So, what’s the big deal?
Philip Pullman released Northern Lights – the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy – in 1995. Since then, the novel – along with follow-ups The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – has been translated into 40 languages and sold almost 18m copies worldwide. Written for young adults, these modern masterpieces captured the imagination of adults as the books followed Lyra Belacqua, whose quest to find her kidnapped friend saw her uncover the sinister plot of a secret organisation, encounter extraordinary beings and protect dangerous secrets.
Almost 25 years on, Pullman’s beloved trilogy has been given a multi-season order from the BBC, with HBO picking up the worldwide rights. The series has been produced by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Shameless, Skins) and the first two episodes have been directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper, the man behind The King’s Speech, so fans can trust the story is in good hands.
For a tale that spans many worlds and features everything from mid-flight fights in Zeppelins to talking polar bears, there were concerns that a modest BBC Sunday-night drama might not successfully capture the more fantastical elements. In fact, the series looks spectacular, with Game of Thrones production levels. This is probably because His Dark Materials is the BBC’s most expensive series ever – so much so that the final budget is undisclosed. Throw in an A-list cast, and you can see why anticipation is high.
What’s the show about?
Series one follows Lyra, a seemingly ordinary but brave young woman from another world. Her search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a macabre plan involving stolen children, and becomes a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called ‘Dust’. As she journeys through different worlds, including our own, Lyra meets Will, a determined and courageous boy with a secretive past. Together, they encounter everything from witches to spectres as the fate of both the living – and the dead – rests in their hands.
If this all sounds a little familiar, that’s because the first book in the trilogy had the Hollywood treatment in 2007. Renamed The Golden Compass, the film starred Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green and Ian McKellen. Unfortunately, the cast wasn’t enough to draw audiences, and those who did see it were disappointed that the film shied away from some of the book’s darker, more controversial themes. New Line Cinema didn’t make the remaining two films, and fans were left hanging.
Other criticisms of the film were that it tried to cram Northern Lights’ multiple storylines and character arcs into two hours. Here’s where the series comes into its own, allowing both Lyra and Will (who we won’t see until series two) to become fully formed characters with backstories and personalities. We’ll also get to see many more ‘daemons’, the physical version of humans’ inner selves, which take the form of an animal. Lyra’s daemon is shape-shifting Pantalaimon, a constant companion through whom we learn much about Lyra herself.
Who’s in it?
Lyra is Dafne Keen, who’s best known for playing a young mutant in X-Men spinoff Logan. She might be a relative newcomer, but she embodies Lyra’s grit and unshakable desire to do what she feels is right. James McAvoy (Atonement, Filth) plays Lyra’s formidable, frightening uncle Lord Asriel, an explorer whose recent visit to Svalbard sets off a life-changing chain of events in episode one.
The A-list cast continues with Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair) as high-powered socialite Mrs Coulter, one of literature’s most intriguing villains. Her daemon, a beautiful silky-haired golden monkey, has been perfectly reimagined in CGI to recreate one of the most hateful characters we’ve seen on screen for some time. Hamilton and Mary Poppins Returns star Lin-Manuel Miranda has been cast as fan favourite Lee Scoresby, an adventurous Texan aeronaut who roams the land in a hot air balloon.
Ensemble cast members include Anne-Marie Duff (Suffragette, Shameless) as Gyptian matriarch Ma Costa, The Wire’s Clarke Peters as new character Dr Carne, Ruta Gedmintas (Tudors) as witch Serrafina Pekkala and Game of Thrones alumni James Cosmo and Lucian Msamati who play Farder Coram and John Faa, co-leaders of the Gyptians. The Dark Knight’s Ariyon Bakare takes on the role of Lord Boreal – a nemesis of Lord Asriel – while Will Keen (Wolf Hall) plays Father McPhail, who is high up in the church-like Magisterium and wants Lyra dead. The fact that Will Keen is Dafne Keen’s real-life father makes this cat-and-mouse game all the more gripping.
Alas, we’ll have to wait for season two to witness man-of-the-moment Andrew Scott (Fleabag, Sherlock) as scholar and shaman Colonel John Parry. He’ll be joined by newcomer Amir Wilson as protagonist Will.
With an 8pm showtime and cast of child protagonists, this is very much a show for older children, who will love the voyage to the northern lights, the splendour of Iorek Byrnison, king of the armoured bears, and the tight bond between Lyra and Pantalaimon. The plot is elevated for adults, who will be able to read much more into the themes of adolescence and coming of age as Lyra and Will wander through parallel universes. With a cast of truly great actors, this is an adaptation that Pullman can be proud of. We hope there are many more series to come.
His Dark Materials begins on BBC1 at 8pm on Sunday 3rd November
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