His Dark Materials, Good Adaptations, and the Nature of the Soul

TV Features His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials, Good Adaptations, and the Nature of the Soul

Adaptation is something I think about a lot. How do you translate the ineffable stuff from a medium like a print novel to a medium like a TV series? How do you create a script that fits its medium but doesn’t come across as a betrayal of the original work’s tone, style, way of rendering characters? Why we are so inexhaustibly interested in adaptation (in some cases wrong-headedly); why certain books get adapted for screen over and over and over? I think about when and why and how one would make the decision to pursue ultra-high fidelity to a source text or to deliver more of an interpretation, a fantasia, a rhapsody; a critique, a parody. Sometimes it seems all the way too stupid to expect a movie or TV show to deliver the experience of reading a great novel. Still, there’s something oddly gratifying, and sometimes even thrilling, about finding that a director imagined a certain character exactly the same way you did, or seeing a mise en scene that appears to have burst out of your own mind’s eye like Athena from the cranium of Zeus, isn’t there? (I’m thinking about the casting of the Harry Potter movies, for instance, or the artistic direction of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

It’s a complicated and oblique thing, rendering the vision of an artist whose medium is words. A great adaptation exists in a dialogue with its source, but it also stands on its own feet as a cinematic work. It somehow reproduces the experience of reading the story but it doesn’t only create a facsimile. Hopefully, it enhances our understanding of the original text, illuminates it in a new way that only a screen adaptation could pull off. Or it’s wildly divergent in a way that creates a satisfying dialectic. To that end, I knew HBO’s His Dark Materials had passed that acid test when I realized I was enjoying the narrative, but also pondering the nature of the soul.

Philip Pullman’s stunning trilogy takes place in a funhouse-mirror version of Oxford and London, a parallel universe that’s mostly familiar but has a number of intriguing twists, the most pronounced of which is that people’s souls manifest as talking animals (a daemon is more embodied than a Harry Potter Patronus, and has much more of a human personality than a spirit guide; it is an individual with its own name, its own ideas). His Dark Materials captures Pullman’s world visually with an opulent but muted, somewhat steampunk rendering, full of soft gold and stony gray and terra cotta tones and ornate, finely detailed surfaces. The script is sometimes clunky and doesn’t entirely capture Pullman’s lovely, rigorous-but-warm intelligence, but it gets close enough, enough of the time. The cast is generally very strong (and the cast of the ill-fated 2007 film The Golden Compass did nonetheless present a fairly high bar on that score; the movie was terrible but they made great performer choices); Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sometimes frustratingly glib and self-indulgent portrayal of aeronaut Lee Scoresby notwithstanding. Dafne Keen is a powerhouse as Lyra Belacqua, Lucian Msamati is riveting as Gyptian king John Faa, and Ruth Wilson is dazzlingly creepy as the duplicitous, daemon-abusing Marisa Coulter. Perhaps most significantly, the adaptation nails an often-failed imperative of screen translation: it successfully communicates subtext by mindful use of visual language.

In Episode 2 there’s a scene where Mrs. Coulter is giving Lyra a bath. A remarkable gestural conversation unfolds. It’s not just facial expressions and cleaver reaction shots, though it has those too. It’s the camerawork—the way we linger on the bathwater for just a little too long before Mrs. Coulter pulls the plug makes the gesture incredibly freighted and symbolic. And the body languages of the CGI daemons is simple but often brilliant, illuminating in a few moves a dynamic that would require a whole lot of prose description to develop.

Despite their utter centrality to the story, daemons would be easy to gloss over (and the 2007 film didn’t seem to know quite how to handle them). Here, they not only come to life as characters, but also bring to life several of the story’s key inquiries. What is a soul, really? How might we be different if our souls were external? What if you and your soul could literally have conversations? Pullman’s daemons lock into an age-old system of perceptions that occurs in cultures around the world, and they tell the reader or viewer something about the person to whom they belong. Within the story, characters also pick up on the symbolism of one another’s daemons the way people in our universe sometimes detect someone’s “aura” or “energy.” There’s a symbolic meaning to regal, arrogant, Northern Lights-obsessed Lord Asriel (James McEvoy) being attended by a snow leopard, or wise, crafty John Faa by a huge crow. Farder Coram (James Cosmo) ponders what it means that Mrs. Coulter’s is a monkey, and there are several key dialogues around daemons “settling” into a permanent form (this world’s equivalent of a bar mitzvah or other coming-of-age rite).

But beyond what the form of a daemon might hint at to others, the way each character interacts with their daemon introduces in a very literal, physical way that we have control over how our souls are or are not cared for, nurtured, cultivated. Mrs. Coulter’s creepy golden monkey daemon is mute (most of them are pretty chatty), and not only does she send it off to spy for her (generally people in this universe suffer unbearable pain if they are separated from their daemons), she’s also more than willing to attack it. And it’s pretty shocking when we see it happen. In Episode 3 there’s a moment—and it’s only that; a moment—where Mrs. Coulter is on her balcony sending Spy Flies to hunt for Lyra, and we see the monkey daemon watching her through a window. As with the bathwater shot, it suddenly lights up a whole symbolic language that asks us to consider what it means to shut your own soul out of your actions, what it means if you are capable of wounding your own soul, what it means when you can wall it off and remove it from consideration. I found I was thinking about this long after Episode 4 concluded, which tells me that despite all of the alchemical difficulties presented by adaptations in general, here, they got something right.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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