• Emma Holt

"His Dark Materials" Review (HBO, 2019)

“His Dark Materials” (2019, HBO)

“When I am frightened, I shall master the fear.”

-Iorek Brynisen, “His Dark Materials” (HBO, 2019)


If your soul had a form, what would it look like? Filmmakers, artists, and shamans alike have explored this question for centuries. In doing so, they have created an endless treasure trove of ideas to choose from. Arguably one of the most exciting explorations in modern interpretations of the soul, “His Dark Materials,” is a cinematic re-imagining of a series of novels by Phillip Pullman by the same name. The 2019 HBO series is both an expansion and an homage to the 2007 film, “The Golden Compass,” directed by Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).


For those who are unfamiliar, the series offers a unique look into a parallel universe where humans possess their own spirit animal, also known as a “daemon,” that goes everywhere with them. The daemon is essentially an extension of the human’s soul and their life-force; however the complexities of their existence remain a mystery to the characters, who desperately attempt to unravel the truth behind the power of the daemons. While children’s daemons possess a great energy and the ability to change form, adult‘s daemons settle into one form at the time of puberty, when the veil of innocence is lifted and a child begins the long and difficult journey into adulthood.


For some, what may seem on the surface a simple children’s story would be kindly mistaken. The series offers great depth and intrigue into the unique character’s lives, as well as their unique personalities and motivations. Masterfully acted by Daphne Keene as Lyra Belacqua, viewers experience firsthand the trials and tribulations of her personal journey into adulthood, in which she is faced with grief, pain, truth, and certain death at every turn. The series maintains a dark, yet playful tone that I would liken to some of my favorite Netflix originals, including “Stranger Things,” “Locke and Key,” as well as films such as, “City of Embers,” and, “The Maze Runner.”

Though the series does have it’s light-hearted moments, it is tempered with a sense of reality and maturity that welcomes the viewership of an older audience. Perhaps there is something about coming of age stories - particularly the traumatic and unusual ones - that many of us can confide in. There is something about the nostalgia of an authentic coming of age tale that rings true. The shaping of one’s identity and the turmoil that many of us endure in our teenage years is something you carry with you the rest of your life. There is just something about a brave, fearless kid that inspires us to face our own fears. Though the creators of this series explore this idea of identity forming in a magical setting, the plights of the characters in, “His Dark Materials,” are realistic. The creators use a fantastical setting to further explore topics of love, friendship, identity, parenthood, trauma, integrity and intuition. I am a firm believer that any good story has some kind of deeper meaning.


In my discussion of topics and themes that are prominent in “His Dark Materials,” I would be remiss if I failed to mention the controversy surrounding the series. Critics of the series have argued it attacks authority, religion, and Christianity. Without spoiling too much about the film, I would agree that the main character, Lyra, is opposing of authority, but it is only after she uncovers the unethical secrets and practices that they have been hiding from the public. Prior to her uncovering the unseemly practices of the religious government, also known as The Magisterium, Lyra is promised by the all-powerful Mrs. Coulter that if she simply follows her instructions and “trusts her,” she will help Lyra recover her best friend, Roger, who mysteriously goes missing after the first episode.

“Lyra, look around this room, how many women do you see? In every room there are those that would belittle you. With my help they won’t lay a scratch on you. For you will have knowledge that they don’t, and I can teach you to wield power over all of them. But you must let me mold you. You must trust me.”

-Mrs. Coulter

Despite critic’s attempts to ban the film, and the studio ordering Weitz to do major cutting of the original take on, “The Golden Compass,” the film won an Academy Award for best achievement in visual effects. For those familiar with the film or with Pullman’s series, “His Dark Materials” came as a greatly anticipated follow-up to the unique plot, characters and dazzling special effects that came in the, “Golden Compass” movie.

Comparatively speaking, I would argue that “His Dark Materials,” is more outwardly skeptical of the Christian ideals and places the viewer on the side of anti-authoritarian, it makes the “Golden Compass” look rather unobtrusive in this regard. Some may argue that it is wrong to portray the authority figure as the villain. I, however, found the perspective to be refreshing and needed in today’s world. Far too long have we assumed that those in power put the ideals of the few first. Too long we have believed that those in power are free of corruption and don’t have to answer to the system of checks and balances like everyone else. “His Dark Materials,” teaches us, as viewers, to stand up for what we believe in, even if we are outnumbered and overpowered. Wherever there are people suffering, we must fight for justice.


A powerful allegory for the modern day, “His Dark Materials,” is a creative and electrifying series that is sure to inspire you to conquer your own fears, and to search for the truth. Inside each and every one of us is a radiant and playful spirit with nothing but potential. We possess great power to enhance the lives of others and explore the greater meanings of life. We must unite together against any form of oppression to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to shine in their own special way. Word on the internet is that “His Dark Materials,” is already confirmed for another season rumored to release in late 2020. The series has already hinted at the existence of interdimensional travel, which would certainly make for a very exciting season 2. I greatly look forward to the continuation of this series and the fascinating discourse it welcomes.


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