What We Like (And Don't Like) About HBO's New His Dark Materials Show

Photo: HBO

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.

Cecilia: Yes!!!!!

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!!!!

Photo: HBO

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?


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?

Photo: HBO

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!))


    Apparently, it's on Foxtel in Australia, if anyone was interested.

    Meh, I read the books and thought they were pretty ham-fisted, like Davinci code but ripping off C.S Lewis instead of the gnostics and modern conspiracy theorists. He starts a lot of threads that are closed with deus ex machina plot cappers and whilst trying to deal with in-depth issues, it only really strikes with the "everyone has to grow up" philosphy. It doesn't deal with absolute power corrupting very well, nor does he deal realistically with the villains of the books, they are 2d characters at best, caricatures at worst. The mother is given some depth but the father's character is quite lacking.

    I also felt like the world wasn't very well fleshed out with vague glimpses at the world, but only just hinting and showing stuff before moving the plot elsewhere. Thankfully this is something a show can enhance by using the background.

    Show looks like they have done the best they can with the material, but the core material needed a lot of work.

      I could not disagree more. Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel could be seen as the villains, but both aren't as villainous as the systems and organisations that surround them, and I think they're some of the most complex villains in any media, but especially in a book series aimed at kids. I also totally don't see the conspiracy theorist angle at all, I mean we all know exactly what the church has done in reality, and events in the books aren't far off at all.

      I also think the world would have been far less interesting if it were 'fleshed out'. I understand where you're coming from regarding moving from place to place without deeply exploring each area, but everything is confusing and mysterious because it's from a child's perspective. If it was written from an adults all of the themes and concepts would be so oppressively dark that it wouldn't be much fun to read. I loved C.S. Lewis' stuff when I was a kid, but while there's absolutely dark stuff in it there's a reason I can still return to His Dark Materials as an adult where I can't do the same with Lewis' work. On another note both Lewis and Pullman drew heavily from the bible and religious imagery and themes - while Lewis probably was an inspiration, even if his work wasn't His Dark Materials would probably have been very similar all the same given the religious basis for the books of both authors.

      Also "ham-fisted"? Is it the most subtle book ever written? No. But it's about as subtle as a kids book could be, and given the capital D dark themes it goes into putting how it's written in context of it being aimed at children is pretty important. The church literally murdering children in an attempt to preserve their innocence, as well as making statements to the effect of the 'original sin' is the greatest achievement of mankind, that heaven would be a literal hell of believer's own making - overcrowded and full of delusional madmen, that death and total dissolution of the self is desirable where holding on to your individual self would be incredibly painful - those ideas would be pretty on the nose through an adults perspective and comparatively uninteresting, but through a child's perspective you can read into each observation Lyra makes through a fresh lens, one that reframes your own understanding of the church, death or religion as a whole. The series doesn't prescribe the correct reading, though it is obviously absolutely scathing when it explores religion, but rather allows you to read into each theme and develop the world and context around them with your own understanding, something I think is incredibly well done.

        Sorry man, the conspiracy theory thing was about the davinci code not HDM.

        I found the bits in the book annoying where something she has dealt with before in her life was treated as if it was new to her, but then any fleshing out was glossed over because she already knew about it, yet the main themes are thumped in over and over in big dialogues that have already been covered. Pullman also negates/ignores the difference between faith & religion that Lewis does cover, particularly in the last Narnia novel where All the main characters die. or in Screwtape, That hideous strength, etc.

        For good villains you can even look at the fleshing out of Kingpin in the latest versions of Daredevil and Spiderman, good solid reasons for doing what he does, loss, sorrow and abuse. Rather than "I belong to this organisation and will believe whatever they tell me because it gives me power.", or at Mary Shelley's works, or Sherlock Holmes (particualry the backstory of the villain in A Study in Scarlet), or Agatha Christie's works, for modern literature look at the Night Watch series, Peter F. Hamilton's works or any Terry Pratchett.

        Pullman does cite Lewis as his main inspiration for the works, he's done so in several interviews. He didn't like Tolkien, who was a lot more subtle in his religious influences in LOTR/The Hobbit.

        I can go back to Lewis even after all these years, only the first Narnia book was aimed at very young children otherwise it ranges from about 7-10, HDM is targeted at the YA (10-16) age groups. But I read HDM once and was not very impressed based on the loaner's talk-up, have never had the desire to go back to them. I may have to re-read them, but I remember distinctly thinking it was a bit of a shambles with the massive exposition done for no other reason than informing the reader, rather than using a character's actions. (Like Lyra having stories made up about her life to make it sound more exciting, cept they weren't)

        I have no problem with some of the concepts, the essential nhilistic view of the gnostics
        (downfall of self unless you are a religious leader) along with the more modern cult-like interpretations, such as belief forming your own heaven have been used in many books I have enjoyed, however he definitely does prescribe a correct reading as he goes through re-iterating each point and Lyra's interpretation of it.One of my problems was that he takes this one organisation and expands it's philosophy to cover all others of it's kind, tarring them all with the same brush if you will. The only beliefs left untarnished by this are the modern nature-worship ones that 'witches' et. al. believe in (not the original Celtic tribes or other indigenous ones).

        Just my opinion.

          Fair enough. For me I thought stuff like the motivations for both Coulter and Asriel were fairly nuanced, both did ultimately want to protect Lyra, though through very different means and very different ideas, but I can see why you might feel their decisions weren't properly explained. For me they both represented rigid world views that ultimately weren't compatible with Lyra's best interests, something they couldn't see or understand until the end.

          It does make a lot of sense that Lewis was a main influence, and personally I never got into LOTR (loved the Hobbit, but LOTR didn't do it for me) so for whatever it's worth my tastes probably align pretty closely with Pullman's own, so what may be seen as weaknesses in his work might be exactly what I liked about it.

          I don't personally think it does prescribe the correct reading (though HDM clearly takes aim at the church and larger organisations that prescribe how someone should live their life) but that's mainly because I'm looking at where Lyra and other 'good' characters differ in beliefs, if I were to follow the actions of Lyra and co in the novels rather than the discussions and arguments she had I would probably agree.

    Despite some good casting (Kidman & Craig as mentioned above) the movie was bad. Hollywood was always going to stuggle with the underlying themes, and would have had a hard time with the eventual climax had the sequels been made.

    HBO/BBC look like they're doing it right (though a longer series would have been nice). Very exciting.

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