Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Lyra’s Jordan Materials trilogy is an interesting, albeit occasionally divisive work of fantasy literature. Before the release of this BBC/HBO series we’ve had one adaptation: The Golden Compass film which covered most of the first book. This came out in 2005 and sadly had a lukewarm critical and financial reception, in part because of bad timing but also because it was clearly following the trend of high fantasy adaptations following Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia but with less ambition.
Now we have a full series, eight episodes and a confirmed second series. Are we going to get a work which does justice to the imagination and introspection of the novels? Based on this first episode, it looks as though we’re in more than capable hands.
We open on a picture of a flooded Oxford University, the water waist-deep as Lord Azrael (James McAvoy) and a faithful snow leopard wade through the water to a door and to give an infant girl ‘scholastic sanctuary.’ It makes for a very effective opening into this world which is like ours, in that we have identifiable places like Oxford and London, but also airships, giant bears, the ruling Magisterium, lots of talk of heresy and a substance called Dust.
Based on this first episode, it looks as though we’re in more than capable hands
The first episode’s main accomplishment is how organically it weaves all of these threads and concepts together to make a coherent, engaging whole. We see the homely Oxford contrast with the bare and imposing Magisterium and the rough but lively Gyptian community. We see how the relationships between humans and their souls, who live outside of them in animal form works. We are shown the values of this society and the dangers our characters are in already. There is suspense, endearing friendship and multiple mysteries to pursue. By the end of ‘Lyra’s Jordan’, a great deal of ground has been covered and the story is off to a strong beginning.
Something which helps a great deal is that the cast is impeccable. James McAvoy shines as Azrael, both an intense yet also reserved presence. Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter easily had the biggest hurdle to jump purely based on who played the role in the Golden Compass. Nicole Kidman did a fantastic job in the role, nailing the seductive glamour of the character. Wilson’s portrayal is more grounded, more human, and while this could have made her seem less interesting it works so well because we have Dafne Keen as Lyra, who is perfect in the role, a rough and ready girl who feels more suspicious and earnest than her film counterpart and would likely have been able to see through Kidman’s version. Her dynamic with Wilson and McAvoy, and indeed with the rest of the cast is especially endearing. She’s spirited, strong-willed and stubborn, all qualities which make her endearing as she begins a very perilous journey.
We see how the relationships between humans and their souls, who live outside of them in animal form works
But as anyone who’s read the books know the human characters are literally only half the story. Getting the daemons, the animal parts of the soul right was essential. Thankfully all the animals feel real, both as physical entities and characters. If there’s anything the series has to watch it’s the way in which they integrate them, as its quite easy just to let them hang to the side and be forgotten for scenes at a time. That being said it’s not a problem for now more something for the show to keep an eye on as it progresses.
The show looks beautiful, Oxford feels lived in, making the emphasis on leaving it behind as a kind of sanctuary all the more effective as Lyra departs. On all fronts it’s an impressing opening which ticks all the right boxes and moves at a strong enough pace for me to look forward with anticipation for the rest of the series. Pullman’s world has been truly brought to life in this adaptation, and we haven’t even met the bears yet.