Well, here we go again. The Hollywood film used to be the pinnacle of book-to-screen transformations. An author could hope for nothing greater than the bells-and-whistles cinematic going-over. Not any more. Now that “novelistic”, “prestige” TV spreads similar budgets across 10 hours or more, a starry, drawn-out, episodic version is the acme of adaptation.
With a new format in town, some adaptations are being redone, regardless of how recently we’ve seen them in the cinemas. The graphic novel Watchmen recently got the HBO do-over, just 10 years after Zach Snyder’s film. Amazon will shortly be presenting its Lord of the Rings prequel.
Which brings us to His Dark Materials (BBC One), a £50m, eight-part co-production with HBO that hopes to do for Philip Pullman’s bestselling novels what The Golden Compass, the 2007 film with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, couldn’t quite pull off. It has been written by Jack Thorne, with several episodes, including the opener, directed by Tom Hooper, who won the Oscar for The King’s Speech. Filming for the second series is already underway, so there is obviously some confidence in the enterprise.
From the four episodes made available to previewers, you can see why. His Dark Materials is worth the trip. This is a beautiful, brooding vision of Pullman’s universe, which retains the mix of childish wonder and darkness that make his books so beguiling to young adults. The first episode opens in Oxford, where it is explained that this is a world “both like, and unlike, your own”. It’s a steampunkish parallel universe, without electricity and where the world is ruled by the sinister Magisterium. Our heroine is 11-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), who lives at the fictitious Jordan College, Oxford, under the watchful eye of The Master (Clarke Peters). She was dropped off there as a baby by her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). But as we were warned, all is not what it seems.
One obvious way in which the world is unlike our own is the presence of daemons, animal familiars attached to human souls, which change shape and communicate telepathically. The screen demands speedier exposition than the books, but the daemons, whose voices we hear from the start, are presented startlingly without context. There are fine performances everywhere you look. Keen’s Lyra is brilliant and headstrong and vulnerable, pitched just so. For the beguiling, dangerous Mrs Coulter, who better than Ruth Wilson? Nobody. McAvoy is suitably zany as Asriel, making daring trips to the outlaw Arctic, while Lin-Manuel Miranda, as the the balloonist Lee Scoresby, reminds us he is much more than Alexander Hamilton.
The challenge with adapting Pullman’s books is not in weighing them down with pathos and menace, which must be tempting, but in retaining the fantastical energies that keeps them rollicking along. Amid all the thoughtful allegory and metaphysics there are plenty of things to look at: snow leopards, lumbering airships, armoured bears, and the new series doesn’t forget these simpler attractions. But while the 2007 film was lovely to watch in parts, too, it ultimately felt underpowered because it held back on some of the books’ anti-theocratic messages, for fear of spooking American audiences. No such anxieties are on display in His Dark Materials. The drama is all the richer for it. Adolescence wouldn’t be much fun if you didn’t get to question your gods.
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