Posts Tagged ‘The Golden Compass’

His Dark Materials on TV

December 27, 2022

I first encountered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy many years ago when I was ill and spent several days in bed. I devoured the novels, and remember sending someone out to buy a missing volume. This Christmas I have been languishing in bed, and for the first time in my life I have binged on television, once I had figured out how to get the BBC iPlayer app to behave, and watched all of the final TV series production of His Dark Materials. It was compulsive viewing, and utterly awesome. I could not understand some of the semi-lukewarm reviews I’d come across by some critics in the previous few days.

I’ve long maintained that the novels are masterpieces, and I have been astonished at how well and how faithfully they have been translated to television; the last series is no exception, and although it has been a long wait, it has been worth it.

The stories are eminently readable, and not aimed at a particular age group or audience, in my opinion. They certainly don’t talk down to, or preach at, a young adult audience; Pullman regards his readers as intelligent human beings, who don’t have to like his books or his message.

The TV series are a gift to SFX departments, who have risen to the occasion superbly, envisioning daemons, creating unreal creatures, imaginary technology and unearthly landscapes – unearthly in terms of our world, that is.

I think, however – and I suspect this may well be one of the reasons for some of the rather silly reviews I mentioned earlier – that the TV production is a complement to the novels rather than a replacement for them, and if someone hasn’t read the books, then they will find the story and the ideas rather harder to follow from the TV series alone. Obviously, I haven’t found this a problem. I had certain expectations, from my acquaintance with the novels, and largely these were met, within the limitations of any attempt to transfer 1500 pages of novel to 24 hours of television. Here I’m reminded of the achievement of the BBC in the early 1970s, when they turned War and Peace into a 26-part TV series.

Plot wasn’t re-written, though clearly slimmed down and perhaps perspectives and emphases changed; casting was very well done and highly convincing, particularly in the cases of Will, Lyra and Mrs Coulter. Settings were stunning, throughout. And the interaction between human and daemon was fascinating to watch, although the concept of interaction between the two did suffer a times, I think, and the idea of the externalisation of one’s soul was only foregrounded in the final series. But I felt actors and directors had a fine sense of the interaction between characters, and seeing them onscreen allowed me to observe and reflect more closely on those relationships, which enriched the story for me, as well as providing food for thought.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the novels, and of Pullman’s ideas, to translate from page to screen was that of dust, and its link to the idea of what makes us fully human, as well as the contrast between innocence and experience. This merits a post of its own, which I hope to get around to writing some time soon.

I realise I’m probably sounding like more of a fan than a critic here. So be it. I was disappointed in the film The Golden Compass, which preceded the TV adaptations, and my copy of that film has mysteriously disappeared, not that I miss it. I had great hopes when I first heard of the TV project, and I haven’t been disappointed. Pullman’s novels have been one of the fantasy milestones of the century, and for my money leave Tolkein and J K Rowling in the shade…

His Dark Materials – the TV series

December 28, 2019

I’ve just finished watching the first series, so it’s time for a few reflections on how well the BBC and its collaborators have done with the first volume of Pullman’s trilogy. After the dire film The Golden Compass – of which my DVD has mysteriously lost itself – the bar was pretty low.

It’s a complex novel, both in terms of ideas and setting: Pullman makes his readers work reasonably hard, and it’s worth it. What the makers of the TV series threw out right from the start were the quaint alternative names – perhaps Victorian-sounding – for all sorts of objects and ideas. I hadn’t realised this initially, and on reflection I thought it was a pity, because in the novels it was one of the things that underlined the idea of Lyra’s Oxford and her world being a parallel universe that had evolved slightly differently from our own…

What I didn’t like: there was a lack of clarity, right until the final episode, as to what the aims of the Magisterium were, and who the Authority was, and quite a lot of vagueness about Dust. These are some of the complex ideas Pullman wanted his readers to be wrestling with, and obviously it’s easier to present them in the pages of a novel: it doesn’t make for very gripping television, and so there were clunky sections at various points where necessary information was dumped rather crudely to enable viewers to get with the plot… However, I was very pleased to see that no punches were pulled in that final episode, about the nature of Dust and its link to the awful Christian concept of original sin, and its malign effects on our society.

I also didn’t feel that daemons got a big enough look in. Perhaps it was very expensive and difficult technically to render them (I don’t know) but only the major characters seemed to be accompanied by theirs whereas everyone has one in Lyra’s world. However, the idea that a person can be separated from their daemon in a number of different ways, was clearly established.

There was far more that I admired than disliked, however. I thought the casting had been brilliantly done, especially shown in the complex and shifting relationship between Lyra and Mrs Coulter, her mother. I was also impressed by the multiracial nature of the casting and felt somewhat guilty that in my imagining of the novels as I had first read them, I had visualised all the characters as white… truly, stereotypes and conditioning run very deep. The sets, and the use of locations, were both superb throughout, I thought, and Lyra’s Oxford was a pretty good representation of an alternative universe.

The adaptation was really well done – it seems to have had Pullman’s imprimatur – and there were times when I was astonished, and reminded just how brilliantly a visual medium can telescope and replace many pages of textual description and explanation when it’s carefully and subtly done. Interweaving strands from both Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife was clever, and worked well, with the idea of both Lyra and Will moving into another universe in the closing moments of the final episode promising much for the next series, which I await eagerly.

For a number of reasons I wasn’t able to watch the episodes as they were transmitted, and, whilst not exactly bingeing to catch up, did find myself enjoying being able to watch a couple of episodes at a time back-to-back. I’m sure some will find aspects they did not like, and be far more critical than I have been. I cannot imagine the books better translated to the screen: I thought the series was truly marvellous.

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

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