His Dark Materials is an epic trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman consisting of Northern Lights (The Golden Compass, here in the states), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The trilogy follows the coming of age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they wander through a series of parallel universes. I’ve been a fan of His Dark Materials since it was banned at my Catholic school and I ended up reading them at Barnes & Noble when I was 10. With an already less than stellar adaptation under its belt, I worried what would happen when this fantasy series was adapted again, only this time by HBO.
With a star-studded cast, including James McAvoy, triple threat- playwright, actor, and musician – Lin-Manuel Miranda (although he doesn’t appear this episode), and the young star of Logan, Dafne Keen as one of the leads, Lyra, I was excited to hit play when the series began on HBO, a day after airing on the BBC. Thankfully, His Dark Materials, episode one titled “Lyra’s Jordan,” offered up a gorgeous world, one as large as the one presented in Pullman’s work.
If you don’t know much about the series already, there’s no need to fret. “Lyra’s Jordan” serves as a primer for the world, easing the viewer into the world of His Dark Materials through exposition that balances both showing and telling, a must for good fantasy in a visual medium. Opening with words breaking down the world we’re about to see, one of Daemons and a magical prophecy, the episode goes straight into the story as we see the child from the opening text, one with a destiny that will change everything, the baby Lyra, in danger.
Cut to an older Lyra, with her daemon Pan, as she races one of her friends across the school, showcasing the size of the institution and through it, showcases how small Lyra is in this big world, even if it’s just Jordan College. Lyra is a child, inquisitive and athletic, but a child nonetheless and there isn’t a moment in which she doesn’t feel like one. When her uncle, the Lord Asrial, shows back up to the college, he puts her scholastic sanctuary in danger as he shows his findings from the North, heresy and all.
His Dark Materials was banned in many Catholic schools and by many churches given its overt critique of Catholicism and the anti-intellectualism that is known to brew within it when science pushes against religious teachings. Taking the form of the Magisterium, this symbolism and commentary are still present in this adaptation as talks of heresy begin and the world starts to come in question at the college after Asrial shares his findings from his expedition.
Truth be told, I was worried that this theme would be ignored in this adaptation, given the Vatican’s staunch opposition to the 2007 film adaptation. While that iteration of Pullman’s story suffered from pacing issues and over-done accents, the church’s campaign against it didn’t help it succeed. To see HBO’s take showcase the stranglehold on the knowledge that the Magisterium has as well as mapping out the need for Scholastic Sanctuary against the organization was delightful. His Dark Materials is here to showcase Pullman’s world, all of it.
“Lyra’s Jordan” succeeds and sets the path forward for the series by highlighting childhood wonder, fantastic realism, and never forgetting the importance of its characters. Through Lyra and the giant halls of Jordan College, His Dark Materials gives a world bigger than our protagonist, bigger than the men taking care of her, and one that she is desperate to explore.
Additionally, the setting of the series is, as the opening explains, a world like ours, but not like ours. Jordan College looks like a world we know, but it’s through the daemons that we begin to see the magic that runs through it. Daemons, spirits in animal form that partner with humans like a witch’s familiar, are companions that speak, guide, and protect. The daemons would have been a stellar visual addition even if they didn’t speak, but they do, and the animation quality is near perfection. Matched with stunning vocal performances, even when briefly featured, the daemons are soulful and characters in their own right, which will only expand as the series continues.
Finally, each and every character on screen is wonderful and deep. They’re developed, even in the one episode. From Lyra to the Master, and Asrial, each and every one of them holds a space in episode one that not only wets your appetite for the rest of the series but also defines their trajectory and relationships with each other. But it’s Keen’s performance as Lyra that is magical, naïve, and so very smart. Lyra’s tenacity is wonderful on screen, and when she realizes her friend Rodger is in danger and lost, it’s the quality that pulls me to her, unlike any other character.
His Dark Materials is off to a wonderful start, one that beautifully crafts a new world for new fans to come into, while also providing enough depth and life to Pullman’s work that existing fans feel embraced by the story they know and love. With the Gyptians following the path to London along the river while Lyra takes to the skies, there are many questions to be answered in episode two and so much more to learn in the best of ways.
His Dark Materials airs every Monday in the US on HBO at 8pm CT/9pm ET.
His Dark Materials, Episode 1 - Lyra's Jordan
His Dark Materials is off to a wonderful start, one that beautifully crafts a new world for new fans to come into, while also providing enough depth and life to Pullman’s work that existing fans feel embraced by the story they know and love.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.