The Phillip Pullman series known for its animal-familiar daemons and interrogation of religion has made it to the screen for the second (and hopefully last) time.
Criticised by Spectator writer James Delingpole as an “an extended, bitter rant against Christianity disguised as children’s entertainment”, hopefully the wider audience will bring to light that the books explore so much more than that. Given Delingpole also expressed irritation with colour-blind casting, it is perhaps to be hoped that the show continues to disappoint him.
For the majority of other viewers, however, His Dark Materials has the potential to become a delight. True the novels in a way the 2007 movie The Golden Compass never was, those familiar and those new to the story of daemons and Dust will be delighted to immerse themselves in Lyra’s world.
Set in an alternate universe ruled by the Church, orphan Lyra exists in the bubble of the fictional Jordan College, Oxford, with her best friend Roger. Raised among scholars and water-dwelling gyptians, the children are not alone; nor is anyone in this world. In this universe the souls of humans take on the form of animals called daemons, that shape-shift as children but eventually settle on a form true to self once they mature into adults.
This feature is not merely cutesy world-building to appeal to children however. What follows is a complex tale of innocence, childhood and the ambiguity of truth. Issues alluded to by Pullman in the corruption of the authoritative Magisterium decades ago find new light after Yewtree and Leaving Neverland, while the grubby fixation of religion on the purity of pre-pubescent youths is as relevant as ever.
The story has always provided children with a vocabulary to challenge the power of institutions that for so long have denied a voice to its most vulnerable targets.
Unfortunately, this voice is somewhat lacking from the new series. Performances from James Macavoy as Lord Asriel and Ruth Wilson as menacing Mrs Coulter are impressive and unpack the rich complexities behind these characters. However, the focus on the adult characters deny Lyra much-needed space as the protagonist of the tale. Dafne Keen has been condemned for her “wooden” performance as Lyra, however it is hard to believe the feral mutant we know from Logan could not pull off a similar character as the “half-wild cat” who was meant to stalk the rooftops of the college.
Another disappointment occurs in the second episode where the multi-dimensional twist is revealed, a move straying from the novels that threatens to complicate the already confusing world. Perhaps a greater plot scheme is at work here, however all it has served to achieve is to detract from the richly detailed world we are already getting to grips with through mercifully light-handed exposition.
Overall, the show has an impeccable potential to deliver a seminal work to a new generation of viewers, but only if it treads carefully around source material and doesn’t forget the magic of its original conception.
Image Credit: Andrew Stawart via Flickr