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What HBO’s His Dark Materials Is Doing Is a Book Reader’s Dream

Lyra in His Dark Materials

Andrew Scott’s cameo in HBO’s His Dark Material is not only filling the Hot Priest-shaped hole left in everyone’s heart by Fleabag, but it means that this adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s novel series is doing something that I’ve always wished book adaptations would do better: planning ahead. By already merging elements from the first two books in the series, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, the HBO adaptation is actually telling a story with the end in mind. They care about adapting Phillip Pullman’s trilogy holistically.

When I think back about what bugged me most about the Harry Potter movies, it wasn’t necessarily just that they “left something out” that was in the books. It’s that each book was adapted individually, with not enough care in mind for the endgame. It might seem OK to leave out information about Neville’s parents in Order of the Phoenix if you’re only focusing on the story of that book … but then how is it supposed to be satisfying when he kills Nagini in Deathly Hallows? The adaptation should be able to stand on its own, not as supplemental material. I know that some people love Prisoner of Azkaban the most because it’s so different and artsy or whatever, but it always made me feel like they weren’t concerned about maintaining any kind of aesthetic or logistical continuity.

Sure, not all of the Harry Potter books were published at the time, and His Dark Materials is completed—but Jo Rowling is a master of planning (she probably plans too much) and told the filmmakers and actors some things. Why not more? How come only Alan Rickman got to know his character’s secret motivation? That they didn’t use her as a resource will bug me until the day I die … or, at least, until the day the Harry Potter series is remade for television.

Back to His Dark Materials, I’ve seen some complaints that the series so far is rushed, but I think changing up the pacing and structure of the storytelling is OK. Every medium has a different structure by nature. Plays and musicals typically have two acts and one intermission. Movies are written with three acts in mind, your real basic “beginning, middle, and end” arc. Most hour-long drama episodes have five acts with three commercial breaks, and even though HBO doesn’t do commercial breaks, shows like His Dark Materials still adhere relatively to that structure.

Trilogies are divided into three books, obviously, which are divided into chapters. Logistical stuff like that dictates how stories are told more than you think. His Dark Materials is also not as rushed as you might think. While it would have been nice to spend more time at Jordan College, by the time Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up as Lee Scoresby in Episode 4, we’ll be a third of the way through the first season and a third of the way through the first book.

Back to the significance of Andrew Scott, if you’re not familiar with the books, lemme ‘splain. His character is the father of Will Parry, the co-protagonist of The Subtle Knife, who joins Lyra on her journey. She’s still the hero and the chosen one, though; don’t worry. Will is significant enough to the final book that it’s really smart that we’re hearing about him and his dad now. The book kind of abandons Lyra to introduce Will, which is fine when you’re reading but might be disorienting onscreen. He also has a cat.

It’s the planning ahead that really excites me, as a reader, while watching. The fact that Lyra is one of my favorite-ever female protagonists (because her strength is her ability to lie and she comes of age without leaning stereotypically hyper-feminine or tomboyish) is just a bonus for me. This show is making some weird choices, but they are strong and confident choices, and I respect that. I don’t have to worry that the ending won’t make sense if I can see that they’re laying that groundwork now. It’s also a fun way to surprise book fans without downright changing something, you know? I might know where all of this is going, but if something from The Subtle Knife happened tomorrow, I’d yell!

Another adaptation that did this semi-recently is A Series Of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, which introduced VFD (a secret organization not mentioned until the last page of the fifth book out of thirteen in the series) in Season 1 and wove it into the series in a way that the books didn’t until later. I don’t want to bring up a certain chaotic HBO series whose source material may actually never be finished and whose showrunners did a questionable job wrapping up what they could with what they had, but in most cases, this is good news for the legions of “the book was better” fans.

These adaptations are good, and not just because the filmmakers are capturing the “spirit” of the source material; they’re actually telling a story that stands on its own. Nobody has ever said that film and television are definitive and that getting adapted should be the “goal” of any book, anyway … your imagination and reading experience isn’t going anywhere. With more adaptations like His Dark Materials, though, maybe we can settle on “the book was different” instead.

(image: HBO)

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Leah is 50% Southerner, 50% New Englander, and 100% fangirl over everything from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to stage lighting and Marvel comics about teenagers. She used to test toys for Hasbro (true story).