- by Jeff Beck
His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season: Visually Impressive, but Structurally Flawed (Blu-ray
Back in 2007, writer/director Chris Weitz attempted to bring the first part of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" to life with his adaptation of "The Golden Compass" (aka "Northern Lights"). Despite the popularity of the books, and a remarkable cast that included Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and the voice of Sir Ian McKellen (and several more), the film was received rather poorly and underperformed at the box office, halting any plans of adapting the remaining books. 13 years later, screenwriter Jack Thorne ("The Aeronauts," "Wonder") and a handful of directors (including Academy Award winner Tom Hooper) have been tasked with having a go at it. However, instead of being given the limitations of a film, they've been given the opportunity to turn it into a series, with the hope being that the result would be less rushed and more true to the material, but would this layout prove to be a better fit, or would it simply result it another disappointing adaptation?
Taking place in a world where all humans have an animal companion called a "daemon" (i.e. a spirit animal that's a manifestation of their own soul), we meet Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a young girl who lives at Jordan College, having been placed there by her Uncle Asriel (James McAvoy) after the death of her parents in an airship accident. She basically spends her days learning and playing with her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd), until one day her Uncle visits in order to propose an expedition to research a substance known as "dust" and the possibility of parallel worlds.
Lyra, desperate for some adventure, begs him to take her with him, but he refuses. However, she is taken under the wing of Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who takes her to London to be her assistant. Meanwhile, there have been several children disappearing, with mysterious "Gobblers" being blamed. With the help of a truth-telling device known as an alethiometer (or Golden Compass), as well as some friends she meets along the way, she sets out with her daemon Pan to help solve the mystery, all the while being pursued by a domineering organization called the Magesterium.
Before we dig into the new series, let's return briefly to the 2007 film, which was heavily criticized for lacking the "bite" of the source material and for its "lax storytelling." Having never read the novels, I can't say whether it's lacking the bite, but the only real reason it could be accused of lax storytelling is because it was missing the entire final act, ending rather suddenly and anticlimactically, well before it was supposed to. This was due to studio interference that forced Weitz to bring the film in under two hours, but it was more than enough to damage it quite a bit.
This makes it quite surprising that the series faces quite the opposite structural problem in that, after sitting through eight entire episodes that comprise the first novel, it ends up having some pretty major pacing issues what with being padded out to about eight hours in length. Just like the film (which won an Oscar for visual effects), it looks fantastic. The costumes, production design, and effects are wonderful, and the cast (with young Dafne Keen, of "Logan" fame, turning in a fine performance) are all up to the task, but as far as Jack Thorne's writing goes, there are whole episodes that feel like they lack any momentum, dragging the story out unnecessarily in order to fill out the eight episodes.
This is on top of Weitz trying to get ahead of himself by jumping to the next book and interweaving another plot strand into the main story that ends up being rather directionless, serving as nothing more than a stark interruption to the plotline that we actually care about. This could've easily been made an episode of its own and saved for next season instead of being a disruption from season one with its highly awkward placement.
In the end, it's probably fair to say that it's on equal footing with the movie. The movie, while unfinished, does a decent job with the material that it does cover, while the series, which is complete, has a few major structural problems of its own. It really does seem like there should be a good middle ground in which "His Dark Materials" gets a good adaptation. It obviously shouldn't be hatcheted down to 103 minutes (the runtime of the film without credits), nor should it be stretched out to a ridiculous eight hours. There's a fun, exciting two and a half to three hour movie to be made from the first book. It's just a shame that both adaptations thus far have gone about it the wrong way.
"His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season" comes to Blu-ray in a 16:9, 1080p High Definition transfer of decent quality. The picture is not quite as sharp as it could be, possibly a side effect of putting four hour-long episodes & special features on each of the two discs, but the image is still fairly sharp for the most part. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is excellent, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and score in outstanding quality. Overall, while a third disc probably would've helped alleviate the slight fuzziness, this home release of the debut season will more than likely please the fans waiting to add it to their collections.
Adapting His Dark Materials (4 Minutes): A featurette that doesn't really go into any detail about adapting the novel, and is actually part of the longer Making Of featurette on the second disc.
Building His Dark Materials (6 Minutes): A look at the show's remarkable production design.
Dressing His Dark Materials (3 Minutes): A very brief look at the show's elegant costumes.
The Daemons of His Dark Materials (4 Minutes): A featurette that explores the creation of the show's animal companions.
James McAvoy: Bringing Lord Asriel to Life (3 Minutes) Lin-Manuel Miranda: Bringing Lee Scoresby to Life (2 Minutes) Ruth Wilson: Bringing Mrs. Coulter to Life (3 Minutes) Dafne Keen: Brining Lyra Belacqua to Life (4 Minutes): A series of featurettes in which the cast briefly discuss their characters. Disc 2:
Making His Dark Materials (33 Minutes): A fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show, which includes multiple interviews with the cast and crew.
While the debut season of "His Dark Materials" boasts exceptional visuals, including outstanding costumes, production design, and special effects, it's hindered by problematic pacing and odd structural choices, resulting in a great-looking, but unnecessarily-elongated, adaptation of the first novel of the trilogy.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.