Fewer than six months have passed since the shocking, bewildering collapse of Game of Thrones, but HBO is already diving back into the world of prestige fantasy programming based on another popular book series. Set in a world similar to but different from our own, where magic exists but technology is antiquated and society is ruled by an all-powerful church known as the Magisterium, His Dark Materials skillfully couches traditionally adult lessons about unchecked power and freedom through knowledge in the coming-of-age story of a young girl. In doing so, the adaptation of Philip Pullman's beloved trilogy successfully appeals to audiences both young and old, while offering fans of the books the adaptation they've wanted for years. However, with the show's sometimes minimal approach to exposition, it could prove to be confusing for non-readers.
At the heart of the story, which tackles themes of destiny versus free will, is the spirited Lyra Belacqua (Logan breakout Dafne Keen), a determined and clever orphan who leaves the safety of her home at Jordan College in an alternate-world Oxford, where her uncle, the explorer Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), left her in the care of scholars as a baby, to become the protégée of a dynamic and fiercely intelligent woman known as Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). But no sooner has Lyra left Oxford with her enigmatic new mentor that she and her companion daemon (voiced by Kit Connor) — the animal embodiment of a human's soul — become entangled in a dangerous conspiracy involving missing children, the possibility of multiple worlds, and a mysterious particle known as Dust that appears to only be attracted to adults.
Using a rare instrument known as an alethiometer, which tells the reader truthful answers to questions using a number of different symbols, Lyra embarks on a quest to find her missing friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd). Along the way, she proves to be more wise and more resourceful than expected, eventually allying herself with the gyptians, a close-knit, nomadic community who've lost a number of their own children to shadow-y forces known only as Gobblers; a powerful armored bear known as Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg); a loyal Texan aëronaut by the name of Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda); and even a clan of witches.
Through the first four episodes of its eight-episode freshman season, His Dark Materials is a thoroughly engaging series that is pragmatic in its approach to telling a sprawling and ambitious story with far-reaching implications. Book readers will notice key differences in the narrative as writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) reshapes the story for a visual medium, expanding it from Lyra's singular point-of-view and building out her increasingly complex world from the start. But these changes are necessary to condense the novels' expansive story into manageable, easy-to-consume chapters, and they mostly enhance the storytelling experience rather than hinder it.
In short, this is the adaptation fans have been waiting two decades to see. While they watched other popular literary works, including the Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and A Song of Ice and Fire series, receive the big or small screen treatment, they wondered if they'd have to make do with a critically panned 2007 film starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig that stripped the story of its religious themes and darker elements, thereby removing an essential part of the story. Thankfully, that is no longer the case.
For uninitiated viewers, though, the show and its complex world may prove to be a little confusing at first. Exposition levels vary by episode as Thorne doesn't always slow down and take the time to properly explain the story's more complicated elements, which can act as a barrier to non-readers' enjoyment of the series. However, so much of Pullman's first novel is shrouded in mystery at the outset — who are the Gobblers? What is Mrs. Coulter after? And what, exactly, is Dust? — that the show's overarching narrative almost certainly has to be as well. But honestly, if viewers could follow Game of Thrones without reading George R.R. Martin's dense novels, His Dark Materials should be a breeze.
Still, if there is one area in which deeper issues unrelated to simple confusion may arise, it's the Magisterium and its murky motivations. It's depicted as a controlling and corrupt organization working against the freedom of thought in an attempt to keep its citizens subservient. And because it's the church, Pullman's novels have often been criticized by Christians as being anti-organized religion or as a critique of the Catholic Church. However, the true enemy of the story, and thus of the TV show as well, is unyielding dogmatic belief and unchecked power. And in 2019, there are striking parallels with regards to what is happening in our own world, making the story more relevant than ever before.
This adaptation comes during an interesting time for pop culture, though, as it has been just five months since the long-awaited final season of Game of Thrones prioritized shock and spectacle over character development and plot, resulting in a failure so spectacular that the uber-popular fantasy show's once sparkling legacy has likely been tarnished forever. Regardless of the fact the depth and nuance of Thrones' early seasons made genre fare on television a commercial as well as critical success after decades of being ignored by the masses, the lack of careful followthrough on the part of the show's creators, and by association HBO, threatens to erase the progress made regarding fantasy shows also being considered prestige programming.
Based on how many shows are currently in development hoping to become "the next Game of Thrones," that isn't likely to happen. However, the show's failures do have the power to potentially undermine viewers' confidence in HBO's ability to deliver similarly-themed programming featuring difficult-to-adapt narratives in the future. With so much TV to watch, fans may not want to invest their time in a show that the pay cable network seemingly has no interest in seeing through to the end.
But Thrones' collapse isn't the only reason an adaptation of His Dark Materials is a potentially risky endeavor for HBO and its producing partner, the BBC. The heights reached by Game of Thrones during its pinnacle were so high that the idea any other show could even come close to replicating its success is foolish at best. Any fantasy show that follows it will be living in Thrones' long shadow whether it wants to or not. And that extends beyond even the borders of HBO. We'll be asking ourselves for years whether the shows that come next have what it takes to capture that same global audience and rise to the occasion knowing full well it's almost certainly impossible. It's an unfair question that leads to impossible expectations.
So if viewers are apprehensive about devoting their time to His Dark Materials, yet another sprawling fantasy series based on a beloved book series, so soon after HBO failed Game of Thrones, or if they're concerned that no other show can possibly live up to the bar previously set by it, both fears are valid. But if the first four episodes of His Dark Materials screened for critics are any indication, the show is a remarkable, must-see adaptation of Pullman's intricate and thought-provoking novels. If for nothing else, it will erase the bad memories that still linger more than a decade after The Golden Compass failed to deliver.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
His Dark Materials premieres Monday, Nov. 4 at 9/8c on HBO.