HBO’s ‘His Dark Materials’ Adaption Is Murky but Full of Visual Wonder

His Dark Materials” continues an ongoing HBO trend of taking a beloved novel series and adapting it with lush production values. The alternate world of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which is a fantasy packed with theological and philosophical musings, comes fully to life in this series. It’s a tricky enterprise considering the density of the material, and while it may get confusing, it’s never a chore to watch. 

Set in an England where 1950s styles combine with futuristic hardware, the story centers on young Lyra (Dafne Keen), who lives around Jordan College, Oxford under the shadow of her explorer/researcher uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). Jordan College and society are overseen by an all-powerful governing body known as the Magisterium. Asriel has ignited the suspicious, for now slow-burning fury, of the Magisterium due to his research into a material he calls “Dust,” which could hint at the existence of another reality. This is heretical for the ruling system which maintains a strict, religious code. This is also a world where everyone has a daemon from a young age, it may change identities until a child becomes an adult and then the daemon finds its final form. When Lyra’s friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) goes missing, she decides to go on a quest to find him. At first she is approached by Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a sophisticate who claims she wants to help Lyra find Roger and find out why several other children have gone missing. She’s also connected to Lord Asriel in a very personal way. But she is not all that she seems and Lyra’s quest to find Roger will soon threaten the whole order kept in place by the Magisterium.

The main showrunner behind this new adaptation of “His Dark Materials” is Jack Thorne, a writer best known for his work on “National Treasure” over at Hulu and another acclaimed series, “This Is England.” Here the combined resources of the BBC and HBO make for a production that above anything is wonderful to look at. Futuristic, art deco styles define buildings, technology and the period costume designs in a way that evokes an immersive experience. There’s something about Philip Pullman’s novels that lend them to visual richness. The same can even be said about the coldly-received 2007 feature film adaptation “The Golden Compass.” The season premiere is directed by Tobe Hooper, who made “The King’s Speech” and the infamously overblown “Les Miserables.” Hooper sets the show’s tone as a good balance of drama and visual richness. 

But “His Dark Materials” thrives on its philosophical angle and debates. This season covers the first book in the series, “Northern Lights.” Buried in the subtext are themes of challenging organized religion and being an independent thinker. That comes across well in the series as Asriel clashes with the Magisterium officials, who are dressed like proto-fascist priests, insisting that Dust suggests parallel realities and other truths beyond the established system. He argues against the Magisterium interfering into the research being done at Oxford by demanding the institute be seen as a “scholastic sanctuary.” For Lyra finding out what happened to Roger is the beginning of her own taste of independence, the cruelties of the world and the fear of going on a journey alone. When Marisa Coulter takes her in and charms her with aristocratic manners, she falls for it before realizing Coulter might be using her for her own, selfish reasons. Dafne Keen of a mere 14-years-old announces herself a great talent in this series, bringing a focused maturity to the role. She’s intelligent and 

If you are a fan of the original books and the 2007 movie, then you’ll know right off the bat all the visuals and catch phrases. In the season premiere we see Lyra already has her alethiometer, a kind of golden compass used to tell the truth (yes, this can get tricky), at some point a “armed bear” will appear, this being one of the most iconic images of the book’s world, and Lyra finds herself escaping from Coulter and journeying with a group of rugged wanderers/rebels who might lead her to answers on what happened with Roger. There are also plenty of engaging side characters like  Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby the balloonist, bringing real energy to the role. What’s slightly lost is Pullman’s edgier critiques of organized religion, this version of “His Dark Materials” is more concerned with being a fantasy adventure. But it’s not a shallow adaptation. The themes are simply more subtle. When the Magisterium threaten to see Asriel’s claims about Dust as “heresy,” we get the idea. 

The first few episodes may be considered confusing only because not everything is immediately explained. The show is slowly unfolding all of Pullman’s world, so many terms and names are thrown around that will be revealed in their full later. But “His Dark Materials” is the kind of family-friendly entertainment that offers something a little darker in a richer sense of young viewers. It’s about not only being a kid, but being young and discovering your old beliefs may not be enough as you chart your own ideas.

His Dark Materials” season one premieres Nov. 4 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.