His Dark Materials and Adapting Stories

His Dark Materials

Late last year the first season of the latest His Dark Materials TV show adaptation wrapped up broadcast. I enjoyed it. I had read the books when I was younger and I love the world that had built up, and as an adult the deeper questions in the story about religion and other matters means the book still resonates with me.

My first experience with an adaptation came with the 2007 film. This is a film which I am happy to not watch again. It lacked so much: the important connection between dæmon and human, the character depth, the religious criticism, to (most baffling of all) entirely missing an ending.

His Dark Materials Promo Poster – © Bad Wolf / BBC / HBO

The TV show is far superior to the film, and when watching it you feel a sense that it is made by people who actually care about the story. It is much slower paced than the film, made possible by the fact that it can spread out over many episodes. This gives a lot more time for exposition, discussing the story, giving time for the characters, and space for the world to grow.

Yet the TV show does have flaws, some of which are shared with the film. The book is very heavily reliant on telling the story by narrating Lyra’s life. Through action chapters (which can more easily be translated to TV and film), to slower paced discussion and internal thought (which is basically impossible to translate meaningfully from written word to screen).

As a kid, I did not care about this. It’s a world full of magic creatures and steampunk – who need meaning when you have that? The TV show does this part very well. But adult me loves the struggle of seeing Lyra learn to speak to the alethiometer, her struggles as she grows up, and most importantly, the deep link between human and dæmon.

The alethiometer is a magic device, and holds an important role in the story. It can answer any question, providing it is framed it well, and in the books it frequently crops up to tell Lyra what she needs to know. In the TV show it’s usage seems much sparser. And I can understand why. My experience reading the book gave me a much deeper feel for how the alethiometer worked, and how lyra felt when using it. But you can’t do that on TV. It would be boring to watch, with Lyra constantly trying to narrate to get the finer points across.

Pan and Lyra looking pensive
The CGI dæmons look good in the TV show, the visuals manage to avoid the uncanny valley – © Bad Wolf / BBC / HBO

The dæmons role in the story is all about the soul. I don’t understand the metaphors, but I love how the books really give you an insight into how close the two parts that make up a person are. It makes it so much more powerful when the horrors are later revealed. In the TV show I just got the impression that whenever the link between human and dæmon cropped up, a character mentioned on screen how deep and significant it was. I don’t know if this is maybe rose-tinted glasses making me enjoy the book’s telling more, or if something was lost in the translation to the screen. I didn’t feel as if the dæmons had as much presence in the TV show as they could have. Some of this might be due to the “flashbacks” that happen in the first chapter of the book, which are mostly missing from the TV show. They give an introduction to the characters, and give a lot of time to flesh them out. I can understand why they might have been cut from an adaptation, but it’s a sad to see them missed.

It’s not all bad – the TV show has something very big going for it: It is becoming its own telling of the His Dark Materials story. It does away with just looking at the events of the first book in the series as if it was its own individual entity, and from an early stage intermingles the worlds, telling the first few chapters of the 2nd book at the same time. This is a bold move, and it works very well. Because I already know the story, I can’t say how effective the dramatisation is for a new viewer, but I enjoyed it. Earlier I mentioned a lack of characterisation from cutting early scenes, but here it adds a fair bit around Will’s mother, and it is fantastic. She gets much more presence than she ever has in the book, and it is great to see the TV show shine brighter than the books in that area.

Adapting Stories is Hard

You have a masterful artist that’s made something, be it a one off novella, a long-running series of stories, a comic book… And then someone wants to translate it to some other format. This isn’t a bad thing, but it brings a lot of challenges. The biggest of which is the stigma or prejudice that the adaptation won’t be as good as the source material. I often feel this tension.

To wrap up this blog post bashing TV and Film adaptations, there is one last development I want to bring up. A game, adapted from a film, which itself came from a book.

My second experience of a His Dark Materials adaptation was the video game tie-in for the film. Released for the PS2, The Golden Compass (2007) wasn’t the most amazing marvel of a game I’ve ever played. But young me enjoyed it so much more than the film. In large part because the team that made the game decided to go their own route with telling the story. And this captured something that the film lacked.

The game puts a lot more emphasis on the character, story and experiences of each player in the story, and the world at large. Playing as Lyra, Pan or Iorek, you spend as much time as you want in each level of the game. Be it simply wandering around, solving puzzles, fighting renegade witches… You actually feel as if you’re experiencing the adventure.

Game manual image showing how the alethiometer minigame is played
Manual page for the Game’s alethiometer – ©SEGA

The game spends time with Lyra figuring out the alethiometer, something lacking in the TV and film. While the minigames are not quite as meaningful as in the books, the game does spend time on this (in the game’s case, titular) device. The fact that you can take control of Pan, the dæmon, also helps him seem a lot more important and real.

Poor graphics and clunky early-millennium technology aside, the game is probably the best adaptation of HDM outside of the books. Perhaps it was so different that the prejudice of it being “not as good” wasn’t there, perhaps because it gave time for the “fluff” it actually made it feel a lot more real, or perhaps it was the interactivity that comes with any game.

Very Recommended

Regardless of which medium you prefer, I recommend giving His Dark Materials a go.

If you’re in the UK, you can watch His Dark Materials on BBC iPlayer. I’d recommend watching it, whether or not you’ve read the books. The video game cannot, to my knowledge, be purchased for play anymore. The books can be found in most bookshops, and are definitely the best, original, form.

Join the Conversation

  1. I had just finished the 3rd book when the series started so it was fresh in my mind watching it.
    I noticed they played down the appearance of peoples dæmons, which ends up feeling like “oh I can see other peoples dæmons so this part will feature them”. They obviously kept production time and costs to a minimum for the CGI beyond the main characters so when we see an army of Gyptians it seems rather thin on animal life.

    They are obviously going to wrap this puppy in 2 rushed series as is the BBC way.
    I was struggling with several parts feeling like I missed something before I realised that lots of book 2 was now in play.
    This I feel is its flaw. The story in the books feels epic and played out over a long time, but the series is hurried and no sense of how much time has passed is ever there. They have made what seems to be a book and a half seem like it has played out in a few days.

    I understand that many details from books get dropped due to not working visually, but many of the changes are things that were visual in the books.
    For some reason the witches cloud pine branches have been dispensed with, so that means many scenes or plot points are gone.
    We are now supposed to accept they simply fly unaided. As goofy as it may seem the use of a magic vehicle adds some level of suspension of disbelief, even if it is a stick.
    In the books a great deal is made out of the golden haired girl (which becomes a plot point about disguise) and her golden haired mother with a gentle look that allows her to beguile men and women everywhere.
    In the TV series we get a mousy dull haired Lyra and a dark hard, pointy and mean looking mother, who for some reason is now a brutal bully to her own dæmon.

    I feel they were swayed by the disney style desire to make the bad people really obviously bad, but the TV version of Lyras mother seems narcissistic, mentally unstable, uncommonly vindictive and of no redeemable character, so when we get to the end of the story where she will come-good I feel like it is going to be rather forced and way out of character.
    In the books we see little glimmers of her humanity all the way, so her own conclusion in the story feels natural.

    I have a feeling that though I will watch series 2, I will be gritting my teeth a lot.
    When converting to a film you have to compromise massively on the length so big compromises are to be expected, but with a serialisation you have freedom to tell the whole thing in all its depth.
    BBC version of War of the Worlds: 3 episodes of ticking boxes.
    French version War of the Worlds: 8 episodes for series 1 and series 2 in production last October.
    How many episodes in the average American sci-fi ? Well it is common to have between 10 to 20 episodes in a series with a half way break for the long series.

    BBC series remind me of the luxury cakes in the supermarket. They look great and are presented well, but when you get your teeth into it they don’t quite meet the expectation.

    1. The point about actors and their appearance is an interesting one. I don’t think it’s fully necessary to have actors that exactly match the descriptions given elsewhere, but it certainly is jarring when there’s such a disconnect in the meaning of a character’s appearance.

      It reminds me of the bad TV adaptation of “The Dresden Files”: The character Murphy is depicted as a small woman which makes the contrast between her appearance and strength much greater – but we see none of that in the TV show, so losing a whole aspect of the story.

      1. Yeah I don’t mind actors not looking like you imagine a character to be like, such as Steven Mangan as Dirk Gently.
        Dirk was described as short and portly, but it never became a plot point. It was just what he looked like.
        Thankfully BBC kept the abomination that is Young Dirk Gently off the UK screens for fear of nerdy towel-waving riots. That was only available on the BBC.com site

        When the look of a character is part of the plot-line or story, deviating from that forces you to drop or change scenes, or as you point out have weird inconsistencies.
        This Mrs Coulter is just not the Mrs. Coulter in the books. It is her more evil sister that does pantomime.
        In the books only 1 person beats their Daemon, and only because it isn’t a real Daemon can it be so.
        The link between Human and daemon is almost akin to the tale of the Corsican Brothers. If you hit one, the other shares the pain.
        Unless they intent to reveal that she bought her golden monkey, or is a masochist, she is doing something that breaks the rules of the book universe.


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