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Politics, theology and polar bears, oh my!

4.5 out of 5 stars

The latest TV show distributed internationally by HBO, “His Dark Materials,” brings the fantasy trilogy written by Phillip Pullman to the screen. 

The show follows Lyra (played by Dafne Keen) who’s parents died in an airship accident when she was an infant. With her guardianship falling to her absentee uncle Lord Asriel, Lyra is sent to live at her uncle’s patron college at Oxford. Now 12 years old, Lyra lives as an orphan being raised by professors, but her comfortable life falls apart with the kidnapping of her best friend Roger. Lyra embarks on an adventure to find her friend which leads her to the deep North; a land inhabited by armored polar bears, witch clans and a thin barrier between the worlds.

Pullman published the first of the three “His Dark Materials” novels in 1995. In his storyline, Pullman describes a world similar to our own; children still run and play, prejudice abounds and universities seem to be their own realities separate from the “real” world. The world of “His Dark Materials” diverges from ours with its steampunk technology — a different history and spirit animals. Zeppelin-like airships fill the sky and the majority of the world is under the control of a totalitarian theological order known as the Magisterium. The most striking difference is the presence of daemons, a person’s soul manifested as an animal companion.

So how close is it to the book? The serial adaption is written by Jack Thorne, and each season is set to follow the events of a different novel in the trilogy. The first season follows the events of the cardinal novel, “The Golden Compass.” Unlike Chris Weitz’s movie adaption of “The Golden Compass,” released in 2007 under the same name, Thorne’s adaption contains a coherent plot and believable dialogue while staying faithful to the source material. However, the show takes some liberties with the action and dialogue, but these are often minor changes or additions to the story. 

The scene introducing Lyra, for example, features her hiding outside a window instead of in a wardrobe. Memorable quotes and dialogue from the novel are called back to. Dialogue is delivered believably and effectively, while lines unique to the show are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling. An additive to the series is the inclusion of more content not present in the original trilogy, namely the inclusion of scenes from Pullman’s spinoff trilogy, “The Book of Dust.” These additional scenes are included where they would logically occur, as the new trilogy takes place in concurrence with the original.

The cast gives an emotionally charged and believable performance. Keen shines with her portrayal of Lyra, the curious and rebellious 12-year-old protagonist. Keen is exemplary in displaying the range of emotions Lyra experiences, both in her voice and facial expressions. Keen portrays a mischievous and playful Lyra when the character is introduced but is able to deliver deliberate dialogue when things get more serious. Her measured delivery of the line, “He’s poisoning my uncle, Pan,” combined with a stern look at her daemon, displays her ability expertly. James McAvoy’s portal of Lord Asriel is similarly brilliant, especially in the smaller details like his shivering movements and raised voice after coming in from a howling blizzard, or the metered and exasperated way in which he delivers the line, “I am sorry, but I just don’t have time for you right now,” to Lyra.

With the shadow of the movie adaption still looming, some will have low expectations for the television interpretation. Despite the spotted track record, “His Dark Materials” is a combination of expert acting, writing and faithfulness to the source material needed to bring this back for fans who have been burned once already. “His Dark Materials” can be viewed on HBO in North America on Mondays at 9 p.m. EST.


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