HIS DARK MATERIALS. Adapted by Jack Thorne from the trilogy by Philip Pullman. Starring Dafne Keen as Lyra Bevacqua, Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, and James McAvoy as Lord Asriel.
Now that all eight episodes of Season One of HBO’s HIS DARK MATERIALS are available for streaming, let’s pause a moment.
Witches fly, armored polar bears prowl the Northern Wastes, and gas-balloons and metal zeppelins hover over the towers of Old Oxford. Alternate worlds mix and blend. Toss in a mad scientist and a 12-year old girl battling a cosmic conspiracy and you have more than a taste of HBO’s new adaptation of the classic trilogy of heroic fantasies of British author Philip Pullman.
But, unfortunately, that’s only a taste. As a kind of steampunk odyssey filled with adventures and terrors, the HBO series emerges as a cross between Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series and C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegories. Fair enough? Not really? So far, Season One falls short of the profound subversive text beneath the surface of Pullman’s original trilogy. More than an adventure story for the kiddies, it’s really a sharp critique of the Catholic Church. Consider these words by author Pullman. They are at the core of his books: “What Christianity calls the Fall of Man is the best thing, the most important thing that ever happened to us, and if we had our heads straight on this issue, we would have churches dedicated to Eve instead of the Virgin Mary.”
And that’s exactly what HIS DARK MATERIALS is—or should—be all about.
What sounds blasphemous to conventional Christian ears is the reason why the first attempt to bring HIS DARK MATERIALS to the screen bombed. It adapted the first of the trilogy, The Golden Compass and contained enough of Pullman’s message to raise the alarm and discourage the continuance of the second and third installments, respectively, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The three books spanned seven years of Pullman’s writing life and were published in 1995-2000. Two children, a precocious young teenager, Lyra Bevacqua, and her older friend, the stalwart Will Parry, stride across parallel worlds in their battles against the monolithic consortium known as The Magisterium, an organization masking global control under the guise of religious doctrines. The saga, moreover, introduced two thematic ideas, first, that every one of us possesses a guiding genius, a “familiar,” here called, a “daemon,” a changeable animal shape that accompanies and guides us from our birth to adolescence; and two, that all of the cosmos is constructed out of particles called “Dust.” Just what this atomistic matter is, exactly, is quite complicated. Certainly, it’s not the grime of the streets; and it’s not what we call God, but the material that created God. As we reach maturity, this material becomes a part of us—but we must lose our innocence to acquire what is wisdom. Dust is a metaphor for enlightenment. Unlike conventional Christianity, which preaches that our loss of Innocence is the result of the Fall of the Biblical Garden of Eden that precipitates us into a sinful state—Original Sin—His Dark Materials reveals that this “Fall” is actually our salvation.
When I first ventured into these wonderfully complex books, I thrilled to the adventures and the fertile imaginative worlds therein; subsequently, I found myself, as per Pullman’s guidance, immersed in his avowed sources, namely, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which provides the themes and the title of the trilogy (see Book Two, line 916); William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which abolishes easy boundaries between Good and Evil (and which gives us, among other things, the image of a “golden compass” that creates the world); the martyred monk Giordano Bruno’s beliefs in multiple worlds; and that peculiar little story by Heinrich von Kleist, “The Puppet Theater,” which mandates our search through innocence and beyond to wisdom. In brief, they all suggested that the character of Satan, as envisioned by Milton, reveals that when God forbade Adam to partake of the Tree of Life, he kept humankind in ignorance in the service of God’s ego. But to the contrary, should we not ask: Should not God be flattered by Adam’s interest rather than be frightened by his curiosity? Is not the desire to understand God’s world not heresy but true devotion? Thus, author Philip Pullman, who insists he is a Christian atheist, seems to embed in his trilogy the conviction that the parable of the Garden and the Fall of Man is merely a selfish demand for obedience; and that our resistance, our hunger for knowledge is admirable. As Pullman says--“What Christianity calls the Fall of Man is the best thing, the most important thing that ever happened to us.”
If all this seems to stretch the trilogy’s meanings ‘way out of whack, many steps beyond the juvenile trappings of an adventure story, just make your way through the spiritually profound third volume of the trilogy and it’s all there, no mistake.
It remains to be seen if these ideas, only tepidly introduced into the first season of the HBO adaptation, will be further explored in the second and third seasons. Season Two is already in the can, and we can only assume (and hope) that it and a third season will see the light, as it were. So far, the performances by the admirable Dafne Keen as Lyra, Ruth Wilson as her scheming mother, Mrs. Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda as the swashbuckling adventurer Lee Scoresby, and James McAvoy as the maddened scientist Lord Asriel are gripping; and the production values impressive. But will the series follow through on the “illumination” of Pullman’s profoundly anti-conventional religious ideologies; or will it obey only the vulgar glare of commercial storytelling?
In the final analysis, declares Pullman, HIS DARK MATERIALS functions consciously what Blake said Milton was doing without knowing it—“telling the story from the devil’s point of view.”