I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy when I was ten years old. My parents don’t write or speak English well, but they made sure that I could by bringing me to the public library whenever they had time off from work — which was very little. Pullman’s work, in this sense, made me feel the wonder of possibility in its purest form: Like Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen), I had to navigate a world which didn’t make the slightest bit of sense. His books, however, taught me that if I just tried, maybe I could make it work. Above all, the trilogy has always been about the beauty of found families — in this day and age, our chosen alliances are more important than ever. Later on in the series, Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd) tells Lyra that she is an orphan too, and that perhaps all they have is each other. While the newly adapted television series of Pullman’s trilogy, co-produced by HBO and BBC, noticeably struggles with pacing and the glaring absence of key plot points, it does an excellent job at honing in on the complexity of familial relations, and how found families remain crucial to our survival in the age of political violence.
With a screenplay written by Jack Thorne, His Dark Materials does more justice to the thematic concerns in Pullman’s work as compared to its previous film adaptation The Golden Compass (2007). At least His Dark Materials actually gave us the ending to Northern Lights — beautifully shot, too — that we have all been desperately waiting for since a decade ago. It also brought forward Will Parry’s (Amir Wilson) narrative in The Subtle Knife by writing it alongside Lyra’s, an ambitious decision which may have sidelined Will’s character development in favour of Lyra’s. Nevertheless, by the finale of the series, the parallel takes of Lyra and Will simultaneously entering different worlds really did make me weep: Two children, who are struggling with alienation and loneliness, are just about to change worlds together, even if they don’t know it yet. It is an ending which dances in the possibility of hope even in the face of profound heartbreak — this optimism is exactly what Pullman’s trilogy has always meant to me. It also stands in as a reminder of just how powerful the filmic medium can be in bringing the books we adore to life. That is a scene that narrative alone cannot possibly achieve.
Of course, with every visual adaptation of well-loved novels, there is the perennial problematic of whether film can ever do justice to the source text. This comparison has always taken narrative fidelity as its starting and end point. It also sees novels as inherently more prestigious than the visual medium, which is not only a crude — and possibly classist — generalisation to make, but also an utterly reductive one. Film and text are fundamentally different mediums of storytelling. Sometimes visuals can do what words cannot, and vice versa. What matters is whether writers/directors can make the qualities of their chosen vehicle of storytelling work to their advantage. And sometimes, adaptations present us with a new opportunity to fill in the gaps within a particular novel: gaps in narrative perspectives, themes, and the diversity of the characters portrayed.
In this case, His Dark Materials fleshes out the complexity of Mrs Coulter’s (Ruth Wilson) narrative. As the source text is largely focalised from Lyra’s perspective, what readers ascertain of Mrs Coulter is the perfect facade she wears in front of her daughter. In Pullman’s novels, she carries apathetic cruelty with seamless grace, coldness, and confidence — we rarely see much beyond this careful mask. Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter are all of those things, too, but her portrayal also adds a melancholic sense of sadness, deep regret, and self-loathing to Mrs Coulter.
Wilson’s Mrs Coulter looks at Lyra with love and cruelty in equal measure. She looks at Lyra and surprisingly realises a sacrificial love which goes against what she believes love to be — a manifestation of mankind’s innate sinfulness. Wilson’s Mrs Coulter is always teetering on the edge of her love for Lyra, a love which struggles to exist alongside her desire for control and power. As Ruth Wilson herself puts:
Mrs Coulter has constructed this version of herself that is clever, graceful, and in control. But actually, there’s a side of her that she has suppressed, which is much more free and feral, in a way.
The television series delivers their warped mother-daughter dynamic with excellent precision. During a masterful scene in episode six where Lyra manipulates Mrs Coulter just as Mrs Coulter manipulates her in return, we realise that Lyra is, in fact, her mother’s child. Both of them are equally capable of deception, lies, and coldness. Nevertheless, while Lyra uses these qualities for good, there is no good to Mrs Coulter. She is, as Wilson says in an interview, a total “cesspit of moral filth.” Lyra, so similar to her mother yet so vastly different, proves to be Mrs Coulter’s blindspot. The scenes where Mrs Coulter loses control have also given us all lesbians what we so desperately want to see: women — specifically, Ruth Wilson — going feral.
The weakest point of Thorne’s His Dark Materials, however, is the frustrating lack of focus on the unique, inseparable bond between humans and their daemons. Budget for puppeteers and CGI could be one possible factor that explains this, but when humans rarely interact with their daemons, the scenes in which children are intercised from their daemons lose their emotional weight. For instance, the emotional gravity of Lyra’s intercision from Pan is carried entirely by Dafne Keen’s haunting screams, as opposed to the reality that Lyra was about to lose Pan forever. The focus on this bond is especially important, given that that the intercision process heavily drives the trilogy’s narrative — as we have seen from the lengthy speeches on how evil (or not) Dust is.
Nevertheless, His Dark Materials is a sweet triumph: the stunning visuals, combined with an astute understanding of Pullman’s trilogy and Lorne Balfe’s ambitious orchestral score, makes for a powerful rendition — and definitely, a better one — of Pullman’s well-loved trilogy. Even if the series struggles with packing in major plot points from The Subtle Knife into its short runtime, its epic finale certainly redeems these weaknesses. For the first time, book-lovers of His Dark Materials get to experience the wondrous magic we all felt reading the last line of the first installment: “So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.”