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HBO's Fantasy 'His Dark Materials': 'Dated' and a 'Bore'

November 5, 2019 | By


Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, took at look at the first four episodes of HBO's His Dark Materials, premiering Nov. 4 on the cablenet. It's based on author Philip Pullman's young-adult fantasy trilogy of the same name, part of which was dramatized in 2007 in the feature film The Golden Compass.

It takes place in an alternate-universe Earth, where a mysterious "Magisterium" exerts control over the alternate-universe version of Oxford (which was recently inundated in an equally mysterious Great Flood) and all other aspects of society.

In this world, constantly accompanying each human is a "daemon," the person's spirit embodied in a supernatural talking animal. The "compass" in question is a rare object that humans use to divine the truth behind situations and the future.

From a 2001 review of the books at

Also this past summer, the Quality Paperback Book Review ran a four-color spread ad for Pullman's trilogy, leading off with this quotation from the New York Times: "A thrillingly ambitious tale . . . [M]ay well hold the most subversive message in children's literature in years."

The same ad, illustrated with pictures from the covers of the three Pullman books, included a sidebar quotation in red type from a leading character in the trilogy, the witch Serafina Pekkla: "All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. The rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed."

The above quotation alone — a broadside against the traditional Judeo-Christian vision of God ("the Authority") as good and the "rebel angels," or demons, as evil — is evidence that his trilogy, as the advertisement puts it, "is not your sword-and-sorcery escapism . . ." It is also evidence that His Dark Materials may not really be the sort of thing that you would want to put into the hands of "young adults," if by that you mean impressionable children between the ages of seven and twelve.

As HBO describes it at the official site:

Based on author Philip Pullman’s beloved trilogy, His Dark Materials follows Lyra (Dafne Keen), a brave young woman from another world. Lyra’s quest to find her kidnapped friend leads her to uncover a sinister plot of a secret organization, encounter extraordinary beings and protect dangerous secrets.

Blog editor Kate O'Hare posed some questions to Father Kuna about HBO's version. Here's what he had to say.

Having not read Philip Pullman's books, what do you think TV adaptation's overall theme and messages?

I thought the overall premise that religion thwarts intellectual freedom, especially academic freedom, to be dated. It was dated upon the publication of the children's books in the 1990s. It was dated with the release of the first movie in 2007. It's especially dated as we enter a new decade that the new HBO series will run through.

Academic freedom is not threatened from the top down, but from the bottom up, as consumers drive higher-education choices, i.e. the proliferation of "safe spaces" for students who find a differing opinion disconcerting or intolerable. Even the theme of matching force with force I found a bit misleading. The heroes of the story enlist children and conscript animals to fight whom they perceive to be the enemy. It's a bit disturbing that war, and especially child soldiering, is to be celebrated.

Pullman's books are reputed as being anti-religious and especially anti-Catholic. Did you see evidence of that in the series?

Yes, for all of HBO's reassurances [about the show not being explicitly anti-Catholic], the TV series retains Magisterium as the title for the bad guys.

[Editor's note: In Catholic terms, "Magisterium" refers to "the Church's divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion."]

The characters say Magisterium so much that I thought the purpose for the series was that it eventually becomes a drinking game. Take a swig any time someone says, "Magisterium." The villains are referred to as cardinal, father, bishop, etc. I would be offended if the characterizations weren't unintentionally laughable.

The series posits an alternate-universe version of Earth, where human spirits are embodied in supernatural animal companions. What did you make of that concept?

I don't even think the writer knew what he was doing when he envisioned human spirits embodied in supernatural animals. Yes, "spirit-animal" is a tongue-in-cheek expression now. This is a literal, non-ironic thing in the Dark Materials world. I chalk it up to the adage that, once someone stops believing in God, they'll believe in anything.

When the movie adaptation The Golden Compass came out, many Christian and especially Catholic groups were concerned it promoted antithesis toward faith to young people. If teens and older want to watch "His Dark Materials," what should parents be thinking about?

Anti-Christian themes aside, I found the series a bore. I can't possibly see how a child or teenager would find it interesting. If a teenager wanted to watch it, I would say by all means, the parents should show it, preferably on a road trip. Your kids would be asleep in no time, thus, reducing the number of "are we there yets?"

You've seen four episodes. Are you excited to see the rest?

Yes, I've seen the first four episodes. I don't plan on watching the rest.


Image: Dafne Keen as Lyra in 'His Dark Materials'/HBO

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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