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.
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.
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.
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.
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.