His Dark Materials: The Perils Of Adaptation

Books have been adapted for the screen for over a century now - and some rules for making that work never change.

His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials

In my reviews of the first season of His Dark Materials, one point I hammered on repeatedly was that to introduce the multiple universes three episodes in – rather than to make that revelation the climax of the first volume, like it obviously should have been – undercut the narrative near-fatally. When what should have been the climax rolled around, I was emphatic about how it had been robbed of its significance:

“…imagine the sheer power James McAvoy talking about crossing over to the other universes would have had, had the show not been doing exactly that since the third episode. As it is, it seems more like they’re playing catch-up – there’s no particular dramatic irony to the audience already knowing.”

So, with the second season done and dusted, did they learn their lesson? Well, no.

This is most obvious in His Dark Materials’ treatment of the subtle knife, this second season loosely adapting the book actually titled ‘The Subtle Knife’. The episode which introduces the knife simply does not trust the audience to understand on their own how fantastical it is to have a knife which can cut through anything, including the borders between universes.

So what do they do? Include not one, but two plodding pieces of exposition detailing exactly what the knife is and how it works before we’ve even clapped eyes on the thing, one by a never-before-heard narrator in the cold open and one by special guest star Terence Stamp. We hear both of these, then we actually see the knife in person, and – oh right, it’s exactly as it was described.

This is the opposite of fantasy. This is, dare I say it, how a television adaptation of the Encyclopædia Britannica might go, reading out a no-frills factual description of something before putting it up onscreen. And while a sufficiently honey-voiced narrator might sell that, it’s simply not what you want in a lively adventure for children who thought The Chronicles Of Narnia was too preachy.

I’m always hesitant to criticise any published work in terms of ‘well, here’s how I would have done it, by which I mean better’ – but it hasn’t stopped me so far. So, as with McAvoy trotting all over the universe last year, here there is a very simple structural fix.

his dark materials amir wilson

There is a moment, when we first encounter the knife, where it slices through solid metal like butter. Any explanation of the knife’s powers should have come after that, not before. Presented in isolation, this could have been a truly striking image, a visual signifier that the knife is the real deal – instead it’s a moment of ‘oh, yeah, it does that, doesn’t it’.

To present an element of the fantastical being fantastical, and to only then say out loud how it works is so well-honed a storytelling device that it’s flatly bizarre to do it the other way round. It could be done, if you had a good reason, but His Dark Materials self-evidently does not.

This is an even simpler fix than in McAvoy’s case, since it necessitates rearranging one episode, not the whole season. Stamp’s explanation of the knife can come after the fact, like it obviously should have been. And that painful stuff in the cold open can be left on the cutting room floor, like it obviously should have been.

(The cold open feels uncomfortably like Galadriel’s opening monologue in The Lord Of The Rings – a poor choice to make when bundled together with the idea of Will being ‘the knife-bearer’, which all makes it seem alarmingly like they’re rooting through Tolkien’s attic.)

As another example of His Dark Materials jumping the gun: the books only introduced Will in the second volume, and there’s no good reason that shouldn’t have been the case in the adaptation. This isn’t to criticise little Amir Wilson, who’s been doing a manful job as co-lead, but sticking him in partway into the first season left it helplessly muddled. Introduced here, he would have had a good, meaty chunk of screentime to establish himself, rather than being initially relegated to popping up in a B-plot here and there.

Would it have thrown the audience? Possibly, but it wouldn’t be long until he met up with Lyra and we realised exactly how he was being tied into the established narrative. To save Will for this run would also have given them more material to work with, instead of leaving this season on a lopsided seven episodes.

his dark materials amir wilson dafne keen

(Though supposedly that’s down to there being a lost eighth episode which they couldn’t complete due to the pandemic, which would have focused more on McAvoy’s Lord Asriel – who, in the event, only turned up for about thirty seconds in the final episode.)

This would also mean Nina Sosanya would get some screentime this season as Will’s damaged mother – and then, who knows, when Will confronts his father for having abandoned them it might land properly. The confrontation, too, is a more rote ‘oh, hello dad’ affair than it was in the original, where after years apart they understandably didn’t even recognise each other at first.

What this all comes down to, at its core, is the idea that adaptations should not make major changes to the original work if it can possibly be avoided. David O. Selznick figured this out eighty years ago, and, guess what, when he adapted Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca they became all-time great works of cinema.

This isn’t to say adaptations need be strictly faithful in ever little detail. In the books Lord Boreal is an elderly man, but here he’s played by Ariyon Bakare, who’s in his forties. However, this works perfectly well, because it’s not crumpling up and discarding any crucial plot details, it’s a relatively minor change that doesn’t have any knock-on effects. Crucially, it’s not trying to one-up the original.

Selznick put it “I have learned to avoid trying to improve success”, and the original His Dark Materials books were a success – this is why they got adapted for the screen. Twice, in fact, because there was that film version back in 2007. And that version also couldn’t resist trying to improve success, muddling about the order of events and cutting out the first book’s tragic ending in favour of a lighter, more Hollywoody sequel hook.

If you don’t remember the 2007 version, that’s no surprise. It was panned by critics and audiences alike, so badly that the planned sequels were quietly scrapped. So it’s a terrible shame to see this adaptation – what was meant to be the proper adaptation – falling victim to the same flaws. At least fans of the books, who can fill in the gaps for themselves, won’t be quite so disappointed.

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