His Dark Materials

  1. The Golden Compass (Northern Lights)
  2. The Subtle Knife
  3. The Amber Spyglass
  • Author:  Philip Pullman
  • Published:  1995  /  1997  /  2000
  • Publisher:  Scholastic
  • Pages:  300  /  400  /  518
  • First Line:  “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
  • Last Lines:  “’The Republic of Heaven,’ said Lyra.”
  • Acclaim:  Carnegie Medal (Northern Lights), Whitbread Book of the Year (Amber Spyglass); Big Read #3
  • Film Version:  2007 (The Golden Compass – ***.5); 2019 (tv series)
  • First Read:  mid 2007

The Books:  I was at least vaguely aware of the series long before I decided to read it.  I was definitely quite aware of it by the time I read it, with the film coming not long afterwards (soon enough that my copy of the books has a little circle on it that says “A Major Motion Picture: Holiday 2007).  I knew it would be a Fantasy film and I have long been a fan and I have long been a proponent of reading the book before seeing the film, so I bought the whole trilogy and I plowed through it.  I barely put the books down until I was finished and I was even lucky enough to have fans of the books working with me at the time that I could talk to about it.

There has long been a tradition of fantasy worlds in British young adult literature.  In Middle-Earth we get a whole new world.  In Narnia, we see a glimpse of our own world and how it interacts with that world and we can always wonder if just inside a wardrobe is a doorway to adventure.  But what Pullman does is very different and among the best.  He gives us a world like our own, but also unlike it.  Right from that opening line, when we know that Lyra has a daemon (a minor annoyance – I hate that it’s spelled that way but pronounced “demon” and I hate it just as much in Song of Ice and Fire that “Ser” is pronounced “Sir”), so we know that this is a very different world from the one we know.  It won’t be long before we realize that technology is in some ways far less advanced than our own world but also far more advanced.  We certainly never could have come up with something as amazing as an alethiometer.

In the first book, Pullman draws us into an amazing world, one of armored polar bears, or deadly mechanical flies, or a church that rules all but where scholars enjoy “scholastic sanctuary”, where there are flying witches and inner manifestations of our souls that are made physical.  He also gives us Lyra Belacqua, one of the great heroines in all of fiction, not just young adult or fantasy.  She is a girl who is troubled in some ways (she greatly struggles with the truth) but when you discover her story it explains so much of it.  More importantly, she is fearless and reckless and loyal to a fault.  We will get two more absolutely brilliant characters who will end up along for the ride because of what becomes a fierce loyalty to Lyra: Iorek Byrnison, an outcast bear, who will have a truly amazing fight scene and Lee Scorseby, an aeronaut whose balloon will come in handy more than once before the end of the story.

But The Golden Compass really can’t be read as a stand-alone novel unless you give up before the final chapter.  There is a climax but the conclusion to it (which is heart-wrenching) merely brings you straight into the next book where you suddenly find yourself beginning all over again, this time on our own world but with some strange things going on.  In The Subtle Knife we realize that Pullman can write a great young male character as well as he did with Lyra in the first book and we meet Will Parry, a boy who has been forced to grow up far too fast and who sets off on a journey of his own.  But in no way is this a retread of the first book as Will must protect his mother and then leave his own world, where he will meet Lyra and discover his own fascinating destiny.

I don’t really want to say too much about the second and third books because they continue to introduce fascinating new characters, continually give you interesting new worlds that you never could have imagined and bring you on a fantasy adventure you never would have dreamed of.  What these books have isn’t so different from the description of The Princess Bride given by the grandfather (“Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”) and whatever you think might be coming next is nothing like what you would have guessed.

Also, don’t for a minute think, that just because these are written at a level that young adults can read them, that they aren’t for adults.  In many ways the themes are much more aimed at adults than they are at younger readers.  I didn’t read them until I was in my 30’s and I have read them several times since, most recently just before the new television series debuted.  Every time I go back I find details I had forgotten, find myself remembering characters who are more fascinating than I could have imagined and remember that Pullman is not afraid to go in new directions or break your heart and then eat it as well (a little joke concerning the fate of one character).

The Film:

It’s hard to get a measure on what people thought of this film.  It only has a 51 on metacritic, so its reviews weren’t great.  It had a solid opening weekend ($25 million back in 2007) but it wasn’t huge (there were lots of empty seats in our own opening night showing) and its domestic release couldn’t come close to coping with its budget ($180 million) and in spite of its solid overseas success (where it over quadrupled its U.S. earnings – it wasn’t in the Top 30 in the U.S. but was #13 worldwide for the year – it earned less than 20% of its box office in the U.S. while no other film in the Top 20 earned less than 30%) it was at least partially responsible for the Warner Brothers decision to cease New Line as a separate studio (Warners had owned it since 1996) and fold it into the larger WB operation.  It was roundly attacked by the Catholic Church (the books are rather harsh on the Catholic Church) but then again it did manage to (deservedly) win the Oscar for best Visual Effects over Transformers which had been widely expected to win.  However, with the exception of the metacritic score (and the Oscar, sort of), none of that actually tells you how good the film is.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s actually quite good.  This is not just nostalgia talking about a film I saw on opening night because I was excited about it and had loved the books.  I’ve seen this film at least a half-dozen times, most recently the week before the new television series started airing.  Even being made over a decade ago and having to limit the actions to a single film, the film is far superior to what the television show has managed to do.  It is not a great film and it took multiple viewings before I pushed it up to a low ***.5 but it has a lot of great things to recommend it and not much that detract.

First of all, the film looks phenomenal.  It’s not just the visual effects (they actually don’t win the Nighthawk but Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix inexplicably didn’t even make the semi-finalists so they are the best of the nominees) which bring to life the magnificent polar bear.  There is magnificent art direction that brings to life this world that has similarities to ours but is also an almost steampunk type of world.  The cinematography is also really fantastic, from the small Oxford streets to the great world of London to the wide expanse of the polar plains.

More importantly, the casting of the film is pretty much perfect.  Dakota Blue Richards might not have had a great acting career (the same is true for the two younger kids in the Narnia films in spite of their exceptional work there) but she is perfectly cast as Lyra.  We get perfect embodiments of the beauty described in the books for Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and the witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green).  Daniel Craig provides the right amount of arrogance and nobility (and it’s amusing to see him in the movie with Green after Casino Royale even if they don’t interact) as Lord Asriel.  And of course there is Sam Elliott, the pitch perfect Lee Scoresby (Pullman himself said Elliott was the perfect embodiment of the character).  And we also have the great voice work from Ian McKellen and Ian McShane as the two mighty bears.

For people who haven’t read the books, the film might be a bit confusing because it kind of rushes through things just a bit in order to really sink into the plot because there’s limited time when you’re dealing with a film.  For fans of the book, they might be confused to see the ending of the book completely eliminated, but first of all, that leads for a massive downer of an ending for a film and second of all, there really was no point in doing that unless there was already a committal to a second film because that leads so directly into the rest of the story.  And some people who haven’t read the books might still feel like the film just kind of ends.

But this is a magnificent Fantasy film.  It brings us a whole new world, it looks magnificent on film (especially watch it on Blu Ray if you get the chance), it works for all ages and it’s just fun to watch.

The Television Series:

I was very excited that they were making a new series of the books, especially one that would cover the books as a whole, excited enough that I re-read the books and re-watched the film.  I was pleased with the casting of James McAvoy and very excited for the casting of Lin-Manuel Miranda and wanted to see what a New York born actor could do with the Texan role of Lee Scoresby.  It was also nice to see, that despite some of the decisions that I wasn’t as thrilled about (for one, that the colors of the series would be much darker and muted as opposed to the bright colors of the film) were at least decisions that allowed this series to stand on its own apart from the film.

Once the series started airing, though, I had some doubts.  I wasn’t loving most of the casting.  Dafne Keen can act but she never really felt like Lyra to me, not the way that Richards had in the film.  And given how often the book mentions Mrs. Coulter’s beauty, the casting of Ruth Wilson never worked that well for me.  I feel bad for saying this, but if a big part of your description is how much your beauty works for you in getting what you want, then you really need to cast a very beautiful actress and Ruth Wilson just doesn’t fit that for me.

There were story changes as well and while most of them were fine for what they were doing in the series, the great weakening of Ma Costa’s character, one of the strongest females in a book full of strong females, to the great detriment of the character, from a strong and willful character to one who spends most of the time screaming of crying, just felt like a bad choice that didn’t help the series and impacted it in relation to the book.

Parts of the series have been done really well.  The polar bears look magnificent on screen (even if they bizarrely rather muted the big polar bear fight in the penultimate episode that had been done so well in the film and seemed too quick and anti-climactic in the series as if perhaps they had run out of money to do it properly).  The opening credits, which Veronica didn’t love (“ever since Westworld every show feels they have to do a big opening sequence” she complained although I think Game of Thrones might have been the more apt comparison) were nice for me because I think the score by Lorne Balfe is one of the best things in the series.  Miranda really does make the character of Lee Scoresby his own rather than try to do Elliot all over again.  It was also nice to see that the series was definitely committing to do all the books (or at least get into the second book), not only because they give it the actual conclusion from the books, but because the character of Will Parry, the other lead character in the second and third books but not present in the first book, starts showing up halfway through the series and we see the events that lead up to the start of the second book that we only hear about later in the books.  Although that actually sets up a strangeness as well; I don’t know the age differences between the young actor playing Will and Dafne Keen but he looks and feels significantly older and that’s a strange decision to make given where the story goes.

All in all, given that they never did make a second film, I am glad that they have decided to make the series and to have it cover all the books.  It might not match up to what I think of when I read the books and I definitely think it’s a step down from the actual film but it’s still good and if you’ve never seen the film, you should be fine just stepping right into the series.