for the BBC, as the fantasy novels are so beloved that super-fans will be quick to jump on any flaw. Not only that, fans like me were left so disappointed by the Hollywood film that we had little faith in ever seeing a decent adaptation.
The good news is there is zero chance of this adaptation being given the thumbs-down. Even the most dedicated nitpicker would struggle to pick a fight with the inspired casting and lavish production values, especially Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter and Dafne Keen as 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, who have both put in standout performances.
Set in an alternative reality full of airships, witches and giant polar bears, the eight-part drama is based on ‘Northern Lights’, the first book in the trilogy.
In Pullman’s extraordinary fantasy world, every human being on planet earth is accompanied by a daemon, a physical manifestation of their soul that takes the form of an animal. When people are children, their daemons can shift shape at will, until they settle into a single form once puberty is reached. They reveal a person’s true nature and provide constant companionship.
We spend some time with Lord Asriel, performed by McAvoy, and you can tell the actor is thrilled to be playing the part. He delights in every scene, oozing confidence and a dark power. Not only that, he pulls off the cable knit sweater they’ve made him wear.
The lead character Lyra, Lord Asriel’s niece, is a young girl who embarks on a quest to discover why children her age are being mysteriously abducted.
The Guardian describes Dafne Keen’s Lyra as “a fierce, intelligent performance”. An orphan, Lyra is allowed to run wild at Oxford University’s fictitious Jordan College, and Keen hits just the right note of headstrong charm and vulnerability.
The first episode of the series drew an average audience of 7.2 million viewers, according to overnight figures from Barb.
One of the biggest criticisms of ‘The Golden Compass’ film was how the trilogy’s Magisterium was changed from a religious organisation, in the vein of the Catholic Church, into your typical freedom-hating baddies. In the new adaptation this isn’t the case. Power and fanatical faith are intertwined at the heart of the world and the show isn’t shy about portraying that.
The first episode has set the scene, keeping the film remarkably faithful to the book. It may have started off slowly but there is a lot to unpack, and overall the debut shines with the promise of great things to come. Oh yes, and filming of the second novel is already underway.