IMDB description: “A young girl is destined to liberate her world from the grip of the Magisterium which represses people’s ties to magic and their animal spirits known as daemons.”
I was quite a big fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of books as a teen. I always found the unique mix of kiddie wish-fulfillment adventure, meticulously constructed fantasy world with its own rules and customs, and epic religion vs. free will themes to be a fascinating combination.
The rich detail of the world(s) inhabited by young Lyra Belacqua and friends (and enemies), and vast scope of the books were what made them special and incredibly easy to visualize in the mind’s eye, but I was always keenly aware of how daunting a task any screen adaptation would be.
It wasn’t that much of a surprise, then, that the first attempt at bringing His Dark Materials to film, The Golden Compass (2007), was generally, considered a disappointment by most, including myself.
I definitely thought it had its moments (the armored bear scenes were vivid and exciting in my opinion) but I also felt it leaned too heavily into the kid-friendly aspects of Northern Lights and left much of its more interesting themes and subtext by the wayside.
So I was cautiously optimistic when the BBC announced an epic 3-season TV adaptation of the trilogy in association with HBO. If nothing else, it promised to give the story enough breathing room to fully explore all of the elements that made the books such stand-outs of children’s literature.
Why I Took it Off the List
Well, to be honest, I almost gave up on the TV adaptation of His Dark Materials half-way through the airing of the first series last year.
Although it boasted a fantastic and mostly well-chosen cast, I felt it didn’t really do enough to distinguish itself from the first screen adaptation, despite a slightly updated aesthetic and the expansion of some sub-plots from the book.
What’s more, the series moved at a bit of a glacial pace, despite (or maybe because of) some elements from the second book being moved up and integrated into the action, and the tension of wondering what was going to happen sort of evaporated by how slavish an adaptation it was otherwise.
I decided to give the second season a go purely for the novelty of getting to see an adaptation of the second book, after this opportunity was scuppered following the box office failure of The Golden Compass.
Also, the books always had a sort of comforting wintery feel to me, so I felt like it would be a good watch in the run-up to Christmas. But, considering how underwhelmed I felt after the first series, I wasn’t that hopeful for its second.
Spoilers? In comparing it to series 2, I’ll be discussing what I thought didn’t work very well in season 1 of His Dark Materials, so some spoilers for that, but otherwise not so many for this new installment.
Review of His Dark Materials Season 2
I remembered being way more invested in the second book of His Dark Materials as a child than I was in Northern Lights. I think this might have been because of the extended scope of the book, the fact the second protagonist (from our ‘real’ world’) felt more relatable, and because the central setting was an otherworldly city inhabited by supernatural beings (which greatly appealed to my budding inner horror geek).
I think these elements were probably part of the reason I warmed to this version of Lyra and Will’s story much more quickly than I did than during series 1, but it’s also the fact that it doesn’t merely feel like a retread of what we’ve already seen brought to life on the screen before.
With no precedent in a visual medium, this adaptation of The Subtle Knife has way more room to make the story its own, and it does so in quite an impressive fashion.
Improves on Narrative Momentum
One of the biggest improvements creator Jack Thorne has made for the second season is to largely trim down the elements that slowed down the pace the first time and to mostly stick to scenes that move the story forward.
There are no extended hang-outs with the Gyptians from Lyra’s world here (who have pretty much completely disappeared from the story, making the deep dive into their culture during season 1 even more puzzling), and most of the scenes are infused with enough tension and/or mystery to keep you invested.
Saying that, it doesn’t skimp on character development and some really nice moments between the main players, especially in its strengthening of the bond of Lyra and Will and the appealing introduction of the loveably ditzy and empathetic scientist Mary Malone, played by the excellent Simone Kirby.
Ruth Wilson Continues to Kill It
One casting decision that I thought the first season absolutely nailed (in addition to Dafne Keen as Lyra and James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, sadly absent this time around) was Ruth Wilson as the chilling Mrs. Coulter.
I felt Wilson expertly conveyed a far more complicated version of Mrs. Coulter’s villainy than Nicole Kidman’s portrayal in the aborted film trilogy, and she continues to give a deliciously complex performance throughout her second go-around.
She’s ably backed up in the villain department by Ariyon Bakare and Will Keen as the sinister Magesterium operatives Carlo Boreal and Cardinal MacPhail, respectively, with the former in particular getting to play some surprisingly sympathetic notes that make him a compelling baddie.
There are still some casting missteps in my opinion: Lin-Manuel Miranda continues to seem miscast and annoyingly earnest as the supposedly hardened aeronaut Lee Scoresby (I do love his daemon Hester though, and the plucky hare definitely makes the biggest impression among the CGI animal sidekicks).
Andrew Scott is similarly unconvincing as the fabled shaman Jopari, while the actresses playing the witches who come to Lyra’s aid act ‘ethereal’ in such an exaggerated way that they threaten to wisp right off the screen. But in general, the performances definitely help the overall impact and enjoyability of the story.
Improved Production Values and Sense of Scale
Another big improvement over the first season is the production design and visual style of this second batch of episodes.
While I felt the relatively ‘grounded’ approach to the cinematography in the Northern Lights portion let the series down a bit and sucked out some of the magic, it’s clear that that the producers have made an effort to create more stylized sets and imaginative CGI work this time around.
There are notably more daemons hopping around in scenes that they should probably be in than before, which I think helps a lot for more immersion. And the design of Cittàgazze, the creepily deserted, Mediterranean-style island city on another world, is actually pretty fabulous and pretty much how I imagined it when reading the book all those years ago.
There are also a couple of scenes in the final episodes set on other, even more alien worlds that suggest that the series may well be able to pull off the insane visuals that will surely be required to render the last part of the story in a satisfying way, inspiring more hope for an epic finale than I had after finishing season 1.
Although, with a planet full of weird elephant-like roly-poly creatures, a literal land of the dead, and a full-on heavenly war still to go, there are still plenty of opportunities for the series to crap the bed. But, on the strength of its adaptation of The Subtle Knife, it now seems less likely to do so.
Final Score: 7/10
Worth Checking out?
Yes. A vast improvement over season 1, His Dark Materials really hits its stride during its adaptation of the second book in the series, delivering a far more propulsive narrative and well-conveyed bigger scale than the first time around. Fingers crossed it can stick the landing when/if it gets to The Amber Spyglass.
His Dark Materials (2019-)
Stay tuned for my next article, a special end-of-year list of what are (in my opinion) the most underrated films of the past 20 years, coming soon!