His Dark Materials Proves TV Is the Right Place for Epic Fantasy

The HBO series does justice to both sweeping quests and intimate conversations.

Dafne Keen, as Lyra Belacqua, looks at her daemon Pantalaimon while framed by a window.
Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials HBO

Consider the new series based on Philip Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials conclusive proof that TV is now the best medium for bringing epic literary fantasy to the screen. The tricky part of adapting the trilogy has always been the daemons—a sort of externalized soul in animal form that accompanies every human being in Pullman’s alternate universe. Nicholas Wright’s 2003 stage version came closest to replicating the wrenching grandeur of the books, using stylized puppets operated by faceless figures in black bodysuits to represent the daemons, but theater, by inviting the audience’s imagination to conspire with the most rudimentary of props, can get away with that sort of thing. The Golden Compass, the 2007 film adaptation of the trilogy’s first book, could not, and was as burdened and immobilized by its special effects as a Spanish infanta in her brocade, farthingale, and jewels.

Credibility springs not from visual perfection but from drama, a principle central to this co-production between HBO and the BBC written by Jack Thorne. (In the U.S., episodes air Mondays on HBO.) Game of Thrones, whose popularity His Dark Materials is obviously meant to emulate, had dragons and battles, admittedly awesome, but more importantly it had bickering siblings and deceitful spouses, palace intrigue (which is really just workplace intrigue), and obnoxious neighbors—situations anyone can both relate to and believe in.

At the center of His Dark Materials is 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living in the fusty confines of Oxford’s Jordan College, surrounded by aged scholars and running off to romp and scrap with smudge-faced boys in the streets any chance she gets. Lyra’s Oxford is not our Oxford. She exists in an alternate, steampunk-ish version of this world where people travel in enormous dirigibles, and a monolithic church called the Magisterium is intent on extending its authoritarian control. Everywhere Lyra goes, Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor), her daemon and alter-ego, goes with her.

Pullman’s trilogy is remarkable in children’s literature for the value it places on adulthood. He does not consider it tragic that Lyra will grow up, is growing up during every moment of the story. To be an adult, in Pullman’s thinking, is to gain access to a kind of presence that is both painful and splendid. It is to become more real. Children’s daemons change shape constantly, but when a human being comes of age, their daemon settles into a consistent form, one that, as a much older character explains to Lyra, helps you recognize who you truly are.

Dafne Keen, with her avid face and pugnacious vitality, makes a better Lyra than the dainty Dakota Blue Richards of the 2007 film, but it is the adults in this adaptation whose performances generate the most power. Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), Lyra’s uncle, and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a glamorous and mysteriously powerful woman, are two adults who take a pronounced interest in Lyra. Mrs. Coulter, whose beauty and ruthlessness make her a very effective villain in the novels, can come across as a cipher. In the 2007 film, she was played by Nicole Kidman, whose Botoxed flawlessness perfectly matched the novel’s description of the character’s appearance and not much more. But Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter is revelatory, every small, controlled gesture hinting at a lifetime spent learning how to outmaneuver men who do not merit the authority they hold over her. (Wilson has given the character a tiny “hmm” that she utters when she encounters a setback, a ladylike sound that vibrates with a vast rage and an even vaster self-discipline.) It’s a performance made possible by Tom Hooper’s sensitive direction. He’s not afraid to linger on Wilson’s face, recognizing that what flashes across it is every bit as thrilling as shots of zeppelins over London and computer-generated polar bears.

The plot of His Dark Materials is a fusion of ripping adventure yarn and coming-of-age story; neglecting the latter in favor of the former, on the misapprehension that action pleases audiences more than character, is a mistake this production does not make. The expanse of eight episodes makes it possible to do justice to both sweeping quests and intimate conversations. Lyra leaves Oxford to search of her best friend, Roger, a fellow orphan who is kidnapped along with other kids by a shadowy operation nicknamed the Gobblers. Pursued by the Magisterium for unknown reasons, Lyra finds refuge among the Gyptians, a nomadic people who live on canal boats that cruise up and down the rivers of Brytain (England). Together, they travel north, where, somewhere within the Arctic Circle, Lord Asriel has been conducting heretical experiments with a substance known as Dust, and the missing children are held captive. Along the way, the seekers pick up Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is playing a jaunty American “aeronaut,” and his friend, Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg), the deposed king of the armored polar bears.

Pullman fans adore the gruff Iorek, and in truth, this battered, self-doubting warrior is an impressive presence in the series’ fourth episode. But what stuck with me was a quiet scene in the hold between Lyra and Coram van Texel, gray-haired adviser to the king of the Gyptians. Played by the Scottish actor James Cosmo, Coram tells Lyra that decades ago, he fell in love with a witch, the queen of an all-female, not-quite-human people living in the lands of the north. The pair had a son who died in an epidemic, and the loss split them apart. “It was a long time ago,” he tells the dewy Lyra, Cosmo’s eyes wet amid his wrinkles. Unlike so many similar exchanges in countless movies, this one is rich with the breadth and depth of those years, the expanse of a life lived fully, in all its joy and sorrow.

These are the moments that give His Dark Materials its ballast, that keep it from floating off into a fantasia of artificial eye candy. Without the span of eight episodes, such moments would almost certainly be lost, or truncated beyond all recognition. Instead, there is room for both sweeping quests and intimate conversations, dazzling vistas and the human face.