Surprisingly, the creators didn't flinch from depicting the books' overarching plot: a war against God in the name of human freedom.
[Spoilers for The Amber Spyglass and season 3 of His Dark Materials.]
I always thought His Dark Materials was unfilmable.
I said as much in 2013, in a review of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed fantasy trilogy. Part of the issue is the sheer scope of the books’ imagination. Pullman populates his worlds with fantastic creatures: from warlike armored bears, to sentient elephants on wheels, to tiny flying people with venomous stingers, to intelligent animal spirits that are bonded body and soul to every human being. None of these could be played by actors with latex prosthetics, and putting it all on screen would strain any special-effects budget.
However, there’s a much bigger problem. The overarching theme of the trilogy—hinted at in the first two books, and made explicit in the third—is a war against God.
Down with the Authority
In HDM, our Earth is just one of countless worlds existing side-by-side, separated by a razor’s thickness. All the worlds of the multiverse are suffused with Dust, the quantum particle of consciousness, that makes self-awareness possible. Dust clings to humans like static electricity, attracted by our thoughts and feelings, and angels are made of it.
The Christian church hates and fears Dust, believing it to be the lingering evidence of original sin. They stifle scientific research into it, but they perform their own twisted experiments to sever humans’ connection to Dust. The subjects who survive are zombie-like, deprived of emotion and free will.
God, or “the Authority” as Pullman’s books call him, exists but isn’t the omnipotent creator of everything. He’s merely the oldest of the angels, but he lied to the others and told them that he was their maker. This deception enabled him to claim power, and his reign has spread repression and terror across the multiverse.
Pullman’s protagonists, some heroic and some decidedly antiheroic, come together to wage war against the Authority to overthrow his tyranny. When they finally encounter him, he’s a senile invalid, so ancient and frail that he dissolves like smoke when exposed to the slightest breath of wind.
It seemed unthinkable that any film studio or TV executive would dare to put this on the screen. The 2007 Hollywood adaptation of The Golden Compass, Pullman’s first book, watered down the anti-religious themes and ended before it got to any of the really controversial parts. Even so, it provoked howls of protest from religious apologists.
A surprisingly faithful translation
However, the BBC rose to the challenge. In 2019, they started airing a new adaptation of the trilogy (shown on HBO in America). The first season introduced Pullman’s protagonists: Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a girl from a parallel Earth, and Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a boy from our universe. In a quest to rescue her friend from a shadowy cabal that’s kidnapping children, Lyra travels to the frozen north where she discovers the truth about Dust and the conspiracy to suppress it. Meanwhile, Will runs away from home to search for his vanished father, who’s somehow linked to people from Lyra’s universe.
Season 2 adapts the second book, The Subtle Knife. Will and Lyra meet in a parallel world, where they discover the most dangerous weapon in existence: a blade so sharp it can cut the fabric of space, creating portals between universes.
The first two seasons were accurate to the books, with nothing a religious viewer would necessarily object to. The main villain is the Magisterium, the nefarious and powerful version of the Christian church from Lyra’s universe. You could interpret this as a parable about corruption and religious hypocrisy, rather than religion per se.
But in season 3, which covers the final book The Amber Spyglass, there’s no way to avoid it. The plot centers around Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, gathering an alliance of rebel angels and beings from across the worlds to overthrow the Authority and free sentient life everywhere.
To their credit—and to my surprise—the showrunners didn’t flinch. What they put on screen is a faithful translation of the series’ humanist and anti-religious message.
The world of the dead and the new Eve
Besides the war, the other major plot of season 3 is Lyra and Will’s journey to the world of the dead, which is neither heaven nor hell but a dreary limbo. The TV series’ depiction of this was perfect. It’s a bleak maze of ashes and fog where the ghosts of the dead are tormented by harpies who whisper their darkest secrets.
It’s here that the two of them strike a blow for freedom. They cut a window so the ghosts can escape back into the real world, where they dissolve into atoms, giving up their individual consciousness but rejoining the cycles of life and nature. With no afterlife of misery, the Authority no longer has any hold on humanity. It’s an uplifting, thoroughly humanist moral about how obsessive belief in another existence robs this life of meaning and wonder. Only by accepting our finite lifespan can we live to the utmost.
In the end, the good guys win the war. Lyra becomes the new Eve, losing her childhood innocence as she falls in love for the first time. But, unlike in the Bible, this is no bad thing. It’s presented as an upward step toward maturity and self-knowledge, one that heals the rift torn in the fabric of existence by the war.
The death of the Authority is shown, but it’s a brief moment and its significance isn’t explained. A viewer who hadn’t read the books might not know what it represents. However, that’s the only thing that seemed even slightly like a pulled punch.
For the most part, the TV series is a straightforward adaptation, with few changes. I was disappointed that it left out one of the great moments of the third book: an army of ghosts charging into battle against the Authority’s forces. However, almost everything else is there—including the mulefa, a sentient race of part-elephant, part-giraffe creatures that travel on natural wheels. The series manages to make this look graceful instead of ridiculous.
My biggest critique of the show was how it handled the character of Lyra. In the books, she’s an almost feral street urchin with a wild streak and a talent for lying that verges on pathological. The series plays down these elements of her character, making her more like an ordinary teenage girl.
However, it balances this out with some other excellent female characters. Ruth Wilson was compelling as Lyra’s mother, Mrs. Coulter: malicious and treacherous, but also a victim herself, twisted by the moral compromises she made to survive in a brutal patriarchy. Simone Kirby, who played the ex-Catholic nun and physicist Mary Malone, was another standout. A scene in the final episode where she recounts the experience of falling in love, and how it made her realize the hollowness of her religious vows, was one of the high points of the series.
Even after watching the series, I remain pleasantly surprised that something so explicitly anti-religious was made. Of course, it’s possible the showrunners were deliberately courting controversy as a means of stirring up publicity. On the other hand, the world has gotten a lot more secular since the books were published. It’s also possible that they agreed with the series’ philosophy and simply didn’t see it as a big deal. No one bats an eye at popular media based on Christian or religious tropes. It’s only fair for us nonbelievers to get a fully fledged fictional world of our own.