Think of the new series based on Philip Pullman's beloved His Dark Materials is the definitive proof that television is now the best medium for displaying epic literary fantasy on screen. The complex part of adapting the trilogy has always been demons, something like an external soul in an animal form that accompanies every human being in Pullman's alternate universe. Nicholas Wright's stage version of 2003 came closest to recreating the healing grandeur of books, using stylized puppets operated on by faceless figures in black bodysuits to represent demons, but the theater, inviting the audience's imagination to speak with the most rudimentary props, he can get away with such things. The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of the first book of the trilogy of 2007, could not and was as burdened and immobilized by its special effects as the Spanish infanta in brocade, farthing and jewelry.
Confidence comes not from visual perfection, but from drama, a principle central to this co-production between HBO and the BBC, written by Jack Thorne. (In the US, episodes aired Monday on HBO.) Game of Thrones, whose popularity His Dark Materials is obviously meant to emulate, there were dragons and battles, admittedly great, but by most importantly, she had quarrels and siblings and cheating spouses, palace intrigues (which is really just workplace intrigue) and disgusting neighbors – situations that anyone can relate to and believe in.
At the center of His Dark Materials is 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living in the thrifty confines of Jordan College in Oxford, surrounded by elderly scientists and running to get out and scrape with a smudge on the streets every chance you get. Lix Oxford is not our Oxford. It exists in an alternative, steampunk-ish version of this world where people travel with huge airships, and a monolithic church called the Magisterium intends to expand its authoritarian control. Wherever Lear goes, Pantaleimon (voiced by Kit Connor), her demon and alter-ego, goes with her.
The Pullman trilogy is remarkable in children's literature because of the value it attaches to adulthood. He does not think it tragic that Lyra will grow up, grow at any moment in history. In Pullman's words, to be an adult means to gain access to a type of presence that is both painful and magnificent. This is to become more real. The demons of the children change their shape constantly, but when a person reaches the age of majority, their demon is established in a consistent form, one that, as the much older character explains to Lear, helps you recognize who you really are.
Daphne Keane, with her passionate face and intricate vitality, makes a better Lyra than the weak Dakota Son Richards of 2007, but it is the adults in this adaptation whose performances generate the most power. Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), Lear's uncle, and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a brilliant and mysteriously powerful woman, are two adults who show a keen interest in Lear. Mrs. Coulter, whose beauty and ruthlessness make her a very effective villain in the novels, may come across as a cipher. In the 2007 film, she is played by Nicole Kidman, whose flawlessness in Botoxed perfectly matches the novel's description of the character's appearance and much more. But Mrs. Wilson's Culter is outspoken, every small, controlled gesture hinting at a lifetime, taught how to outnumber men who do not deserve the authority they hold over her. (Wilson gave the character a tiny "hmm," which, when he fails, expresses a feminine sound that vibrates with enormous fury and steady self-discipline.) This is a performance made possible by Tom Hooper's sensitive direction. He is not afraid to stick to Wilson's face, admitting that what flashes through him is as exciting as the shots of a zeppelin over London and computer-generated polar bears.
The Story of His Dark Materials is a synthesis of a torn adventure yarn and a story of modern times; ignoring the latter in favor of the former, in the misconception that action pleases the audience more than the character, is a mistake that this production does not make. The width of eight episodes makes it possible to do justice to both quick searches and intimate conversations. Lyra leaves Oxford to look for her best friend Roger, an orphan who was abducted with other children by a shadow operation called the Gobblers. Pursued by the Magisterium for unknown reasons, Lyra finds refuge among the Egyptian, nomadic people who live on canal boats that go up and down the rivers of Brightin (England). Together they travel north, where somewhere in the Arctic Circle, Lord Asriel conducts heretical experiments with a substance known as Dust and the missing children are held captive. Along the way, searchers pick up Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays a hoarse American "aircraft", and his friend Jorek Bernison (voiced by Joe Tandberg), the deposed king of the armored polar bears.
Pullman fans adore the rude Iorek, and in fact this battered, self-doubted warrior is an impressive presence in the fourth episode of the series. But what stuck me was the quiet scene in the hold between Lyra and Coram van Texel, the gray-haired king of the gypsy king. Played by Scottish actor James Cosmo, Coram tells Lear that decades ago he fell in love with a witch, the queen of an all-female, not quite human, people living in the lands of the north. The couple had a son who died in an epidemic and the loss separated them. "It was a long time ago," he tells the dew Lyra, and Cosmo's eyes are wet with his wrinkles. Unlike so many similar exchanges in countless films, this one is rich in the breadth and depth of those years, the expanse of a life lived fully, with all its joy and sorrow.
These are the moments that give his ballast his dark materials that keep him from flying into a fantasy of artificial eye candy. Without the duration of eight episodes, such moments would almost certainly be lost or cut beyond any recognition. Instead, there is room for both quick searches and intimate conversations, dazzling views and the human face.