Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: HBO signs on to adapt an award-winning series of fantasy novels, which are beloved by readers but difficult and expensive to adapt. Undaunted, a major cast is assembled—along with sets, costumes, and CGI elaborate enough to rival most blockbusters—in the hopes audiences will be so seduced that they’ll lose themselves in a complicated fantasy world for seasons and seasons to come. By the time the whole thing is over, maybe they’ll even bring home, I don’t know, about five dozen Emmys.
Sounding familiar? Yes, it’s clear that HBO hopes His Dark Materials, which premieres tonight, will enrapture the same audience that gobbled up Game of Thrones (or at least tide them over until House of the Dragon is ready). And with at least three novels by series creator Phillip Pullman to adapt—The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, along with two more recently published books and some ancillary spinoff stories—there’s more than enough material for His Dark Materials to run for years.
But those with a sharp memory for Hollywood’s misbegotten blockbusters will be feeling some deja vu right now. We’ve been through a version of this before, in 2007, when a fantasy epic called The Golden Compass hit theaters to a wave of controversy and a mediocre box-office gross that snuffed out two planned sequels. Now, HBO—in collaboration with BBC One, where the show will air abroad—is bringing the same novel to TV, and hoping to achieve the success that eluded the movie both critically and commercially 12 years ago.
So: What went wrong last time around, and what’s different this time around? Watching His Dark Materials so soon after revisiting The Golden Compass gave me some unexpected sympathy for the movie, which is so misconceived it feels like it was deliberately set up to fail. If you squint, you can see why New Line thought The Golden Compass would make such an appealing prospect for a Lord of the Rings followup. It’s a series filled with fantastical wonders—shapeshifting animal companions, armored bears, witches—told through the eyes of Lyra, a headstrong adolescent child, whose age conveniently dovetails with the target audience.
Unfortunately for New Line, The Golden Compass is also a deceptively tricky book, using the trappings of children’s fantasy to deliver an anti-Christian allegory in the same way C.S. Lewis used The Chronicles of Narnia to deliver a pro-Christian allegory. I’m not being speculative here; the series has one character who says Christianity was "a very powerful and convincing mistake," and another who says, "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling."
It’s not the easiest sell to mainstream audiences now, and definitely not an easy sell in 2007. And while the movie doesn’t have a single line of dialogue that even vaguely resembles the quotes above, it still struggles to figure out what to do about the series’ innate atheism. In particular, you can feel The Golden Compass struggling to figure out what to do with the Magisterium, an evil and oppressive organization which is obviously based on the Catholic Church. The movie’s solution is to depict the Magisterium as a generic, vaguely Orwellian evil empire, with Lord of the Rings alum Christopher Lee at its head. (This diluted take on the Magisterium wasn’t enough for the Catholic League, which organized a boycott of the movie anyway.)
Even in this neutered form, The Golden Compass might have had its own interesting story to tell. The anti-Christian stuff is ultimately central to Pullman’s trilogy, but it’s largely on the back burner in the first book.
In the end, the movie’s real enemy is compression. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring does an admirable job condensing the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy narrative into a single movie, but it’s still almost three hours long. At 114 minutes, The Golden Compass is nearly a full hour shorter than that, and it greatly suffers from the decision to condense a sprawling fantasy story into a film that’s not even as long as your average Judd Apatow comedy.
The compressed timeline turns all the novel’s well-rounded personalities into flat cliches, with characters popping up just long enough to introduce themselves—like they’re fifth-graders who have each been promised a turn in the spotlight in the school play. It’s a shame, because most of the movie’s cast could hardly be better-suited to the material. Plucked from obscurity at the age of 12 via an open casting call, Dakota Blue Richards is a strong Lyra, playing up the confidence and the curiosity that makes her such an ideal protagonist. Sam Elliott practically leaps off the page as the warm-hearted American cowboy Lee Scoresby. And Daniel Craig embodies the flinty, inscrutable inner life of Lord Asriel so perfectly that he was essentially born to play the role.
There are two exceptions. Ian McKellen is a great actor, but he’s all wrong for the voice of the armored bear Iorek Byrnison. There’s a reason for that; Nonso Anozie was originally cast in the role, but was eventually replaced—against the wishes of director Chris Weitz—by McKellen, who New Line preferred because audiences knew him from Lord of the Rings. And while Nicole Kidman was author Phillip Pullman’s first choice for the role of the villain Mrs. Coulter, her performance just keeps hammering the same note, playing up the character’s interior frostiness without any of the false warmth that allows her to beguile so many in the first place.
The Golden Compass does contain some flashes of the great movie it could have been. Iorek Byrnison’s quest to reclaim the throne of the panserbjørne is tense and surprisingly gruesome, with a bear-vs-bear fight that ends when he straight-up rips off the false king’s jaw. (Seriously, watch this scene, it’ll blow your mind that it was in a kids’ movie.) And the final battle is the kind of glorious fantasy nonsense that probably caused the executives at New Line to see dollar signs, with a battalion of fur-coated men and wolves squaring off against a ragtag army of consisting of some kids, some witches, an armored bear, and a whooping cowboy shooting a rifle from a hot-air balloon.
I still wish we’d gotten a followup movie, if only to see how the film series would have handled the super-eccentric flourishes in the subsequent books, like elephantine animals that glide around on wheels and tiny, dragonfly-riding assassins that kill their targets via the poison spurs they wear on their boots. But The Golden Compass is simultaneously too busy and too boring, flattening out most of the stuff that make Pullman’s books so compelling. No decision is more emblematic of The Golden Compass’s lack of courage than the bizarrely truncated ending, which lops off the grim twist that leads directly into the second book, The Subtle Knife, in favor of an unconvincing note of triumph for Lyra.
So in the end, it’s not exactly a fair fight: In both form and execution, the new TV series could hardly fail to improve on the old movie. His Dark Materials, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is a series that requires the pacing and the effects budget allowed by modern prestige TV.
But a picture-perfect CGI armored polar bear wouldn’t mean anything if the TV show wasn’t any good. And it’s here, happily, that His Dark Materials makes a fairly substantial leap over the low bar set by the previous adaptation. Like The Golden Compass and its endless opening monologue, His Dark Materials explains itself when it doesn’t need to explain itself. Before the story even begins, the show bogs itself down with clunky on-screen text about daemons, witches, and prophecies, which could all have been handled more effectively with a little exposition.
But after a little bet-hedging upfront, His Dark Materials is wise enough to let the story breathe. (It also helps that the series has a little more material to draw upon; the premiere borrows a bit from La Belle Sauvage, the Golden Compass prequel Pullman published in 2017.) This time around, Lyra is played by Dafne Keen, who broke out in the X-Men movie Logan. Her Lyra is less whimsical and more hard-edged, but that’s in keeping with the show’s darker tone. James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel is a little more swashbuckling and charismatic than Daniel Craig’s, which feels like a deviation from what we see the books but works fine in the context of the TV series.
But the real standout is Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter. Wilson has already distinguished herself in everything from the BBC’s Luther to Showtime’s The Affair, but her Mrs. Coulter is mesmerizing: a woman whose warm exterior hides a tightly-wound, dead-eyed core that only shows in moments of anger or panic. She’s still the villain, but the series also makes time to give her some shading—and wring some sympathy from the audience—by showing how her brilliance and ruthlessness has uniquely enabled her to rise the ranks in a system governed by men. It’s one of several choices—the rest of which I’ve been asked not to spoil—that show how the TV series has found a balance between respecting and modifying the content and scope of Pullman’s novels in some series-altering ways.
And as for the religious elements that alienated both Christians who were offended by them and fans who were annoyed to see them diluted in The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials makes far fewer compromises and apologies for the text. The Magisterium is more overtly Catholic, tossing around titles like "cardinal" and "father" and leading rooms of people in mandatory prayer. There are crosses on the walls, and their agents wear clerical-style collars.
Will that be enough to spark another protest? Probably not—and if it does, I’d be surprised if anyone cares all that much. 12 years removed from the original controversy, it’s striking how ridiculous the concept of someone getting worked up over the watered-down Golden Compass feels. This was always a great story waiting for the right execution. In retrospect, 2007 was exactly the wrong time for His Dark Materials to be adapted for the screen. 2019 could hardly be a better time.
Originally Appeared on GQ