DirectorVarious, written by Jack Thorne, based on the books by Philip Pullman
Release Date(s)2019 (August 4, 2020)
Studio(s)Bad Wolf/BBC Studios/HBO (HBO)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
An HBO co-production with the BBC, His Dark Materials is based on the classic Philip Pullman sci-fi/fantasy novel trilogy from the late 1990s. It’s a coming of age story about a young orphan girl named Lyra Belacqua, who lives in an alternate reality version of present day Oxford, England. In this world, the human soul manifests itself as an ever-present animal companion, known as a daemon. This world is also dominated by the ruthless Magisterium, which is bent on controlling free thought and action. But when Lyra’s uncle, the explorer Lord Asriel, discovers proof of a mysterious substance called dust, he realizes it could break the Magisterium’s hold on humanity. And when children begin disappearing around her—and she attracts the interest of a cunning and powerful woman named Mrs. Coulter—Lyra finds herself caught up in an epic conflict between good and evil, unaware that she’s the key to everything, yet determined to save her friends and control her own destiny.
Some of you may recall that New Line tried and failed to adapt the first novel in the series, The Golden Compass (aka The Northern Lights internationally) as a film back in 2007. So fans of the books will be pleased to know that the BBC/HBO series is exquisite and nuanced. Dafne Keen (Logan) is terrific as Lyra, while Ruth Wilson (The Affair) brings unexpected depths to the role of Marisa Coulter. James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) contribute strongly too, as Lord Asriel and the American aeronaut Lee Scoresby. But even the actors in smaller roles add much to the fabric of the series, among them Clarke Peters, James Cosmo, Ruta Gedmintas, Anne-Marie Duff, and Lucian Msamati. Gyptian culture, in particular, is extremely well crafted here, and the mid-century Deco production design is a nice change from the excessively ornate Victorian look of the film.
The aforementioned daemons are well rendered in photorealistic CG. Standouts include Lyra’s Pantalaimon, Coulter’s unnamed golden monkey, and particularly the armored bear Iorek Byrnison. Though if the series has a weak point it’s that the TV budget (the BBC’s most expensive ever) doesn’t allow the daemons to be quite as plentiful as fans might expect. There are also a few changes to the story—as adapted by screenwriter Jack Thorne, with Pullman’s blessing—though they’re mostly good. This first season covers the events of The Northern Lights only (though there is a bit of material from Pullman’s recent prequel, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, cleverly infused in the first episode). But the character of Will Parry (Amir Wilson)—who plays a huge part in the novels but isn’t introduced until The Subtle Knife—appears early here so we can learn more about him, a choice that expands the role of Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) too. The witches are also a bit different on screen than they’re described in the books, and at least one character death is not quite as impactful as it is on the page. But again, these changes have been made with Pullman’s input and mostly serve the long-form TV presentation well.
Fans should also be pleased to know that the larger themes of Pullman’s novels (which serve as a kind of inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost) are fully intact, though on the page they only begin to fully reveal themselves at the end of The Northern Lights and into The Subtle Knife. So one can expect this series’ thematic content to deepen as it progresses. I will tell you, though: As a reader who loves the Pullman novels, I’m very happy with what I’ve seen thus far.
The image quality of HBO’s Blu-ray release is magnificent. The series was photographed digitally in 4.5K and 6K, with a native 4K Digital Intermediate finish at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so this downsample to 1080p HD retains abundant detail and texturing. Contrast is excellent, with deep detailed blacks and strong highlights. Colors are rich and nuanced. Really, this is a terrific Blu-ray image. The only thing that could make it better would be an actual physical 4K Ultra HD release (and I’m certainly holding out for one from HBO eventually).
Audio is presented in lossless English 5.1 in DTS-HD Master Audio format. The soundstage is big, wide, and immersive, with excellent dialogue clarity and highly atmospheric use of the surround channels. Panning and directional effects are natural, if not especially lively. Bass is robust, giving everything a pleasingly full tone—which benefits Lorne Balfe’s score in particular. One might wish for a bit more of a cinematic quality to the mixing, but the audio supports the images well. Sound is also available in French 5.1 Dolby Digital, as are optional subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Dutch, Mandarin, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Extras on the 2-disc set include (all in HD):
- Making His Dark Materials (33:11)
- Adapting His Dark Materials (4:04)
- Building His Dark Materials (5:54)
- Dressing His Dark Materials (3:15)
- The Daemons of His Dark Materials (3:43)
- James McAvoy: Bringing Lord Asriel to Life (3:17)
- Lin-Manuel Miranda: Bringing Lee Scoresby to Life (2:25)
- Ruth Wilson: Bringing Mrs. Coulter to Life (3:24)
- Dafne Keen: Bringing Lyra Belacqua to Life (4:26)
Most of these featurettes are EPKs and have been seen online, but Making His Dark Materials is new and exclusive to the home video release. It’s good, if not especially comprehensive, but all the key aspects of the production are at least touched upon. It’s nice to see Philip Pullman interviewed here, and most of the cast and crew get a chance to chime in on their contributions. It’s a shame there are no audio commentaries though—one with Thorne and Pullman would be fascinating. You do at least get a Digital Copy code on a paper insert in the packaging.
Released just in time for the debut of Season Two in November, which covers the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, this first season of His Dark Materials is, I think, mostly excellent and the best-yet screen adaptation of Pullman’s work. This is not Game of Thrones, so don’t expect it to be. But if the series continues to build upon these first eight episodes, fans of the books should be in good hands. Both the series and this Blu-ray release are recommended (but fingers crossed for an eventual 4K Ultra HD).
- Bill Hunt