Clear some space on Sunday nights for His Dark Materials, HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy. Starring Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Lin Manuel Miranda and Dafne Keen, the gorgeous-looking series is very much worth your time—especially if you long to lose yourself in a surreal fantasy world populated by morally ambiguous characters, witches and talking bears.
The first episode, which premieres November 4 at 9 pm ET on Crave, is set in an alternate-world version of England (the atmosphere feels a little bit past-tense, a little bit future-tense), and follows the adventures of orphan Lyra Belacqua (played by Logan’s Dafne Keen). The series opens with an infant Lyra being taken to Jordan College (a proxy Oxford) by the mysterious Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). There’s the suggestion that a) Lyra is special and b) someone wishes her harm. There, she is given sanctuary from whomever wishes her ill and raised by the scholars. The action then picks up 12 years later where the plucky now-tween Lyra must make her way in a fantastical and dangerous world dominated by a totalitarian religious government known as the Magisterium.
And let’s not even get into her personal baggage…
If it all sounds a bit complicated—it is. But, thanks to deft storytelling and strong performances from the ensemble, those complications are more dramatically compelling than headache-inducing.
Here’s what you need to know about the series.
It’s kid-friendly adult content
Pullman’s trilogy has been described as adult novels that kids can read too, and the TV adaptation falls very much in line with that cross-generational spirit. The show’s adult content is of the intellectual and psychological kind rather than the gnarly sex scene/gratuitous nudity/gruesome violence variety (Ah, I do miss Game of Thrones). There is enough drama, adventure and gadgetry to compel the attention of both parent and child—at least in my house, anyway. I watched the first two episodes while my son was home sick from school and the action was captivating enough for him to turn away from Pokémon—an achievement of the highest magnitude.
There are scary bits, though, that might haunt the dreams of younger kids. Much of the drama focuses on a kid-stealing ring known as the The Gobblers. An air of gloom, naturally, hangs over this plotline, which is introduced early on. The kidnapping of two children Lyra knows sets her off on a perilous personal journey to find them and discover who the Gobblers are—and what they do with the children they steal.
You don’t need to read the books—but a little Googling doesn’t hurt
If you know your alethiometers from your photograms, your daemons from your spy-flies, then—good for you. For those that haven’t tackled the trilogy on which it’s based, it’s not a bad idea to save yourself the “why is that ermine talking?” confusion and do a brief Google search on the world of the novels before tuning in. (FYI: the talking animals are daemons, manifestations of their human companion’s souls. Wound a daemon and you wound its human companion.)
Doing your Pullman homework is not compulsory or necessary to enjoyment, however, and if you’re virulently anti-spoiler I’d advise against it. I will confess to pausing episode 2 to get a better sense of the Magisterium, though, and I do not regret it.
Each book will correspond to a season
The drama contained within the three books will play out over three seasons. That’s reportedly how the series, which is filmed mostly in Wales, is going to proceed (it’s already filming season 2). Something else to know: the series is written by award-winning U.K. TV writer Jack Thorne. Dubbed the “bard of Britain,” Thorne is no stranger to translating fantasy icons into new mediums. In 2018, his adaptation of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child won the Tony Award for Best Play. He’s also a skilled storyteller when it comes to unpacking the dark side of human nature. He wrote the critically acclaimed limited TV series, National Treasure (2016), which stars Robbie Coltrane as a predatory comedian and Andrea Riseborough as his tormented daughter (a must-watch!)
Dafne Keen is a child actor with adult chops
There are child actors that act like saccharine-infused proxy children onscreen, and then there are child actors that are so soulful and fierce—so vulnerably human—that they make you remember what it was like to have the heart and understanding of a child. Dafne Keen is the latter kind of young performer and any concerns I had about not being able to get into a show centred on a 12-year-old girl were immediately dispelled by her gutsy, clear-eyed performance. It’s a curious form of therapy to watch her scamper around as Lyra—to find your old grown-up self relating to both her distressed confusion at the darkness of the adult world and her courageous conviction that things don’t have to be that way at all.
Ruth Wilson’s wardrobe is *chef’s kiss*
Let the Internet rave over Succession’s turtlenecked and pantsuit-ed Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook). In my humble opinion, Ruth Wilson’s costumes are truly rave-worthy. Wilson, who plays series villain Mrs. Coulter, wears a wardrobe tailored like a second skin—akin to a 1940s film star. I found myself envying every single piece of clothing she wears, including her glorious silky teal pajamas. Wilson’s screen-idol glamour, which is courtesy of costume designer Caroline McCall (Downton Abbey), is made more entrancing by her performance. Her face presents as a porcelain mask of calm, but her eyes are darting and wild. A serene menace, it’s a pleasure to watch her looking so good while still being so unsettling.