His Dark Materials: The Trickiness of Cross-Medium Adaptations

To my eternal sadness, many people don’t seem to remember (or know of) the great book series that is His Dark Materials. If you don’t remember seeing it at the library or reading it for elementary school, here’s a quick overview: it was sort of like Harry Potter but before Harry Potter came out, the story of a girl travelling to the Arctic to rescue her best friend and her imprisoned uncle, and then going on various other adventures that are too spoilerific for me to mention here. It was the children’s fantasy series that won award after award and is now cemented as a classic—if not in fantasy literature as a whole, then definitely in children’s literature and in the hearts of its many devoted readers.

The acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy, published 1995-2000. Fun fact: Pullman has recently started a sequel trilogy set in the same universe, titled The Book of Dust.

So, why am I bringing up this blast from the past? Well—and the average person probably has no idea of this, given how under-the-radar the news of this seemed to be—His Dark Materials was adapted to TV by BBC and HBO in the fall of 2019. As a fan of the books, I was of course incredibly excited when I first heard the news of the show, and so I reread the trilogy in eager anticipation. And now that the eight-episode first season has just recently concluded, I have a lot of thoughts on the show’s adaptation and how it compares to the books, especially as both of these media of storytelling are still fresh in my mind.

Dafne Keen in the center, accompanied by (left to right) Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson, and James McAvoy.

Perhaps it’s because the novels were so fresh in my mind that I ended up have a much more lukewarm reaction to the series than anticipated. Pronouncing “the books were better” tends to get on a lot of people’s nerves, especially when said in a snooty, I’ve-read-the-source-material-before-it-was-cool kind of way, but no matter how annoying of a phrase, it really is based in a measure of truth. In a variety of ways, it’s difficult for movies to match up to a book that’s already been deemed a success in its original medium. Many of the elements that might have contributed to a book’s success could be elements that work best in prose, or which do not work at all in film. In The Golden Compass, the first book of the trilogy, there are weighty decisions debated and shocking revelations processed; these are things much easier to convey just right in lengthy inner monologues than in a couple shots of an actress’ face.

That’s one example, but there are others, too—things you can’t quite get across with pictures like you can with words. Nuance and detail, little bits of foreshadowing and clues read in between the lines, a certain turn of phrase here or there; all these things were instrumental in making books so great. That isn’t to say that film doesn’t have its own specialities and merits as well—but the first season of His Dark Materials might’ve been just a tad doomed from the start, with such huge shoes to fill. I couldn’t help but view it in relation to its source material rather than according to its own merit as its own story. Other details, too: casting choices that were different from the versions in my head, or scenes that had to be cut or drastically reduced in scope for time and budgetary reasons. All these things contributed, in little ways, to my slight disappointment with the first season.

And despite how negative this article may seem so far, I do really mean slight—and that’s because on the whole, the show knew what decisions to make in order to best bring the book into a new medium. Yes, some fantastic (and I mean that in both senses of the word) battle scenes had to be reduced, and some plot lines were interwoven in different orders or altered so that they would fit better with visual storytelling, but on the whole, the producers did an admirable job of maintaining the heart of the story while juggling the need to convert a story to a different medium while also staying as faithful as possible to the original tale. It’s possible the showrunners have learnt the lesson from the 2007 movie adaptation of The Golden Compass—originally planned to be a trilogy, but which flopped with a Rotten Tomatoes critic approval rating of 42% (compare this to His Dark Materials, the TV show, which so far has a rating of 81%). By staying true to the books—something which movie/film adaptations seem to fail to do time and time again— His Dark Materials ends up being a charming, nostalgic, and enjoyable experience, and its first season makes for a nice wrap-up of the first novel of Philip Pullman’s trilogy.

Lord Asriel, one of the most well-adapted characters. Played by James McAvoy, who is himself a longtime fan of the books as well.

The second season is already in production, and something I’ll be looking forward to for next fall. In the meantime, if you like fantasy with a side of steampunk, adventure with a dash of humour, and a bold and bright protagonist with a lot of heart, (and also some rather pointed criticism of organized religion, and talking polar bears,) then give His Dark Materials—book or show—a shot. The books are amazing, and the show, while not totally perfect by any means, makes one far more appreciative for what it gets right, rather than anything that might have been gotten wrong. In my opinion, it’s a solid example of a series adapted right.

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