TV Review: His Dark Materials

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

TV Review, His Dark Materials, Fantasy, Phillip Pullman, Otto Batthurst, Tom Hooper, Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, HBO, BBC, 2019

Plot: The series follows Lyra, a seemingly ordinary but brave young woman from another world. Her search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children and becomes a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust.

TV Review, His Dark Materials, Fantasy, Phillip Pullman, Otto Batthurst, Tom Hooper, Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, HBO, BBC, 2019

Review: With Watchmen having just premiered a week ago, HBO is hedging their bets on finding their next Game of Thrones with the upcoming release of His Dark Materials. The second adaptation of Phillip Pullman's acclaimed fantasy series (after the mixed reception for 2007's THE GOLDEN COMPASS starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig), His Dark Materials is a co-production between HBO and BBC with a talented cast and crew who take the source material and faithfully adapt it the way it was meant to be. This is an ambitious series that tackles some lofty themes about power and faith while still giving us spectacular special effects and thrilling action sequences. In short, this is HBO's first series that has the scale of Game of Thrones but is accessible for all ages.

While I saw a tease of the series at San Diego Comic Con earlier this year, the four episodes made available for review (the season will consist of a total of eight) are going to please fans of the books while adding back a lot of important elements stripped from Chris Weitz's film adaptation. The first season of His Dark Materials is essentially adapting the first book in the series, The Golden Compass, but there are countless moments of foreshadowing to the second and third novels as well as the books in Phillip Pullman's prequel trilogy. This means that, while it takes a similar timeline as the source novel, writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) is taking the approach of adapting the entire series rather than just one book at a time. This benefits the story by adding stakes and depth to each character that allow you to invest in them for the long haul.

For those unfamiliar with the first film or the novels, the story of His Dark Materials is set in a alternate world to our own. While the story starts in England, specifically at Jordan College in Oxford, the tale covers the globe. The novels and film took place in a Victorian setting, but this series updates things a bit to a more timeless era that combines more modern technology and fashion with a steampunk twist. It is clearly not our world in the least, but it does feel more accessible in this manner. Lyra (LOGAN's Dafne Keen) is an orphan living at the college under protection of scholastic sanctuary. This world is run by a religious order known as the Magisterium who oversee and control everything. When Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) discovers a matter known as Dust, it threatens to shake the belief system that the Magisterium strictly controls. All humans in this world also have a physical manifestation of their soul, known as a Daemon, that takes the form of an animal. Eventually, the connection between children and their Daemons becomes a major plot point for what the evil Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) has planned alongside the Magisterium.

It is a massive story and one that also features armored anthropomorphic bears, airships. truth-telling devices known as alethiometers, witches, and countless races and ethnicities all racing to save not only their children but their world from the Magisterium. Young Lyra plays a critical role at the center of this and her journey has her meet up with aeronaut and adventurer Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) or her quest to find Lord Asriel and reveal the truth about Dust. Without giving any elements of the plot away, I can say that I was not convinced that this cast would be able to match the star power of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, but they do. Ruth Wilson's Mrs. Coulter is far more terrifying that Nicole Kidman and James McAvoy is a much better fit as Lord Asriel than Daniel Craig's cold and detached take. My favorite change is Lin-Manuel Miranda who takes over from the legendary Sam Elliott. Miranda's youthful vigor makes Scoresby more of a brigand than Elliott's cowboy and it marks the Hamilton creator's most distinct role to date. Young Dafne Keen shows her LOGAN role was no fluke and truly embodies Lyra and makes the role her own.

TV Review, His Dark Materials, Fantasy, Phillip Pullman, Otto Batthurst, Tom Hooper, Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, HBO, BBC, 2019

What really helps make this take on His Dark Materials so good is the the fact that writer Jack Thorne penned the entire series. Having a single person tell the story manages to keep the huge mythology that Phillip Pullman crafted as cohesive as possible. The series also benefits from having some skilled filmmakers at the helm, notably Oscar winner Tom Hooper (LES MISERABLES, CATS, THE KING'S SPEECH) who directs the first two episodes and is joined by music video director Dawn Shadforth (the excellent Kylie Minogue video "Can't Get You Out of My Head") and Otto Bathurst (ROBIN HOOD). Despite the fantastical settings and subject matter, these directors all lens His Dark Materials with realistic tones and camera styles, making the series feel much more tangible. The score by Lorne Balfe (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT) is equally epic with a theme that has the grandeur of Game of Thrones.

His Dark Materials is really good and has thankfully already been renewed for a second season. While there are only three books in the main series (along with two short books and the prequel trilogy), His Dark Materials likely has a finite number of seasons, but I can say that the episodes I have seen of the first have me already wanting more. It is an all ages adventure that will appeal to adults and kids alike and will surely spike interest in the novels. His Dark Materials is by far the best fantasy adaptation since Game of Thrones and maybe even the Harry Potter films. 

His Dark Materials premieres Monday, November 4th on HBO.

TV Review: His Dark Materials



About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.