Last night, the television adaption of His Dark Materials premiered on HBO. Cecilia D’Anastasio and Gita Jackson sat down to talk about their long abiding love of the original book series, the first episode’s successes as well as its problems, and fighting polar bears.
Cecilia D’Anastasio: Gita! His Dark Materials! My favourite fantasy novels! Some of yours too! Surely we are not about to have strong feelings about the long-awaited television adaptation, which we both watched last night. Want to tell me what you like about the novels before we discuss your feelings on the show?
Gita Jackson: I read the novels as an adolescent, after the Harry Potter series. I think it was recommended to my mum by a friend’s parent, as she knew I was looking for the same kind of fantasy epic but with a girl as the lead character. Even though I am still a weird Harry Potter freak, the images and messages of His Dark Materials has served me much better as I’ve grown older. I mean, it’s a story about how growing up is painful, but necessary, right? This is all to say that I was completely losing my mind over this show the moment it was announced.
Cecilia: There was so much to live up to! I was not a Harry Potter freak, but I was certainly a His Dark Materials freak. Read the books legit six times. The coming-of-age story is the first thing I loved about it, but with each read, I found more to love: the deft critique of organised religion, the super rich fantasy world(s), the characters’ complicated understanding of good and evil. Aaaaaaaa. Did you have high hopes for the show? If so, did it live up to them?
Gita: Well, after having suffered through the movie, I was hopeful that this show would actually get it right. Despite Nicole Kidman’s wonderful Mrs. Coulter, that movie sucked arse and took away all the things you just mentioned that made the books so rich. It would be like adapting Final Fantasy VII and cutting the part where it’s all about climate change and removing Aerith’s death.
As far as the show, I tried to keep my expectations realistic, though the casting of all the lead characters minus Lee Scoresby was basically spot on. As far as how I feel after seeing the premiere, I’m... cautiously optimistic? I feel like this is being positioned as a successor to Game of Thrones in some ways, and I don’t think it’ll live up to that, but the pilot certainly managed to represent Lyra’s Oxford in a way that matched how I saw it in my mind’s eye. How’d you feel about it?
Cecilia: The movie SUCKED ARSE.
Gita: Just bad in every possible way. Truly transcendently bad.
Cecilia: Sorry. That wasn’t your question. I do stan Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. He’s got those icy eyes…
Gita: Oh my god I am so glad you share my perhaps not wise crush on Lord Asriel.
Cecilia: Actually, this is on topic: My first feeling about the show was that I didn’t like James McAvoy playing him. He doesn’t have the gravitas. I wasn’t scared of him.
Gita: I can see that. I mostly liked him, but I’m just a fan of McAvoy. He does seem really too young though. Isn’t Asriel basically in his sixties?
Cecilia: I think Asriel is in his 40s or 50s. I don’t know. It’s 2019 and I can’t tell anymore whether someone’s not a great fit for a role or if writing for book adaptations is bad now. He had some real groaner lines! “Everyone is special!”
Gita: What a weird thing to yell aggressively at a child!
Cecilia: Hahaha. How did you think he was in the famous scene where he’s showing off his findings from the north?
Gita: I thought the visual representation of dust was fantastic, and that’s definitely what lingers in my mind as I’m thinking it over this afternoon. When they showed the slide of the dust attracting itself to an adult, as well as the city in the sky, I felt the same shock and curiosity as the scholars in the scene, which means it was a job well done by the production team. McAvoy’s performance was... serviceable, I think. He definitely exudes “morally ambiguous,” which Lord Asriel definitely, definitely is. It’s hard for me to really come down concretely on how I feel right now because so much of the pilot is setting things up, things that I am REALLY excited to get to. I guess I’m saying, it’s all the stuff surrounding Asriel’s character and motivations that are propping up McAvoy’s frowny eyebrow acting.
Cecilia: Yeah, the image of the city in the sky was stunning. I promised I wouldn’t be a bummer, but I’m going to be a bummer: I wish the episode slowed down. We missed so many good things from the books that helped establish the characters and the world. Like Lyra and Pantalaimon arguing in whispers during Lord Asriel’s presentation. Aaaaaa I’m sorry that I care too much, but I care too much!
On the bright side, they really did establish the character traits early on. Lyra running along the rooftops in that amazing scene, Lord Asriel forgetting her in the cabinet, Mrs. Coulter acting both patronising and cloying with the “Which fork?” questions…
Gita: I do agree that this episode should have slowed down. Pilots for fantasy series are super hard because like, there’s so much shit to set up, but trying to cram the entirety of Lyra’s time in Oxford to one episode made some of the plot points that were introduced feel more perfunctory than organic. That said, can we talk about how perfect Ruth Wilson was as Mrs. Coulter for a second? I LOVED her.
Gita: She was everything I imagined. Her mannerisms, her immediate charm, the deadly undertones to her speech, her WARDROBE.
Cecilia: 100%. Totally. She was introduced a little hastily but made a huge impression immediately. One thing I always loved about her character is that she carved out her own channels for gaining her own genre of power in the very male scholarly world. I think her introduction definitely set that up. Also, her monkey daemon was TERRIFYING. The way it was animated… amazing.
Gita: The daemon animations for the main characters are really, really great. I loved that one scene where Lyra is running out of her bedroom to say goodbye to Asriel and Pantalaimon is struggling up the stairs. That monkey freaks me the HELL out man!!!!
Cecilia: Oh my god, its unfeeling eyes. So scary. Lord Asriel’s snow leopard was also perfect. The daemon-changing animations really impressed me in the scene where Lyra and Roger are running around Oxford.
Gita: I feel like the daemon animations point to the greatest strength of this pilot. Even if the plot points feel rushed right now, the world building in the sense of the atmosphere, the environments, and the peculiarities of this universe are extremely strong.
Cecilia: Undeniably. What scenes are you most looking forward to?
Gita: PANSERBJORN FIGHT
Cecilia: You said that SO fast!
Gita: Iorek was one of my favourite characters in the books! I am not exactly looking forward to Lin Manuel-Miranda as Lee Scoresby—I think he’s horrifically miscast—but give me those armoured bears IMMEDIATELY.
Cecilia: What! I’m really excited to see it. What if it’s good!!? It might not be good.
Gita: If he’s good I will eat my humble pie. But I always felt like Scoresby was like.... an old Kurt Russell, and Miranda just screams Broadway to me. What are you looking forward to?
Cecilia: So much of the pilot looked exactly how I pictured the world in my mind. There were parts I had trouble visualising when I read the books, and that’s what I’m looking forward to seeing most. So the intercision place up north. The witch communities. And that brilliant scene with Lord Asriel on the mountain with you-know-who and the aurora…
Gita: I can already feel my heart breaking. I just can’t wait to have other people discover what I’ve known for so long: His Dark Materials whips arse.
Cecilia: It is the best. (Read the books.) ((Sorry!))