SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the final episode of His Dark Materials.
Of all the books deemed “unfilmable,” none has loomed quite so large as His Dark Materials. The young adult trilogy follows the adventures of Lyra, a girl with an extraordinary destiny who crosses paths with Will, a boy whose divine purpose is on a collision course with her own. Enduring as a critically acclaimed classic of the genre, at first glance the trilogy seems perfect for an adaptation for film, especially after a stage play based on the series was met with acclaim in 2003.
However, His Dark Materials’ road to the screen has been bumpy, to say the least. It manages to hit on a trifecta of concerns from a marketing perspective: strong anti-organized religion themes targeted at a young audience, frank discussions of adolescent sexuality, and the kind of fantasy creatures that are fun to imagine but incredibly expensive to create (the mulefa, anyone?). The first attempt at bringing the books to life, 2007’s ill-received The Golden Compass, tried to split the difference on the darker themes by taking away their specificity, pleasing neither fans of the books nor the Catholic Church, who ended up panning the film anyway. While it had a fantastic cast led by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, the visual effects were simply not up to par even for the year it was made. It was, all in all, a disappointment. It seemed as though after such an expensive flop, His Dark Materials would never make the leap to the screen.
After this failed adaptation, anticipation and skepticism were high when HBO and the BBC announced their partnership on a new television series in 2018. While TV seemed a better format to ensure all the nuances from the novels could be explored in depth, the concerns regarding the budget remained. Many fans feared that significant changes to the novels would need to be made, especially related to how the daemons would be portrayed. In the stage play, puppeteering ensured the creatures representing each human’s soul were easily seen and understood by the audience. The film, for all its faults, had enough of a budget to include them often. On an episodic series, even one backed by HBO, it would be far more difficult to pull off this effect. Of course, looming larger than any one concern was the protective nature of fans over the trilogy. “Beloved” is not a strong enough word to describe the kind of devotion fans have to the novels, and unfairly or not, even minor changes or speculation about casting was enough to spark waves of panic.
From the start, the producing team behind His Dark Materials has been laser-focused on ensuring that the spirit of Pullman’s work came through even if changes to the source material needed to be made for logistical reasons. The focus on impactful and canon-accurate characters rather than every last CGI detail kept the story’s heart intact. With the final episode, and indeed the final season as a whole, their efforts have ensured that His Dark Materials fans got the deeply emotional conclusion they deserved.
The cast of the series has beautifully brought their characters to life. While James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, and the other adult actors shined, this is particularly true for Dafne Keen as Lyra and Amir Wilson as Will, who have proven to be dynamic and immensely talented younger actors. They both have great chemistry together that they have carefully built from cautious allies to genuine friendship to, eventually, young love. One of the best decisions the writing team made was to introduce Will in season 1 rather than waiting until his first appearance in the second novel/season, allowing the audience to bond with both characters and raise the stakes for their first meeting. It’s Keen and Wilson who needed to stick the landing with regard to the final heart-wrenching twist. They, along with director Harry Wootliff, made the series finale “The Botanic Garden” one of the best episodes of TV this year.
As book readers know, the ending of The Amber Spyglass and thus “The Botanic Garden” amounts to excruciating yet beautiful torture. Lyra and Will have declared their love for each other, and this very adult realization comes with a cost. In order to save the multiverse of worlds, Lyra and Will must each return to their own and never see each other again as the portals between the worlds will be sealed. If they try to “cheat” by choosing to live in one world together, the one who doesn’t belong there will eventually wither away and die. Lyra and Will make their sacrifice with one last wrenching promise. There is a bench in both their worlds in the same location, and every year on the same day, they will go there and know that worlds away, the other is waiting for them. Keen and Wilson rise to the occasion with the kind of talent and dedication that many adult actors can’t summon. The final montage of the two meeting each year as they change and grow separately is simply stunning.
This comes after several of the more heartbreaking moments from the books have already been brought to life, like Lyra separating from her daemon Pan (voiced by Kit Connor) and her reunions with Roger (Lewin Lloyd) and Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda). In order to enter the world of the dead, Lyra must leave Pan behind. It’s a betrayal so deep that it fulfills one condition of Lyra’s prophecy and continues to affect her and Pan years later (as seen in Pullman’s sequel novels). “Lyra and Her Death” finally managed to underscore just how close humans and daemons are even as that relationship between Lyra and Pan was permanently fractured, a feat accomplished despite the limits of CGI hampering the depiction of that bond over the years. Connor’s voice acting is superb while Keen breaks hearts in live action as she screams in pain at being separated from Pan.
In those scenes, early fan concerns about bad CGI or how certain fantastical elements would translate on screen seem trivial. Season 3 of His Dark Materials managed to evoke the same emotions I felt when I first read the novels at age 12. Despite the fact that I knew what was coming, I still gasped with grief. That ability to recreate what was magical about the books underscores the dedication and heart the creative team poured into the project. Despite some changes that didn’t quite work, like the expansion of Lord Asriel’s role (if you’ve got James McAvoy, you use James McAvoy), the intentions were clearly good. Any scenes or characters that didn’t click never overshadowed the vast majority that did. For a show whose plot hinges on eventually killing the manifestation of God as the story of Adam and Eve plays out in real-time, the characters and their emotions never got lost in the shuffle. We cared about them not just because of our residual book affection, but on their own terms within the TV series. That’s a mean feat for any show, even one that isn’t based on a classic.
While there is in theory a door open to follow Lyra’s later life via Pullman’s The Book of Dust sequel trilogy, the writers have crafted a satisfying ending even if this never comes to pass. All the major themes were covered beautifully, the performances were excellent, and the inclusion of word-for-word monologues from the final novel were as devastatingly effective as one would hope. In the end, His Dark Materials proved that even the “unfilmable” can be brought to life — if the team behind it cares enough to focus on the right details.