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Since the publication of Northern Lights (published in America as The Golden Compass) in 1995, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials has risen to and retained its status as one of the most celebrated and beloved fantasy series of the last 30 years. Pullman's chronicle of an adventure unfolding across alternate realities has captured the imaginations and opened the minds of children and adults alike, and while it did get the beginning of a film adaptation with The Golden Compass movie in 2007, Pullman readers have long hoped the series would get a second chance at live-action life.
Now that second chance has come in the form of a new TV series that will arrive on BBC One in the UK and HBO in the U.S. early next month. The series boasts an all-star creative team including writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and director Tom Hoooper (Les Miserables, CATS), and an all-star cast led by Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Clarke Peters. The trailers look stunning and seem to convey both the epic scope and moral complexity of Pullman's narrative, and with just weeks to go fans have their fingers crossed that this is the adaptation they've been hoping for.
Well, the first reviews of the series have begun trickling in, and it seems that we have indeed found the His Dark Materials live-action epic we've wanted for so long. While they're not universally in love with absolutely everything about the series, critics are so far praising His Dark Materials for its beautiful visuals, thematic complexity, and fulfillment of the massive budgetary gamble the BBC took to produce it.
"Shot in and around Wales, His Dark Materials looks gorgeous and expensive. The daemons — butterflies, snakes, crows, lizards, Mrs. Coulter’s mean-looking monkey — have an understandable CGI sheen, but their uncanny-valley beauty blends well with the show’s stylized universe. A caveat: This review is based on the first four episodes only (out of eight), so it’s impossible to say whether HDM will fulfill its promise. (Either way, the show has a two-season order.) For now, though, HBO’s new fantasy saga feels like a page-turner," Kristen Baldwin of Entertainment Weekly wrote.
"In terms of family viewing, His Dark Materials is the real thing: as Douglas Adams might have said, it’s both complicated enough for children and simple enough for adults. Its richly constructed fantasy world is magical without being cutesy. There’s no wise-cracking sidekick or sickly sweetness. Fear, frustration and a sense of never knowing quite who or what you can trust – things that kids know all about – are woven thrillingly into the adventure," Louisa Mellor of Den of Geek said.
"Written by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), His Dark Materials is very much a fantasy series made in the aftermath of Game of Thrones, with the story’s more fantastical elements given as much weight as the conspiratorial mysteries and complicated character dynamics. While the series admittedly still tiptoes around the religious elements, this is an approach that vastly benefits an adaptation of Pullman’s entire trilogy," Hoai-Tran Bui of Slashfilm wrote.
"The budget of His Dark Materials (the show is a co-production with American cable network HBO) has not been disclosed, although it is rumoured to be less than the $7 million per episode lavished on Netflix’s The Crown. So far, though, it feels as if the look of the thing is the least important aspect. As a piece of storytelling, this is second to none: a rare Sunday night treat that will nurture young minds and possibly older, cynical ones too," Ben Lawrence of The Telegraph wrote.
"The soundtrack is symphonic, the imagery is panoramic, the magical effects are mesmeric. If you're going to gamble £40million, this is the way to do it," Christopher Stevens of The Daily Mail wrote.
"While we’re on the subject of the way things look, everything from the tourist-board realism of the canals, via the cobbled streets inhabited by the Gyptians (a group of water travellers whose children are going missing), up to the skyline of Oxford, are sumptuous examples of imagination manifested. And this is all without mentioning how cute Pantalaimon (Lyra’s dæmon) looks when he takes the form of a snow white ermine. A lot has been made of how much this production has cost, with the BBC claiming it’s their most expensive project ever, and if that is the case then His Dark Materials is money well spent," Matt Rodgers of Flickering Myth wrote.
So, while we still have nearly two weeks to go until the series premieres on HBO, which means more reviews will be forthcoming, the early reactions to His Dark Materials promise an epic that looks, sounds, and feels like the Pullman adaptation we had our fingers crossed to see. We'll all see for ourselves when the first episode of His Dark Materials arrives November 4 on HBO.