His Dark Materials trailer polar bearnalysis

I've written before about how I'm a big (but not uncritical) fan of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. If I have a pop cultural "thing" akin to Star Wars or Harry Potter like a lot of other people have, this would be it. It was hugely formative for me and has massively influenced everything I've ever written.

I also run the premier trailer analysis website on the internet. Since HBO just put out a longer teaser for the first season of the BBC's big-budget TV adaptation, these two interests are now dovetailing nicely. Let's get out our alethiometers and dive in!


The trailer opens with our first look at alternate universe Oxford, which looks more or less as it's described in the book: 19th century to early 20th century-ish, but with airships. I note that the BBC have seemingly opted for heavier than air craft for the airships rather than more generic zeppelins (a kind of "lead zeppelin", if you will), which I approve of.

One interesting thing about Northern Lights/The Golden Compass is that the visual aesthetic of Lyra's world is only vaguely described, such that anyone adapting the story has a lot of leeway when it comes to design choices. The much-maligned movie went for a slightly more fantastical and ornate approach in terms of some of the architecture and technology.


James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, Lyra's uncle and Nietchzien ubermensch. I was a bit skeptical of McAvoy in the role because in my head he still seems a bit too young for the part--he has one of those faces I guess--but actually he looks fine.

I'm not sure whether this is from the opening scenes of the story or when him and Lyra meet back up later, but regardless I don't think the specific dialogue was from the book (yes, I basically have it memorized).


And here's Dafne Keen, best known for being in Logan, as protagonist Lyra.

Lyra at the start of the story is meant to be a half-feral semi-orphan who is technically under the care of Oxford University but spends most of her time getting up to hijinks with street urchins. One of the (many) criticisms of the movie is that its take on the character seemed too clean and well-groomed; Dafne Keen's Lyra on the other hand has the scrawny, unwashed, badly-dressed description from the book down pat. I'm hoping the character's personality is similarly preserved, as movie-Lyra also had a lot of her edges sanded off.


Here we see Lyra's daemon, Pantalaimon, in his usual ermine form. There are only a few, very brief shots of the daemons in the trailer, probably because this show is a ways off and they're still working on most of the CG.

How to handle the daemons is a bit of a thorny issue for any adaptation, in that sentient talking animals run the risk of seeming a little cheesy in live action. The movie opted to give them a very slight cartoonishness and a subtle rainbow hue so they looked somewhat otherwordly, an approach that was generally looked upon favourably. Based on the snippets we're getting here the daemons look more photo-realistic, which I'm not sure about. I'd like to see them talking.


The Gyptian gathering in the Fens where some important plot stuff goes down. The Gyptians got seriously short-changed in the movie, and this part was excised entirely. Which was a shame, because it's a pretty evocative location. I'm glad it's getting its due for the series.

I am wondering how the series is going to handle the Gyptians; if, for example, the name "Gyptian" is going to be used at all since it' pretty clearly based on "gypsy", which in the time since the book's publication has become much more widely recognized as a slur. 


I believe this is the head of Oxford, sporting some truly spectacular hair. The show appears to be making Lyra's Oxford a lot more diverse than the book version, which to be fair wouldn't be difficult (as in, adding a single non-white character would do it).


Our first look at the sinister Experimental Station in the far north. Someone who's better at distinguishing faces help me out, is that Dafne Keen wearing big glasses for some reason, or is it a different actress? I honestly can't tell.

The Station looks much darker and more dystopian here, which I'm kind of iffy on. The whole point of the place in the book is that it seems pretty normal and innocuous--like a ward on a children's hospital run by slightly clueless adults--until you find out what they're doing to the kids they bring there. I guess the corridor leading to the Room Where They Do The Bad Thing could look creepier than the rest of the facility, which would be appropriate. 


And here's Mrs. Coulter, who presents another big stylistic departure from the book.

So, funny story: Mrs. Coulter is explicitly described as having dark hair, but pretty much everyone who reads the book pictures her with blonde hair. Even more specifically, they tend to picture her looking like Nicole Kidman, who ended up playing her in the movie. 

The series has given her her dark hair back, but her appearance is...not very accurate. She looks a lot older, and all of the (admittedly very brief) shots of her in the trailer make her seem dour and threatening. In the source material she's meant to be almost supernaturally beautiful and capable of seducing or charming everyone she meets.  

It's entirely possible this is just down to the specific shots used in the trailer. Or maybe the show is taking a different approach with the character! The whole "evil seductress" thing doesn't really play as well today, so I can see that aspect of her character getting downplayed. But if that's the case, the writers will need to be come up with some other explanation for how she's able to manipulate people so effectively (and specifically how she lures children into the Oblation Board's clutches and tempts Lyra away from Oxford). 


Mrs. Coulter's golden monkey, attacking poor Pantalaimon during a pivotal scene. The CG looks pretty strong here. I'm assuming a lot of the show's special effects budget went into creating the daemons, who regularly act in ways that it would be very hard to train real animals to replicate.

Lyra's time with Mrs. Coulter in London is another part of the book that the movie glossed over in its breakneck quest to get to the action scenes as fast as possible. I'm hoping we get more of it here, since it's interesting and provides a lot of character development for Lyra. 


A very interesting look at what I'm assuming is the headquarters of the Magisterium, His Dark Materials' villains. It looks far more modern than anything else we've seen, which is fine--Lyra's world is meant to be kind of a hodge-podge of different time periods and styles.

One big question looming over this adaptation is how they're going to handle the anti-religious themes. The movie opted to play coy with it, never bringing it up directly but dropping in some visual clues that people familiar with the books would pick up on. Will the series take the same approach, be more explicit, or avoid the issue entirely?  

I suspect the show will be a lot more willing to confront the book's themes, both because it's being made by a British production company and because people have gotten a lot less touchy about this stuff since the movie came out. In a world where The Handmaid's Tale is one of the biggest shows on TV, I can't see Phillip Pullman's anti-church stylings getting too much negative attention. 


I have absolutely no idea who this guy is. The only character I can think of is the priest who Lyra interacts with early in the book; if so this might give us an answer to how the series is going to handle the religious stuff, since he's kindly and genial in the book but looks like a crow-based serial killer here.


A very cool scene of Mrs. Coulter commanding some heavily kitted-out soldiers.

I'm pretty sure I know what's going on here, and it points to a promising change from the source material. In the second half of the book the generic cannon fodder bad guys are tartar mercenaries: "asiatic" dudes who speak in broken pidgin English and are working with the Magisterium for the benjamins. This obviously comes off today as more than a little racist. I strongly suspect the tartars have been ditched in favour of the Magisterium's own military forces, who we are presumably seeing here. If so, I approve. 

The inclusion of Mrs. Coulter seemingly directly leading them is also a neat addition. In the books she's managed to rise to a position in the Magisterium that women are usually barred from, but she still never manages to really flex her power too much, lest the boys get insecure and decide to kick her out of their treehouse.  

This also sheds a bit more light on how the series is handling the character. I can see the writers deciding that going the whole "she's your favourite aunt who dotes on you but oh wait she's actually a sociopath" angle might not be the best way to portray a fascist child-murderer in the year of our lord twenty nineteen, and instead opting for a more obviousy vicious portrayal.


I assume this is Roger, Lyra's best friend who gets kidnapped by the Oblation Board and who Lyra sets off into the north to rescue. It goes great! Real A+ outcome!

The background makes this look like a bit in the book where Will and Lyra sneak into the Oxford crypts and dick around the the skeletons. It wasn't in the movie (understandably, since it's backstory that's not really consequential to the plot) but maybe the series is including it. I can see it working as a good opening scene, since it establishes Lyra's personality quite well. 


Lin Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut from "Texas" (alt-universe America). 

This is by far the most controversial casting choice among HDM fans. Miranda is much younger than Scoresby is in the books and it's widely believed that no will ever top Sam Elliott's movie portrayal, which was as close to having the character literally step off the page as we're ever going to get. If I had to guess, I'd say that the show's producers might have decided to diverge from the books specifically to get away from comparisons to the movie version. Come to think of it, that might explain their casting for Mrs. Coulter as well. 

He's talking to a red-haired dude and seems, based on their dialogue, to be a lot more invested in the fight against the Magisterium early on (in the book he detests what the Oblation Board is doing and goes the extra mile to help the heroes defeat them, but is primarily along for the adventure because the Gyptians pay him to be there). 


This is the first shot in the trailer where I'm drawing a complete blank on what it's meant to be depicting. The only thing I can think of is the Gyptian meetup in the Fens, but the location doesn't look right. It might be a totally original scene! Exciting!


I think this might be the mechanical beetle the bad guys send after Lyra, which if so is interesting because this seems to be during her time with Mrs. Coulter and she encounters it after that in the book. Her running away from Mrs. Coulter is what prompts the beetle to come after her in the first place, so I can't imagine what it would be doing this early in the story.

Or this is just Pantalaimon transformed into an insect and I'm reading way too much into it. 


A brief shot of Lee Scoresby's balloon. Nothing really to analyze here, except that it looks very nice. The whole series seems to have that Prestige Television sheen to it, which means it was probably quite expensive. I just hope the BBC and their distribution partners aren't making the same mistake as New Line and assuming that it's going to be the next Game of Thrones or something.


Another scene from the Experimental Station, which again makes me a little leery because it's very grim and dystopian in a way the location in the book wasn't. 

That appears to be a female scientist, which is kind of interesting because I'm pretty sure all the scientists in the book were men, as would be appropriate given the gender dynamics of Lyra's society. 


A very entertaining shot of a dude getting explosively hurled through a window. But who could cause such dramatic defenestration? Why, could it be...?



Ol' Iorek Byrnison looks more realistic here than in the movie, which is making me wonder if maybe this isn't CG and they just got a real polar bear for the some of his scenes. If so, I'd be curious to know how much insurance you need to buy before you're allowed to put child actors on set with a polar bear. I'm going to guess it's Quite A Lot. 

We don't get to see him in his armour (because, again, most of the special effects are probably unfinished). I'm very curious to see what design they go for; the movie infamously bungled it by giving him ornate armour that both contradicted a major factor in the book and looked kind of stupid. 


And finally, a glimpse at the book's climax, I assume strategically edited to hide a certain major spoiler.

So, what did I think of that? 

It's always dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a one-minute teaser. A lot of the important elements from the book aren't in here, probably because the series is going through a lot of post-production. The daemons are only seen briefly and neither them or Iorek speak; there's not a lot of scenes in the north; and Lyra's encounters with the polar bear king are absent entirely (although if any part of the book was going to be excised it's that one, since it would be extremely special effects heavy and could be cut out of the story very easily).  Serefina Pekalla is also nowhere to be seen, which hopefully doesn't mean she got written out.

The show looks gorgeous and appears to be very faithful to the book visually, while not being afraid to have its own style; always a good sign for an adaptation. At the same time, the tone of this trailer is worrying me a bit, in that it's very serious and dour, to the point that you probably wouldn't guess it's based on a series of books for children. His Dark Materials is at times kind of shockingly dark and "adult" for a trilogy of middle grade novels (it was controversial for more than just the religious stuff), but a lot of people, myself included, fell in love with the story primarily because it's imaginative and wondrous. 

My hope is that this is just HBO trying to snag Game of Thrones viewers by emphasising the darker aspects of the story and the bits that involve large-scale conflict. I'm also assuming that more whimsical scenes like Lyra interacting with Pantalaimon or riding on Iorek's back beneath the aurora borealis simply haven't been finished yet, and that's why we're not seeing them.

That's my hope, anyway. For all that it got wrong, the movie wasn't afraid to be fun and light-hearted (over the protest of the books' more rabid fans, many of whom like to make the trilogy out to be more mature and sophisticated than it is), and it would be a real shame if we got this second shot at an adaptation only for it to over-correct and lose what made the books special in the first place. Our TV screens are saturated with violence and grim dystopias; let's get a little magic in there too. 

His Dark Materials is scheduled to come out sometime near the end of the year and will be airing on the BBC in the UK and HBO internationally. It's already been renewed for an eight-episode second season so we're getting at least sixteen episodes, which is probably enough to adapt the first two books in their entirety.